CHIAVARI, Italy - It takes Andrea about 10 minutes to drive from his family’s summer home in the posh Tuscan resort of Forte dei Marmi up a hilly road to Sant’Anna di Stazzema. Not that he has family in Sant'Anna any more, they have all moved on, far beyond the boundaries of the tiny hill town. But on those languid days of summer when the temperatures soar, the family gathers together in the large villa built by Andrea’s great-grandfather.
There is no one left in Andrea’s family who remembers the old man, for he died a long time ago. He was one of the victims of the World War II Sant’ Anna massacre, shot to death by the Nazis for no other reason than he was there.
The story of that terrible event became the subject of a novel by James McBride, and then a film by Spike Lee. The film tells the fictionalized story of what happened in Sant’ Anna in the weeks before the Allies liberated Italy. The heroes in the film are the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, the 92nd Division of African-Americans who served on the Italian front during the Second World War. In reality, the Buffalo Soldiers were never anywhere near Sant’ Anna. Maybe if they had been the story would have had a happier ending.
In a soft voice, Andrea starts to tell me what really happened in Sant’Anna that day. It gave me goose bumps just listening to him.
“The massacre of Sant’Anna di Stazzema was one of the most brutal war crimes committed by German soldiers and SS troops during the Nazi occupation of Italy,” he tells me. “Over the course of a few hours, 560 men, women and children were murdered by the 16th tank division Reichsführer SS.”
|Sant'Anna, one of the most brutal massacres of the World War II|
Official military records show that the German army had ordered the evacuation of the city of Sant’ Anna a week before the SS troops arrived, but only part of the town’s population left. And then, a short while after the initial evacuation, many women and children returned home. They had nowhere else to go. Italy was crumbling before their eyes and there were severe shortages of food and clean water. With the Allies on the move, and the danger of being caught in an Allied bombing raid was real. But going home would turn out to be a terrible mistake.
What the villagers didn’t know was that the German Army and SS troops were moving in four columns towards Sant’Anna, massacring people along the way. German military historian Gerhard Schreiber describes what happened: “The killing began as they climbed up to the small Tuscan mountain village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema, where they murdered two old men at daybreak on Aug. 12, 1944 because they were too weak to be useful as workers. An Italian civilian who attempted to intervene in broken English was shot in front of his daughter by the SS men.
|Burying the Dead|
At 7 a.m., they arrived in the village and soon there was a mountain of corpses - the remains of 132 men, women and children. In order to erase the victim’s identities, flame-throwers were used to cremate the entire site. In nearby Vaccareccia, the troops trapped 70 people in a stable, decimated them with hand grenades and machine guns, and finished them up with flame-throwers too. They then repeated their performance in the villages of Franchi and Pero. Whoever crossed their path was butchered. When the SS unit finally moved on into the valley beyond, they had massacred 560 people.
Andrea tells the story as if it happened to someone else’s family, and in a way it did. But on those sultry August nights, when the breezes come across from the mountains to cool those sleeping peacefully in Sant’Anna, the memories of what happened on that night remain.
And the miracle? The miracle of Sant’Anna was that one little boy did survive. His name is Enrico Pieri. He’s an old man now, but he still remembers every minute of that terrible day.
“We knew the Germans were coming,” he says, “but no one thought they would harm women and children. But when they arrived they rounded some of us up and began burning down our houses. Then they made us go into the house of a neighbor. As we entered the kitchen they began shooting. I was only saved because the owner of the house dragged me under the stairs in the basement and protected me with her body.”
The massacre at Sant’ Anna is considered perhaps the most atrocious of the many war crimes German soldiers committed on Italian soil during World War II. Last October, the Public Prosecutor's Office in Stuttgart, Germany, closed a 10-year investigation into eight suspected perpetrators still alive at the time in Germany because they were unable to gather enough evidence to prove their guilt. Italians expressed outrage over the decision.
|Monument to the Dead|
But Enrico Pieri may have another chance of submitting a complaint against the decision. The decision is now being reconsidered and as everyone knows, in Italy anything can happen and usually does. Let’s hope the same is true in Germany.