After recently visiting the Nazi’s most terrifying concentration camp, editor Siobhán Cronin says we must always remember to stand up and fight against evil and hate speech, and never forget the past
THE rows upon rows of children’s shoes stop you in your tracks. This is the room in Auschwitz concentration camp which houses the footwear taken from children who had arrived with their mammies and daddies, and some with no-one at all, in the cattle wagons between 1940 and 1945.
There are thousands upon thousands of them. Sandals, brogues, little boots. It’s a large room, with the shoes piled high on either side of a narrow channel through which the public can walk, in this important but macabre museum to unspeakable evil.
There is another room nearby with the adults’ shoes. But this is the one place on the tour which commands utter silence from the hundreds of people who make the trip to the horrific site just outside Krakow in Poland, every day.
By this point on the tour, you have already heard how these children and maybe their parents, were herded off the cattle trucks, which they had hoped would bring them to resettlement homes, but instead brought them to the axis of Hitler’s evil. You have heard your guide, Margaret, explain how so many of them, on arrival, were directed to the tunnel some yards behind the train’s terminus, for ‘showering’.
These showers never existed – though replicas had been sadistically installed by the SS – and once they were inside the large chamber, the door was locked, and the fatal gas was pumped in.
But it’s not until you see this roomful of shoes of these very real children – some of them just toddlers – that the true abhorrence of the holocaust hits home.
It is a very difficult museum to visit – and you are reminded constantly that it is, in fact, a mass grave, because the ashes of the bodies, most of them burned just hours after their arrival here, were scattered wherever there was space left.
Of the 1.3m people sent to the three separate sites at Auschwitz, 1.1m were murdered.
Margaret is clearly still angry about what happened here in her native Poland, despite telling this story over and over. She warns us never to describe it as a ‘Polish’ war camp – it was a German Nazi camp.
And she says – shockingly – that several times she has had people standing in front of her telling her it is all a hoax, what we are looking at are reconstructed buildings, that it never happened to the extent stated, if at all.
‘There is not one thing here that has been reconstructed,’ she says, with fury in her face, Not. One. Thing.’
She would be close to tears if she wasn’t so angry. She ends the tour urging us not to read any fiction about this place – referring to ‘that stupid book, and stupid film’ – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
She takes me to the museum shop and finds two children’s memoirs for me to read which I devour on the flight back to Shannon. They are shocking, and devastating. But should be essential reading for all adults, to remind us this can never be allowed to happen again. This happened. It was real. And it was evil.
And so it was somewhat ironic that a few days after I visited Auschwitz, I found myself listening to a court case about a West Cork woman who has, for years, tried to bring attention to the fact that these very Holocaust deniers may be within our own midst – living here in West Cork.
The members of the sect SSPX Resistance, whose leader is convicted Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, have established themselves here amongst us.
‘I believe there were no gas chambers,’ Williamson told a TV interviewer in 2008. He has also said he believes the Twin Towers attacks were staged by the US.
The Resistance was born out of SSPX, a group set up because it felt the advances proposed by Vatican II were too liberal.
SSPX proved even too liberal for Williamson, who went on to set up the SSPX Resistance. He has been excommunicated twice.
But the group is not just an unrecognised spin-off from Catholicism – its far right leanings have attracted some unsavoury characters as supporters.
The Guardian newspaper in the UK and a Swedish TV crew have both documented the organisation’s rise in power, and its racist links.
In August 2020, local human rights activist and campaigner Fiona O’Leary went to see what was happening in her own locality, having heard stories of the group’s gaining popularity. At the old farmhouse at Reenascreena, she video-taped what she saw there, posted the video on social media and most definitely overstayed her welcome.
Last week in court, she admitted trespassing on the property, registered to a man calling himself ‘Fr’ Giacomo Ballini. This man also carried out what has been described as an ‘exorcism’ of Dáil Eireann in December 2020, during Covid travel restrictions.
He also conducted a Latin ‘mass’ in Herbert Park in Dublin for a small crowd, saying Ireland’s priests and bishops had abandoned the Irish people. ‘Go back to tradition, embrace your faith and be ready to die for it,’ he can be seen saying, on a video easily accessible on Youtube.
His statement regarding the trespassing charge, read out in court, stated that when Ms O’Leary refused to leave his premises, Ballini rang ‘his friend, a policeman’. Ballini’s statement also said that he was ‘in fear’ of Ms O’Leary.
Last Thursday in court Judge McNulty said that he did not want to hear the background to the group in Reenascreena, but did want to know why Mrs O’Leary – an autistic mother of five children, four of whom are also autistic – ‘felt she was entitled’ to be doing what he called something of ‘grave concern’ in Reenascreena.
The barrister responded that his client believed these people were doing something illegal there, and she believed them to be a ‘cult’.
But to call SSPX Resistance a cult is somewhat understating it.
As numerous articles and TV programmes by investigative journalists have revealed, this group is not a harmless group of clergy practising their pious prayers in what was described by the gardaí in court as a place of ‘retreat’.
They are an excommunicated splinter group with links to very nasty individuals. In September 2020, the Sunday World revealed that Williamson himself had been videoed on the site in West Cork, saying that Covid-19 was ‘possibly the creation of the Jews’.
Members of far right organisations, gaining ground in this country, have been linked closely to them. In fact, one high profile far right activist sat quietly at the back of Bandon District Court last week, listening to the case, which was the first one on the list, and left immediately after.
It was once said, for evil to triumph, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing. Fiona O’Leary refused to do nothing.
For her decision to try to expose what she considered to be a hate-filled menace in our midst, albeit by the illegal act of trespass, she was given a 60-day jail sentence.
It was suspended for two years, on condition she does ‘not engage in any behaviour which is abusive or offensive to any person, in any public place, or any public forum, including on social media.’