The modern footballer goes through the wrought iron gates of Auschwitz
This is Auschwitz… after Van Persie, Italy and Germany, here come England trying to do the right thing
By MARTIN SAMUEL
This morning Joe Hart will stand in goal, this afternoon he will stand in a gas chamber. Such is the challenge to the modern footballer.
At approximately 2pm, after the completion of training, a delegation of England players, coaches and staff will travel 70 kilometres west from the team base in Krakow to the town of Oswiecim, and then on to the nearby village of Brzezinka.
The world knows these locations by other names. Infamous, dreaded German translations. Auschwitz. Birkenau. The players will be taken to the wrought iron gates with the bleakly ironic legend Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) and the atrocity exhibition will begin.
Immediately beyond the barbed wire, a sign informs, the corpses of the executed and tortured were displayed as a warning to new arrivals. Inside the camp, and at its sister site, more than one million died. Nobody knows the true numbers because, with slaughter on such scale, even the officious Nazis ceased keeping record.
Another sign: ‘The people were selected on the railway platform. Those to be gassed were assured they were going to take a bath. Dummy showers were fixed to the ceiling. Cudgelled and halloed with dogs, 2000 victims were crammed into the chamber 210 square metres approximately in area. The chamber door was locked and Zyklon B was poured.
‘After 15-20 minutes the chamber was opened. Corpses were stripped of gold teeth, hair, ear-rings, rings and then transported to the crematory. Victims’ personal documents were destroyed.’
Day after day. Year after year. And it is all there. The men and women of the Holocaust Education Trust, two of whom spoke to England’s footballers about their experiences last week, go to extraordinary and noble lengths to leave a positive message of forgiveness and tolerance, but the sights of Auschwitz-Birkenau are unrelentingly sad and brutal.
The lasting memory is of the footings of makeshift wooden barracks stretching as far as the eye can see, a bald, single track train line running through the middle, the apparatus of death at journey’s end. This was the Nazis’ Final Solution and, having borne belated witness to it, as the sun fades, an air-conditioned coach will return its silent charges to the Football Association’s five-star boutique residence in the heart of Krakow’s lively centre.
The following morning the players will train again as usual, their duty done. Numbed silence is the standard response to an Auschwitz visit. When one particularly ignorant group of England Under 21 players tried to banter and mock their way around the austere brick outbuildings some years ago, their coach, an incandescent Peter Taylor, delivered a spectacular dressing down.
This time, the proper tone has been achieved following a talk given by Holocaust survivors Zigi Shipper and Ben Helfgott. When they had finished, the first hand raised to volunteer to make the visit was that of Wayne Rooney.
to be continued