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(Pope Benedict XVI visits the Ardeatine Caves Memorial in Rome March 27, 2011/Grzegorz Galazka)

German-born Pope Benedict prayed on Sunday at the site where Nazis killed 335 Italian men and boys and denounced one of the worst atrocities of World War Two as “the most horrendous form of evil”. Benedict visited the Ardeatine Caves on Rome’s southern outskirts and prayed there together with Rome’s chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni. Seventy-five of the victims were Jews.

In his brief comments at the haunting underground site, Benedict, who was a member of the Hitler Youth when membership was compulsory and later served a German anti-aircraft artillery, called it a “painful memorial of the most horrendous form of evil”.

On March 23, 1944, Italian partisans set a bomb on a narrow street, killing 33 German policemen who were part of the occupying powers in Rome. In retaliation, a furious Hitler approved the murder of 10 Italians for each German killed and ordered that it should be carried out within 24 hours.

The victims of the reprisal, who eventually numbered five more than had been ordered by Hitler, were all shot in the back of the neck in the caves. The Germans later blew up the caves in a vain attempt to try to hide the massacre.