Associated Press

October 16, 1996

By IAN PHILLIPS Associated Press Writer

BARILOCHE, Argentina (AP) --

Longtime residents of this Bavarian-style resort say life hasn't been the same since losing "the old Nazi." "We miss him. He was part of the city," says Gerardo Ortega, referring to Erich Priebke, a former SS captain extradited to Italy last year to face trial for his role in a wartime massacre of 335 Italian civilians.

Italy's highest court ordered a new trial Tuesday for the 83-year-old Priebke, who was acquitted in August after a military court found he had not acted with cruelty or premeditation. Relatives of the victims challenged the ruling, arguing that the judge had shown bias in favor of Priebke. For many residents of Bariloche, which has handsome Alpine-like buildings and a large German community, Priebke was an upstanding citizen who was president of the German-Argentine cultural association and owner of a downtown deli.

How can you hold him responsible for something that happened so long ago?" asked Jorgelina Leguizamon, a reporter for a local radio station. "People think we're all Nazis here, but that's not true," Bariloche Mayor Cesar Miguel said in an interview. "We don't want to be known as the place where Priebke lived."

But Enrique Bonner, a local tourist operator, agreed with Priebke's extradition: "He may have been a good man here. But if he committed such atrocities, he should pay the price -- no matter how long ago it was." According to court testimony, Priebke crossed off the names of the massacre victims as they were led into the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome and shot two of them himself. The 1944 slaughter was ordered in retaliation for a bomb attack by resistance fighters that killed 33 German soldiers. His acquittal sparked outrage among Jewish groups and relatives of the victims, among them 75 Jews, a Roman Catholic priest and a 14-year-old boy.

The Nazis blew up the caves to cover up the crime but evidence at the trial showed at least one victim was buried alive. The Argentine government, eager to reverse the country's reputation as a safe haven for Nazis, stripped Priebke of his visa and banned him from returning, saying his presence in the country could provoke civil unrest.

For nearly 50 years Priebke lived openly here with his wife, Alicia, who still resides in their apartment above a maternity clinic. Sympathy for Priebke ran so high that his Argentine defense attorney, Pedro Bianchi, claims taxi drivers and restaurant owners refused to charge him when he visited his client during 17 months of house arrest preceding extradition. When Priebke finally was extradited to Rome after a long legal battle, the local honorary Italian consul resigned in protest. The German community is a major factor in Bariloche, which is 1,000 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. The picturesque mountain and lake resort was founded by a German settler in 1895. It has places like the Munich restaurant and Hotel Edelweiss and every year, the Germans hold an Oktoberfest beer festival. Newsstands prominently display a German-language weekly, the Argentinisches Tageblatt.

Argentina, like neighboring Chile, attracted German settlers at the beginning of the century and again after World War II, when the government allegedly issued blank passports and identity documents to Nazis fleeing the doomed Third Reich.

Among them were Adolf Eichmann, who masterminded the Final Solution, and Josef Mengele, dubbed "the Angel of Death" for his gruesome medical experiments on Auschwitz prisoners.