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Auschwitz a permanent reminder of the horrific evil of Nazi efficiency

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Date Published: {J}

BY JUDY MURPHY

THE temperature was minus 18 and snow was thick on the ground as we walked through the gates of Auschwitz Concentration Camp in South West Poland passing under the iconic sign declaring ARBEIT MACHT FREI (work makes you free).

It was late January and we were getting a taste – a very small taste – of what life had been like for the millions of people who were incarcerated here by the Nazis during World War II, where they were either worked to death or, if deemed unfit for work or medical experimentation, sent to the camp’s gas chambers. This was a place where having no laces on your shoes meant almost certain death because it meant you weren’t able to work – especially in winter. If you couldn’t work, you died.

We had been warned that a visit to Auschwitz was not an experience for the faint hearted; the atrocities carried out here on Jews, Gypsies, Poles, communists, homosexuals and those viewed as not fitting the Nazi idea of the ideal Aryan, have come to symbolise the evil of Nazism and are, simply, beyond compare.

Wrapped under layers and layers of clothes, the bitter cold still penetrated through to our bones. Yet, during World War II this desolate camp – in reality three camps consisting of Auschwitz, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III- Monowitz – was the living hell where millions of Nazi prisoners were confined, through savagely cold Winters and unbearably hot Summers.

Great tracts of land were cleared and local Polish people displaced to create Auschwitz, the largest German concentration camp, which has become the lasting symbol of Nazi inhumanity. Although it wasn’t initially conceived of as a camp to kill Jews, this was where Hitler’s loyal henchmen carried out what they called ‘The Final Solution’ – the method by which Europe would be rid forever of Jewish people.

The estimated number of people who died here varies greatly but it’s accepted that it was between 1.1 and 1.5 million – with 200,000 of those being children. Realistically, however, nobody will ever know exactly how many people died in this death factory which began life as a former Polish army barracks. Death factory is the best term for this place. As we walked around on our guided tour learning about how Auschwitz operated, the primary emotion was one of horrified awe at the cold, clinical efficiency of the people who operated this camp.

Auschwitz I

Our first stop was Auschwitz I – the site of the original army barracks and the only part of the camp with solid brick buildings. Inside the walls, topped by electric barbed wire, and sentried watch towers, such a reign of terror operated that it’s difficult to imagine how anybody survived it.

The work carried out by prisoners in the early days of Auschwitz involved digging ditches, draining ponds and shoring up river banks to create farming land for the ‘Master Race’. Every morning – Winter or Summer – there was an open air roll call, and if one person was missing or out of line, there was hell to pay.

Sometimes people had to stand there for hours, frequently in their bare feet. Savage beatings were the norm. If the same number did not return for evening roll call – be they dead or alive – the punishment was horrific.

Our Polish guide relayed this information as we walked between the blocks in Auschwitz I. Her English was perfect and even though she obviously delivered this talk a couple of times daily, she managed to convey the depravity of the camp guards and those prisoners who were appointed as their Kapos or stewards. Many Kapos were criminals and were just as brutal as the German guards.

Block 11 in the main camp was where prisoners were tortured – methods included sleep deprivation, people being left standing for hours in confined spaces, being hung upside down with their arms pulled behind them, and worse.

Between block 10 and block 11 was the execution yard where people were hanged or shot against a wall. That original wall no longer exists – but a replica has been built there and the atmosphere in this yard was stifling, despite the cold.

Lasting reminders

Our tour brought us into several of the buildings, clean now and warm – what a modern visitor can’t get is the smell and sight of the thousands of starving prisoners in this overcrowded camp. But what you do see are individual photos of early prisoners, taken before Auschwitz became a serious death camp, and before the Germans didn’t bother taking prisoners’ photos any more. These photos, all along the walls of one block, gave the names of the prisoners, the date of their arrival and the date of their deaths.

Unsurprisingly, most people didn’t last more than a few months. These were real people whose misfortune was to be alive at a particular time in history and belonging to a particular ethnic group.

 

For more, read page 27 of this week’s Galway City Tribune.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

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A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.

 

For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr

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Date Published: 23-Jan-2013

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Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup

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Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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