Sant'Anna di Stazzema is a small village in Tuscany, located in the hills, amidst olive trees and hardwood forests. On a clear day the view of the sea is stunning. On August 12, 1944, German troops (aided according to some accounts by Italian fascist forces) killed 564 people here.
The village was filled with refugees fleeing the Nazis. Around 300 of the elite German SS troops surrounded the area and brutally murdered women, children and the elderly alike. Many were rounded up outside and gunned down, while others who had hidden in cellars and basements died when grenades where thrown in. Among the victims were 8 pregnant women. Officially the Germans were hunting down Italian partisans.
Many of the men were absent, some had been deported, other were indeed fighting with the Italian resistance. It is thought that the SS were trying to set an example by murdering their families. When the Nazis arrived, they found most of the inhabitants in or around the church. The town priest was shot at point blank range and the church was burnt down. Those who escaped returned to find the village in ruins, the sickening smell of burnt flesh and whole families wiped out.
After the war the church was rebuilt, and a memorial was built. On a background of the names of those killed, there is a sculpture of a murdered women clutching her screaming baby. Along the trail from the church to the memorial site a Stations of the Cross illustrates scenes from the massacre with those of Jesus' life.
Such an event is not forgotten, especially by its survivors, but there was little that could be done. Those responsible remained nameless for many years.
A few months ago hundreds of war crimes files were discovered in the basement of the Rome Military Prosecutor's office. Among the documents found were some detailing the events of that fateful day. On January 13, 2004 indictments were issued against 3 former members of an SS Panzergrendier Division, and the trial is expected to start on April 20, 2004, almost certainly in absentia. The men are now in their 80s and at their age extradition from Germany is extremely unlikely, as is an actual prison sentence. Simultaneously, German prosecutors have also been investigating the case and have recommended the prosecution of 8 men.
Survivors of the massacre and their families are glad that justice may finally be round the corner. Even though the men themselves will probably not pay the full price for their crimes, many view the trial as some form of long awaited closure.
The Times, Friday 16 January 2004, page 22