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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Italy, just as people were preparing to mark today's 70th anniversary of the Nazi roundup of Roman Jews, protests and clashes erupted when a Catholic splinter group tried to celebrate the funeral of a Nazi war criminal. Last night, police in riot gear separated ultra-right-wing sympathizers from protestors who were enraged by a ritual for the man associated with one of the most gruesome Nazi massacres of World War II.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome. Good morning.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, this Nazi war criminal was Erich Priebke, who died last Friday. He was a hundred years old. Tell us a little more about him and how the issue of his funeral got to this point.

POGGIOLI: Well, Erich Priebke was serving a life sentence for his participation in the 1944 massacre of 335 civilians. The massacre was in retaliation for the killing of 33 German soldiers. Adolf Hitler had ordered that 10 Italians be executed for every single German killed. Priebke was in charge of the SS troops who executed the civilians, partisans and Jews. He died in the home of his lawyer, where he was under house arrest, and he died unrepentant. In his last interview, he continued to deny that the Nazis gassed the Jews during the Holocaust.

The mayor said Priebke's funeral in the capital would be an insult. The government of Argentina, where Priebke lived for 50 years as a fugitive, refused to allow his body to be returned. And his hometown in Germany also ruled out burying him there, fearing his grave could become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis. And most unusually, the pope's vicar for Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, prohibited any Rome church from celebrating Priebke's funeral.

MONTAGNE: All of which, Sylvia, would seem to rule out any possible funeral or burial site at all.

POGGIOLI: Yes, until the fringe Catholic movement, the Society for Saint Pius X - which is not recognized by the Vatican - announced it would hold the funeral in its church in the small town of Albano Laziale, south of Rome. The group opposes the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, particularly outreach to Jews. And several of its members are known Holocaust-deniers.

You may remember the case of Bishop Richard Williamson, who made headlines in 2009 when he claimed Jews were not gassed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

MONTAGNE: But it seems this group did not take into account the townspeople's anger.

POGGIOLI: Exactly, because Albano Laziale was honored for its resistance to Nazism and fascism, and the memory of the horrors of the Nazi occupation is still very vivid. The mayor tried to block the hearse's arrival. Hundreds of people - young and old - came out to protest. They shouted executioner, and kicked the hearse as it arrived.

Meanwhile, the funeral announcement group drew groups of Nazi sympathizers to the town, and they came from other parts of Italy, armed with helmets and chains. Clashes broke out with police in full riot gear trying to disperse them with tear gas. Around midnight, the funeral was suspended and the coffin was put in an unmarked police van and taken to a military airport.

MONTAGNE: Well, this is all very dramatic. What happens next?

POGGIOLI: That's not at all clear. It was believed the body was to be cremated, but it's not known where. What is clear is that the entire incident could have been avoided if a quiet religious ritual had been conducted inside the home where Priebke died, as is common in such cases.

And this happened as the country prepared to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazi and Fascist roundup of more than a thousand Jews from the Rome ghetto, who were packed into trains and shipped to Auschwitz. Only 16 returned to Rome after the war.

The Priebke funeral has highlighted a historical divide that still persists in Italy between anti-fascists and sympathizers of the Fascist and Nazi regimes. And it's all the more ominous, because it happens against a backdrop of growing extreme right-wing sympathies, not only in Italy, but also in many other parts of Europe.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, speaking to us from Rome. Thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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