After our customary croissant and cappuccino at the corner bar (the waitress now recognized us), we set off for today’s destination: visiting the Fosse Ardeatine Memorial.
A packed bus took us to a stop out near the Appian Way — but when we all disembarked, the horde of riders charged towards the catacombs. We went the opposite direction.
Instead of heading to those famous underground burial grounds from the 2nd century, we were looking for something else: a solemn memorial marking the site of a heinous massacre perpetrated by the Nazis on March 24, 1944.
A horrific mass murder of 335 victims was carried out in retaliation of the action accomplished by the 16 partisans on Via Rasella (you will remember that street from our visit there three days prior). Certainly this was no light-hearted sightseeing excursion and the light drizzle set the mood for the visit.
Not much fanfare announces the memorial’s existence: a sign, a high-mounted sculpture, and a massive bronze access gate. The gate, created by sculptor Mirko Basaldella, is a sober expression of tangled metal which spoke of the horrific atrocity that had taken place within.
Here’s what happened:
In retaliation for the action on Via Rasella, the Nazis were outraged and hot to punish and terrorize the city. An order came from Hitler himself: within 24 hours of the attack at Via Rasella, ten Italians must be executed for every German that had been killed there.
This horrific massacre was secretly carried out inside a cluster of human-made caves on Via Ardeatine which long ago had been part of the old Christian catacomb structures near the Appian Way, just outside the city walls.
At noon on March 24th, Nazi trucks laden with random captives arrived at the caves. With hands bound behind their backs, the prisoners were led in groups of five into the caverns and forced to kneel down. There the Nazis shot each one of them in the back of the neck. As the pile of victims increased, the new groups entering the cave had to kneel upon the growing mounds of corpses.
Attempting to cover their despicable deed, the Nazis set off an explosion inside the cave to collapse the vault, thereby covering the bodies…and the evidence. But they were unsuccessful in hiding their diabolic deed — everyone knew.
Already familiar with this somber story, we paid our modest entry fee and veered left into a large but darkened sepulcher lit only by light filtering in from slits between the stone ceiling and the walls.
The stone ceiling had been designed to appear like a huge tombstone covering the entire space which, as our informative pamphlet stated, “symbolically evokes the oppression and concealment of the victims.”
The mausoleum was filled with row upon row of granite graves, all identical and laid out in seven double parallel lines. Each tomb was carved with the name and age of each victim, all men, their ages ranging from 14 to 75. Twelve tombs are engraved only with the word “Ignoto” — “Unknown.”
The victims’ graves had been placed in the order of their exhumation from the cave; they included men from all social orders: 68 military officers and soldiers, and 254 from a variety of civil categories, including farmers, craftsmen, artists, merchants, professionals, workmen of numerous professions, students, a diplomat, and a priest. Of the 335, only 70 were Jews.
Among these martyrs were members of the roman Resistenza; some had been prisoners locked up in the SS headquarters on Via Tasso (which we had also visited earlier in the week, if you remember) and in the Regina Coeli prison. Many others were innocents and bystanders rounded up at random from the streets after the partisan attack.
None, ironically, had participated in the action against the Germans on Via Rasella. As we walked up and down the rows of the mausoleum, lingering before each name, we noticed a few more visitors trickling in, their faces reflecting quiet expressions of reverence.
From the tombs we entered the tunnels and caves where the massacre had been perpetrated. Inscriptions in bronze letters, torches, and black wreaths decorated the walls, along with a votive lamp offered by Pope Paul VI.
At the end of one passage were two bronze gates, also created by sculptor Mirko Basaldella; these gates mark the cave where the corpses were discovered three months after the massacre, piled five layers high.
An electric torch illuminates the tomb in which unidentified remains of the martyrs are kept. On one of the gates a black marble stone is engraved with the following message:
“We have been massacred here because we fought against internal tyranny for freedom and against the foreign enemy for the independence of our country. Our dream was that of a free, righteous and democratic Italy. May our sacrifice and our blood be the seed of it and a warning for the coming generations.”
Near the exit of the caves there is a small chapel built on behalf of the victims’ families where religious functions are periodically held in memory of the fallen.