By Crispian Balmer
FORNELLI, Italy (Reuters) - In October 1943, after the Nazis began a brutal occupation of their former ally, German troops hanged six Italian civilians on a hillside in southern Italy as collective punishment for the killing of a soldier, who had been foraging for food.
Eighty years later, some of the relatives of the men put to death in Fornelli are finally set to receive a share of 12 million euros ($13 million) awarded by an Italian court as compensation for their families' trauma.
"We still mark the event every year. It hasn't been forgotten," said Mauro Petrarca, the great-grandson of one of those killed, Domenico Lancellotta, a 52-year-old Roman Catholic father of five daughters and a son.
All but one of the family members alive at the time of the killings are now dead, but under Italian law, damages owed to them can still be passed on to their heirs. This means Petrarca is set to receive around 130,000 euros ($142,000) under the terms of a 2020 court ruling.
In an ironic twist, it will be Italy rather than Germany that pays up, after it lost a battle in the International Court of Justice over whether Berlin could still be liable for damages tied to World War Two crimes and atrocities.
Jewish organisations in Italy believe Berlin should be paying to acknowledge their historical responsibility. But victims' groups also fear Rome is dragging its feet in dealing with a deluge of claims that could weigh on state accounts.
"This is a very tormented issue, both from a political and a legal perspective," said Giulio Disegni, the vice president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), which has been following the issue on behalf of Jewish victims of Nazi horrors.
A study funded by the German government and published in 2016 estimated that 22,000 Italians were victims of Nazi war crimes, including up to 8,000 Jews deported to death camps. Thousands more Italians were forced to work as enslaved labourers in Germany, making them eligible for reparations.
The first people likely to benefit from the new government fund set up to deal with claims are descendants of the six Catholic Fornelli men, who were hanged as German soldiers played music on a gramophone stolen from a nearby house.
Their killing came a month after Italy had signed an armistice with the Allied forces, ending its participation in World War Two and abandoning the Nazis, who immediately started their occupation of the country.
'CUPBOARD OF SHAME'
In 1962, Germany signed a deal with Italy whereby it paid Rome 40 million Deutsche mark, worth just over 1 billion euros in today's money, which the two nations agreed covered damages inflicted by Nazi forces on the Italian state and its citizens.
Italy gave pensions to those who had been politically or racially persecuted during the conflict, and to their surviving relatives. However, it did not offer reparations for war crimes.
"They didn't look at war crimes and this was a mistake. Maybe at the time they thought everyone had committed war crimes, not just Germany, and didn't want to go down that path," said Lucio Olivieri, the lawyer who led the Fornelli litigation.
In 1994, a cupboard was found in the offices of Rome's military prosecutors packed with files documenting hundreds of war crimes that had never been prosecuted.
Spurred on by the so-called "Cupboard of Shame", Italy looked to bring Nazis to trial for their role in multiple massacres, while courts started to award victims reparations.
Germany refused to pay, arguing the 1962 accord prevented further claims. In 2012, the International Court of Justice backed Berlin, but Italian courts continued to hear compensation cases, saying no limit could be imposed on war crimes.
'QUESTION OF PRIDE'
The Fornelli suit, which opened in 2015, was levelled against both Germany and Italy, which tried, but failed, to shut down proceedings.
"I found it amazing that Italy took the side of Germany in the case against us. It was like they were (wartime) allies again," said Petrarca, who is a workman in Fornelli.
With ever more cases hitting the courts, the then-prime minister Mario Draghi created a fund in April 2022 to cover the growing compensation costs, hoping to close a dark chapter in Italy's history.
A deadline for presenting new legal claims expired on June 28 and the Italian Treasury, which is handling payouts, told Reuters that it had so far received notification of 1,228 legal suits, but said others might not yet have been forwarded to it.
Each suit is likely to involve multiple plaintiffs, meaning the 61 million euros earmarked for the reparations might not be nearly enough to cover all the expected payouts, lawyers say.
The fund has already been topped up from an original 55 million, but the Treasury said it was too soon to say if this would be sufficient.
The government also has given itself the right to review any court verdict before deciding whether to pay out - adding an additional bureaucratic hurdle to claimants, although the government denies creating obstacles for families.
"It is a mockery," UCEI vice president Disegni said.
For Fornelli, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Under the terms of a government decree issued in July, the first disbursement should be made to locals by January, even though the town insists their case was about much more than cash.
"This wasn't about the money. It was about seeking justice for a war crime, a question of pride," said Fornelli mayor Giovanni Tedeschi.
($1 = 0.9259 euros)
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alison Williams)