On an August morning in 1944, German troops entered Sant’Anna di Stazzema and committed what is probably the worst war crime on Italian soil, executing all people present that day in the hamlet, then killing the animals and burning the village.
The able-bodied adult men of the village were hiding further in the mountains, while the women, children, and elderly in the village believed themselves to be safe. Yet they were rounded up, all 560 of them, and systematically executed.
This was part of the scorched earth policy that the Germans adopted in Tuscany as the Allies were advancing and the Germans were retreating.
When I first heard of this massacre, I was in the Tuscan town of Pontremoli, chatting with a B&B owner and her husband, about World War Two history– while on my pilgrimage.
I finally had a chance a few days ago to visit this mountain hamlet, tucked against the austere Apuan Alps–and fittingly, I visited it on Liberation Day.
Liberation Day occurred ten days after I moved to Lucca. It celebrates Italy’s liberation from the Nazis and the fascist regime. A perfect day to visit Sant’Anna di Stazzema, which is located in the province of Lucca.
The only problem is, I don’t have a car, which is the only way to arrive. I presented the idea to an Italian woman I’d just met called Isa who lives in Lucca (who was passed to me by a friend in Santa Cruz) and I chatted about it via Facebook with an Italian guy called Edoardo who I’d met on Facebook a few months prior, who lives in Massa, and who had recently asked for a copy of my book so he could write an article about it.
In the end, I trained to Viareggio, and Edoardo and his friend Nicola picked me up there. Meanwhile Isa phoned me to say she and her husband were going, so I met up with them there and they drove me home.
The road up to the hamlet is long and steep with tight curves– it is narrow and one-lane, but is used as two-lanes. As Nicola drove the little car higher and higher, I was treated to magnificent views of the wooded mountainsides giving way far below to the plains of Versilia, and to the long beaches of Viareggio and the sparkling sea.
Walking into Sant’Anna from the car park, I noticed a sign proclaiming the hamlet a National Park of Peace.
Outside the little church the first thing I saw was a plaque to Don Innocenzo Lazzeri, the 33-year-old priest who pleaded with the Germans not to kill the villagers.
His pleas were in vain. He was shot in front of the church and was later awarded a gold medal for civilian valor. Apparently his father had told him to hide and he had replied,
“No father, I can not hide, I can not abandon the population in this situation, duty requires me to present myself.”
Inside the church, behind the altar, across an expanse of wall I viewed photographs of the victims– over a hundred children, and eight pregnant women included.
My companions and I made our way to the museum, located in what was the village school. It is a well laid out space with a video that provides an overview of the history leading up to the massacre. There are hundreds of images from the time, including one of the “Buffalo Soldiers“– a nickname given to the African American soldiers who were a segregated unit that served in the Italian Campaign from 1944 to the war’s end.
In the museum I learned that there had been no justice served for the Nazi’s crimes.
In 2005, an Italian military court found the ten members of the 16th SS “Reichsfuehrer” division responsible for the massacre and sentenced them to life in prison in absentia.
Germany however did not extradite them to Italy. In 2012, after a ten-year German investigation, the Stuttgart Public Prosecutor’s Office dropped it, citing lack of evidence.
Unfortunately the Italians only started their investigation in the 90s, after a journalist found witness statements. It is shame that after the Italian court ruling when the former Nazis were already in their 80s, the Germans then dragged on for ten years only to cite lack of evidence. This means that when the investigation was re-opened in 2014, the former Nazis were in their 90s and many had died.
It was a court in Karlsruhe Germany, that in 2014 overturned the Stuttgart decision in the case of one of the Nazis, Gerhard Sommer.
Sommer is one of the “most wanted Nazi criminals” due to his participation in the massacre at Sant’ Anna.
When the Karlsruhe court re-opened the case against Sommer, there was a glimmer of hope that justice might be served in some small way.
Those hopes were dashed when in 2015 a German court found Sommer unfit for trail because of dementia. Sommer lives in a nursing home near Hamburg.
So much can be learned in just a few hours, about about what the Tuscans went through in WWII.
The museum is open every day of the week except Mondays, starting at either 9:00 or 9:30–although on Sunday it may not open until the afternoon. Tuesday and Wednesday it closes at 2:00 and the other days it remains open until 5:30 or 6:00.