On March 24, 1944, German soldiers killed 335 people in a quarry in Via Ardeatina, in Rome.
It was one of the many abandoned quarries that provided construction materials during the previous decades. People had needed such materials to build the capital of the Italian kingdom, and then the “imperial” city of the fascist regime. But on that day, 75 years ago, the city had been destroyed by fascism, the German occupation and the Allied bombings. The only thing that still recalled the glories of the Roman Empire were the crumbling ruins of the destroyed buildings.
The massacre was in retaliation for a partisan operation which had taken place in Via Rasella the previous day. One of the many attacks conducted during this time of war, it had struck at the heart of the Nazi occupiers, and 33 soldiers of the SS Police Regiment Bozen lay dead. The Germans worked quickly to take their revenge.
With the complicity of the Italian authorities subservient to the Nazis, they gathered more than 300 prisoners, all men (the women would be the ones who would keep the memory of this event alive), in just a few hours. By the next day, they were all dead. Their hands tied behind their backs, they were shot in the back of the head and buried deep underground.
Stories immediately began to circulate. An urban legend spread that the Germans had put up posters on the streets of Rome announcing the impending executions, which would be carried out unless the partisans responsible for the attack were to surrender to the “authorities.” In reality, there is simply no truth to this story.
It is enough to think about the situation to understand the absurdity of this scenario: what soldiers would surrender to the enemy after having just carried out an attack? In any case, there can be no question that no such announcement occurred: the Germans didn’t put up any notice, and the massacre occurred in the span of just a few hours.
After so many years, we still remember the dead. It is a simple commemoration ceremony. The authorities are always present as well, but, for once, there is no place for any animosity. We can only hope they take part with due respect, and that they reflect on what the simple ritual is meant to convey. The names of the 335 dead are read out, one after another. The long list serves to remind us of the long time it took to kill their bodies; but most importantly, it tells us that each had their own unique identity.
They had borne that name since their birth. Their name speaks of their families, about the parents who gave it to them, about the many people who had used it to call them, to talk about them, to remember their faces, what they did in life, what they loved.
This is how all the ceremonies of our time should start.
Human beings are not numbers. The dead caused by a US bombing or a Qassam rocket are not mere casualty figures; those who die of treatable diseases in lands where there is no medicine are not statistics, and those killed by a truck on the Promenade des Anglais are not a body count. Those who can’t find a job, who can’t make ends meet till the end of the month, are not just percentages. And those who come by sea at the wrong time, to the wrong country, which closes the doors of its ports in their face, are not just a casualty number.
Everything starts with this ritual. Let us speak their names.