3rd September 2000
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Factory of death

By Leelananda Ihalagamage, in Poland
The destruction of Poland is of the utmost importance. Danzig is not the object in question. The object is the expansion of Lebensraum for Germany in the East. There can be no question of sparing Poland, and that is why we stand on our decision to attack Poland at the first opportunity.

I have given an order and I command to shoot everyone who would dare question in anyway that the aim of this war is not gaining certain impositions, but a physical distraction of the enemy, therefore I have prepared my Totenkopf divisions for the time being only in the East, ordering them to kill with no Imagemercy, with no pity, all men, women and children of Polish origin and speaking the Polish Language.

August 22,1939

- Adolf Hitler

The Republic of Poland is one of the largest countries in Central Europe bordering Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany. 

On September 01, 1939, Germany attacked Poland after signing a pact with the USSR, an act that marked the outbreak of World War II.

For five long years the name of Auschwitz within the city of Krakow 400 Kms from the Polish capital aroused fear among the populations of the Nazi-occupied territories.

The grounds of the former Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, is one of the most infamous, mass genocide sites from the Second World War. In this place, from 1940-1945, the Nazis murdered approx. 1.5 million people, primarily Jews from all countries of occupied Europe, as well as Poles, Imagegypsies, Soviet prisoners of war and people of other nationalities.

The following signboard can be seen at the main gate of the camp:

'You are entering a Place of Exceptional Horror and Tragedy. Please show your respects for those who suffered and died here behaving in a manner suitable to the dignity of their memory.'

At the end of the war, the SS (German Army), in an attempt to erase all signs of the crime, began to take down and destroy the camp structures and evacuate all prisoners. 

On January 27, 1945 the soldiers of the Red Army entered Oswieneim, thus liberating the camp and saving the lives of the prisoners whom the SS had not yet managed to take away or murder.

The Auschwitz camp had been established in 1940 for Polish political prisoners. Originally it was to be an instrument of terror and extermination of Poles. As time passed, the Nazis began to deport people from all over Europe, mainly Jews - citizens of various countries, to the camp. 

Soviet prisoners-of-war, gypsies, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Frenchmen, Austrians, Germans and others were also among the prisoners of Auschwitz.

By the end of 1939, at the SS and Police Headquarters in Wroclaw (Breslau), the idea of setting up a concentration camp had already been proposed. The official justification for this plan was based on the overcrowding of the existing prisons in Silesia and on the necessity of conducting further waves of mass arrests among the Polish inhabitants both of Silesia and the rest of German occupied Poland.

Several special committees were convened, whose task it was to consider the most favourable location for such a camp. The ultimate choice fell upon the deserted pre-war Polish barracks in. Situated some distance away from the built up area of the town, they could quite easily be expanded and isolated from the outside world. Another factor not without significance was the convenient position of Oswieneim - an important railway junction - within the existing communications network.

The order to proceed with plans to found a camp was given in April 1940, and Rudolf Hess was appointed its first commandant. On June 14, 1940, the Gestapo dispatched the first political prisoners to KL Auschwitz—728 Poles from Tarnow.

Initially the camp comprised 20 buildings: 14 at ground level and 6 with an upper floor. During the period from 1941 to 1942 an extra storey was added to all ground-floor buildings and new blocks were constructed using the prisoners as the workforce. Altogether the camp now contained 28 one-storey buildings (excluding kitchens, storehouses etc.). The average number of prisoners fluctuated between 13-16,000, reaching at one stage (during 1942) a record total of 20,000 people. 

They were accommodated in the blocks, where even the cellars and lofts were utilized for this purpose.

As the number of inmates increased, the area covered by the camp also grew until it was transformed into a gigantic and horrific factory of death.

Since 1942 Auschwitz became the biggest centre for the mass extermination of European Jews. The majority of Jews deported to Auschwitz was killed in gas chambers immediately on arrival, without registration and without identification with the camp numbers. 

The largest room in the crematorium was the mortuary, which was converted into a temporary gas chamber. During 1941 and 1942 Soviet POWs, as well as Jews from the ghettos formed by the Nazis in Upper Silesia, were killed here.

In 1941 SS Reichs fuehrer Heinrich Himmler singled out the camp in Auschwitz as the site for the proposed total eradication of the Jewish population. The motives behind this decision were made clear by the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss in his "Reminiscences", where he quotes the words of Himmler himself: "

The existing extermination centres in the East are not sufficient to cope with an operation on such a scale. Therefore I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose, both because of its convenient location as regards communication, and because the area can be easily isolated and camouflaged." 

By spring 1942 the campaign aimed at the mass murder of Jews was already in progress. 

During the first five months 8,320 perished. Some were gassed; others were shot, while the remainder died from sheer emaciation. One of the proofs of this particular crime is the original Book of Deaths, now kept in the Museum Archives.

KL Auschwitz was also the scene for the extermination of about 21,000 gypsies. Evidence of this crime is contained in the records relating to the gypsy camp, which were stolen by prisoners then produced after the war.

Some of the Jews condemned to extinction in KL Auschwitz arrived convinced that they had been deported for "resettlement" in Eastern Europe. In particular, Jews from Greece and Hungary were deceived in this way: the Nazis sold them non-existent plots of land, farms, shops or offered them work in fictitious factories. For this reason the deportees always brought their most valuable possessions with them.

The distance between the place of arrest and KL Auschwitz was sometimes as much as 2,400 km (1,500 miles). The journey was usually made in sealed goods wagons. No food was provided. Crowded together like cattle, deportees often travelled for 7 or even 10 days before reaching their destination. Therefore, not surprisingly, when the bolts were drawn on arrival at the camp it was frequently the case that some of the victims - above all old people and children - were already dead, while the rest were in a state of extreme exhaustion.

The trains unloaded at the goods station in Auschwitz, while from 1944 a special ramp built at Birkenau was used. Here officers and doctors of the SS immediately examined the new arrivals, allocating those capable of working to the camp. Those considered unsuitable were taken straight to the gas chambers. According to the statement of Rudolf Hess, around 70-75% of the total were summarily gassed in this way.

On the model of the gas chamber and crematorium, we can see people entering the underground changing room. They are composed, because after the initial "selection" (i.e. segregation into fit and unfit for work) all have been assured by the SS that they would be allowed a bath. 

They are told to undress, after which they are herded into a second underground chamber resembling a bathroom. Showers were fitted to the ceiling - but they were never connected to the water supply. Into this room, 210 sq. m. in area -about 235 sq. yards-, around 2,000 victims would be led. 

After the doors had been firmly closed, SS men poured the substance Cyclon B (a strong poisoned capsule) into the chamber through special openings in the ceiling. Within 15-20 minutes the people trapped inside died. After gold tooth fillings, rings, ear-rings and also the hair had been removed from the bodies, they were taken to the incinerators situated on the ground floor, or- if these could not cope with the mass of human flesh - to makeshift "funeral pyres".

Besides executions and the gas chambers, another efficient means of killing off the prisoners was the hard labour. Prisoners initially worked on the development of the camp itself levelling the terrain and building new blocks huts, roads, drainage dykes etc. Later the industry of the Third Reich began to exploit this source of manpower to an ever-greater degree.

The prisoners were often made to work without a moment's respite. The rapid pace, hunger, rations, constant beating, harassment and general hardships greatly increased the death rate.

The living conditions, although they varied to some extent during the different stages of the camp's existence, were always unbearable. 

The crematorium is situated outside the main fence of the camp. In front of the entrance - in the place where the building of the camp Gestapo once stood is the gallows used on April 16, 1947, to hang the first commandant Rudolf Hess.

It is difficult for us to imagine the tragic scenes, which took place daily in the camp. Artists among the ex-prisoners have endeavoured to convey the atmosphere of those times in their creative work. These are their "sworn statements", submitted in visual form. This is their evidence, testimony given in an artistic way presenting different scenes from camp life. The Museum possesses a rich collection of such works.

Nearly 200 - 300 visitors daily visit this tragic place. Tearful families of those executed, lay flowers and light candles here.God created man in his image and Hitler tried to create a new man in his own brutal image.


The foreign Mervyn

Mervyn de Silva: A recollection on his 71st birthday - September 5, 2000
By Bradman Weerakoon
When Mervyn de Silva passed away last year, many tributes were paid to his contribution to critical writing, to journalism, to literature and the arts, to his scholarly weekly radio commentaries on world affairs, his lone editorship of the Lanka Guardian and the stimulation he provided to popular discussion by his constant and thoughtful, intellectual engagement with whatever was current in the public debate. Yet I personally felt that there was one aspect of his work that had not been sufficiently commented upon or appreciated at the time. Perhaps this was natural, for much of what he did in this area of influencing the making of public policy was generally confidential, its consequences were indirect and unattributable, and above all the depth and intensity of the interaction were known only to a privileged few.

Mervyn made a very substantial and effective contribution, over many years and several administrations, to the making of public policy especially in the arena of foreign affairs. 

There were possibly others before him in the journalistic profession who had by their personal links to the political leadership transmitted their views and thoughts to the decision makers of the day and who could lay claim thereby to be influential in the making of policy on specific issues. In Mervyn's case however, it was different. 

His influence on the political leadership of the time was non-specific and pervasive. It transcended the bounds of party politics as he was equally at home whether the SLFP was in power or the UNP. And the relationship with the 'great' was special, being one of camaraderie and mutual respect rather than hierarchical, as the generality of such interactions become over time. It also was remarkable that Mervyn maintained this vital and unique role over changing political administrations and some five decades of active involvement in the public arena.

Perhaps it was his extraordinary mix of personal characteristics - his affability and exuberance, his cynicism and wit, his grace and self-confidence that made leaders as different as the Bandaranaikes - both SWRD and Sirimavo, J.R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa take easily, and in fact warmly, to Mervyn de Silva. Mervyn was always interesting. He was not only totally informed about the subject but could put it across quickly, cogently and with a complete absence of pedantry.

Whether it was on the telephone or in person Mervyn could be light where the subject was heavy, find something that was funny in a situation that was serious, counter repartee with equal wit, and have the grace to concede when the contestation seemed irrefutable. I have had the privilege of sitting by the side of President Premadasa, for example, when he was on the phone to Mervyn discussing something that Mervyn had written which had appeared in the newspaper. Although the conversation I was overhearing, since the President would insist I stay put, was naturally one-sided, it was obvious that the interaction was giving both parties much enjoyment. There was a great conviviality and chuckling that accompanied the conversation and a degree of detail in subject matter that bespoke an easy familiarity of the pertinent issues that both thought needed to be addressed. Premadasa did a lot of work on the telephone and as those who know him would testify, could be very informal in approach, introducing himself on the telephone as simply Premadasa (which could lead to some embarrassment if a domestic for example lifted the phone when it rang). His easy accessibility would have suited Mervyn well and the telephonic communication between the two men was often, relaxed and highly beneficial I believe, on both sides.

With J.R. Jayewardene, perhaps as befitted the difference in age between the two, Mervyn understandably adopted an attitude that was less collegiate in approach but no less convivial. There was a huge mutual respect between the two men and the conversations would range over many areas - literature, a new book or play at the West-end, cricket, relations with India (or the latest peccadillo of Mani Dixit) or what was happening to the Non-Aligned Movement under Sri Lanka's leadership. Mervyn hated J.R.'s stand on the Falklands issue but J.R. was unyielding. In point of fact I think though the relationship was close and an easy affability pervaded their interactions, Mervyn did not make as great an impact on the making of public policy under J.R. as he did later with Premadasa. Premadasa was always willing to learn, but J.R. was like a rock in some of the opinions he held and all of Mervyn's persuasiveness could hardly make a dent.

Mervyn displayed throughout his life a casualness and nonchalance in approach, which became his trademark. He was James Mason - whom older filmgoers would recall - in looks and behaviour. Although strong in his convictions and tremendously eloquent in giving expression to his thoughts, Mervyn was never opinionated. This flexibility in approach served him well in his relationship to power in the Bandaranaike era. It was particularly interesting to watch his jousts with Felix Dias who also considered himself an authority on foreign affairs and was Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister who under the Soulbury Constitution dealt with External Affairs. Felix undoubtedly influenced foreign policy making at the time and I think Felix saw Mervyn as a challenge to his undiluted claim to acceptance by Mrs. Bandaranaike.

It was certainly vice versa as far as Mervyn was concerned. The two had been contemporaries at Royal and the university and had grown used to measuring each other up all the time.

How Mervyn countered this strong internal critique and yet managed to access and influence decision making by Sirimavo - on such issues as the Indian Ocean Peace Zone proposal and related non-aligned issues, speak volumes for his diplomacy, his dexterity and his capacity to listen as well as to persuade. Lesser men have stooped to flattery on the way to an audience with the King, or in this instance the Queen, but Meryvn needed none of these props. His was argumentation based on facts and rationality and the veracity of his line of thinking attracted attention on its own merits shorn of all externalities. Sirimavo Bandara-naike with her direct and unpretentious approach to problem solving appreciated the brilliance of the presentation and I have no doubt even secretly enjoyed the occasional dialectical contestation between the two old Royalists.

But Mervyn's association with the Bandaranaike went back to Mr. Bandaranaike to whom he was introduced in the mid-fifties by Nimal Karunatilleke, a journalist turned politician. 

Although Mr. Bandaranaike would have read with interest the pieces which Mervyn turned out at that time the distance between the two in age alone inhibited the kind of rapport which he enjoyed with the political leaders who followed.

Mervyn's engagement with the making of Sri Lanka's foreign policy over almost the last five decades was not limited to his purposeful conversations with the country's political leadership alone. It had an institutional dimension too, which reflects how strongly he felt about the need to underpin the rhetoric with a solid intellectual infrastructure built on a corps of able and informed foreign service men and women supported by a knowledgeable public.

Early in his career he helped found the Council of World Affairs with General Anton Muttucumaroe (still happily writing and researching at 94 in Australia). In the Premadasa period he initiated the Foreign Affairs Advisory Group which attracted men as astute as Gamani Corea, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Stanley Jayewardene and Gamini Wijesinghe to interact with serving foreign service officers in charting new pathways congruent with the changing global and regional environment in which Sri Lanka found itself searching for a fulfilling and dynamic role.

While the search still continues, the loss of this remarkable man with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject and unerring eye for the phony, who did so much so deftly, and from the outside, to define our foreign policy in the last half-century, will be sorely felt.

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