Italy’s Cabinet of Shame Revealed: One Case of Frustrated Justice  
Judith Roumani *

In February of 2016, Italy’s parliament finally made available to the public the entire contents of the ‘cabinet of shame’, discovered in 1994 in a storage room in the military attorney’s office, a cabinet whose doors were suspiciously turned to the wall. Whether it was full of documents that had been deliberately suppressed, or whether it had been simply forgotten, as two different inquiries have separately found, it was high time for these documents, related to war crimes committed by Nazis and high-level Fascists in Italy during the war, their subsequent trials, sentences, and frequent amnesties, to be made public. The cabinet could have been concealed/forgotten in the early seventies, as these are the latest dates on the documents I have seen. While the cases of prominent Nazis such as Priebke and Kappler have been discussed in the media, I was interested in the micro level, specifically events that transpired in southern Tuscany, the Maremma, and their consequences in the archival documentation.

It was surprisingly easily to select some files online, request them, and find them in my in-box within twenty-four hours. Then the trouble started: some files were two pages, some thirteen hundred pages. I did fortunately find an entire file on a subject right in my field of interest, and it illustrates well the process of post-war initial zeal in Italy to prosecute perpetrators, followed by legal delays, eventual sentences of death or life in prison, or thirty years, followed by a series of commutations, amnesties, and pardons, sometimes in the face of public protests, so that many perpetrators served little time in prison and soon resumed normal lives. Amnesty was accompanied by deliberate amnesia. One result is that no one quite remembers even how the cabinet of shame got there.

In the hills of the northern Maremma is an abandoned church seminary that in 1943-44 held prisoner about a hundred foreign and local Jews. The seminary had been rented out by the local bishop to the Fascist prefect of the province of Grosseto for use as an internment camp for Jews. In early 1944, most of the foreign Jews in it, and a few of the local Jews, were shipped to Auschwitz, where one can imagine their fate. The bishop received praise after the war for 'rescuing' the local Jews. The foreign Jews were German, Austrian, Polish or French, and apparently not of interest. The Fascist prefect received thirty years for other local atrocities for which he was responsible, commuted and amnestied in 1951 until he had served less than five years in prison, mostly before the trial, and eventually settled comfortably back in his home province of Viterbo on a state pension.

This incident and its consequences have received occasional note in Italy, but another case that occurred nearby, in the valley of Cecina, just across the border in the province of Pisa, where just under a hundred non-Jewish Italians from a nearby town were executed in June 1944 by a joint division of German Nazis and Italian Fascists, was relegated to the cabinet of amnesia. These Italians had been arrested in their homes in the Province of Grosseto, force-marched north with the withdrawing Nazis and Fascists, and when it was decided that they were too much of a burden, they were taken and executed behind the local geothermal electrical station, whose sounds masked that of the shots and cries of the victims. Two Fascists involved were convicted in 1949 to thirty-year sentences for this crime against humanity. In April 1971, the German government wrote to the Italians to ask who were the Germans involved as they would like to prosecute them for war crimes, attaching documents from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The response was that the Italian Ministry of Defense wrote to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June 1971, ignoring the participation of Italians in the action, with a perfect document of obfuscation: no one remembered . . . the victims were from out of the area (actually about thirty kilometers away) . . . the Germans had fled immediately and no one had dared ask their names . . . the names of the victims were not enough evidence, and the names of the perpetrators were unknown . . . . With the help of the Interior Ministry a little more information had been extracted. Some of the prisoners had been ‘pardoned’ and let free and we find in the file a long letter in German and in Italian translation from Simon Wiesenthal, head of the Documentation Center in Vienna. He attaches a list of names of the victims and their place of residence. They were mostly from a small town called Massa Maritima, in the hills near the mines of San Niccioleta, and the victims were mostly miners and their family members. Some more victims had been killed near their homes in San Niccioleta. The mines were known to be a place of refuge for the Resistance and some Jews, and perhaps it was for sheltering these that the miners had been taken, or perhaps as hostages, or perhaps the Nazis envisaged that they needed more slave labor in Germany to replace concentration camp laborers. In any case the arrests could not have taken place without active Italian participation. In 1971, some of the survivors, or if they were still alive the two Fascists who had been found guilty in the Italian court twenty years earlier, could have helped with information.

The prefecture of Grosseto noted that a trial had been held in Pisa in 1949 of the two Fascists. A certain Aurelio Nucciotti, by then resident in Rome, and Pascuale Ambio, also resident in Rome, had both been sentenced to prison terms of thirty years. We do not hear how many years they actually served. The prefect of Pisa added more details: some fifty prisoners had been released, and another group of younger Italians had been designated for deportation to Germany (they probably escaped at some point). Though the execution orders had been issued by a German officer, it had not been possible to ascertain whether there were Italians among the actual execution platoon.

Unfortunately, Simon Wiesenthal and the German government never received any answer from the Italian ambassador or anyone else in Italy. The entire file, after the back-and-forth between three ministries, was sealed up in the cabinet of shame. The reigning myth of the ‘good Italian’ required, in the 1970s, that the willing collaboration of Italian Fascists in Nazi-led atrocities had to be covered up, at least until the archeologists of future generations who would see this as remote history, something like an act of war of the ancient Romans, might discover it. All credit to the courage of the Italian parliament in 2016 in releasing them, while some of those who were present might still be alive, and justice might still be served—or, if not justice, at least the cause of transparency.

* Judith Roumani is editor of Sephardic Horizons, a freelance translator and writer, co-editor, with Jacques Roumani and David Meghnagi, of Jewish Libya: Memory and Identity in Text and Image (forthcoming with Syracuse University Press), and author of a book manuscript on the experience of Jews in southern Tuscany in the war years. (With many thanks to Gheula Canarutta Nemni, who has also translated this article into Italian.)

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