Paul Hayward: Why the visit of Euro 2012 footballers to Auschwitz shows how we are still grappling with our shared history
TODAY, England players and staff will make the 50-mile journey west from a boutique hotel in the city centre to the scene of 1.3 million murders. As Avram Grant, the former Chelsea manager, who lost relatives at Auschwitz, said when offering to be England’s guide: "You are never quite the same person after going there."
Euro 2012 has raised complex questions to do with moral obligation, remembrance and how such trips should be reported, in an age when comment has become more important in human affairs than the act that provides the opportunity to comment.
One thing feels clear: observing the remnants of the Holocaust is a deeply personal matter that has absolutely nothing to do with football.
England have been in a quandary about Auschwitz from the moment Krakow was chosen as their base: a selection that obliged them to clock up 3,100 miles commuting to their three group games in Ukraine. It even featured in the inquest when Fabio Capello walked out. Who, now, would make the decision on when and how to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau?
The death camp is close. You can sense it out there, beside its train tracks, less than an hour’s drive away. The Football Association has elected to pay its respects four days before England’s opening game against France and then tour Schindler’s factory near the old Jewish Ghetto 24 hours later. The enamel works where Oskar Schindler protected Jews from the Gestapo and SS serve also as a museum of the Nazi occupation.
So far, so respectful. But then the English FA made an error that confirms the power of Auschwitz to confuse. It instructed the press here that only two reporters – later extended to three – would be allowed to accompany the England party, and that it would pool their reports for everyone’s use.
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, what it says is that the most important aspect of a football team visiting Auschwitz is the quotes: the reactions of the players. How completely misguided that is.
This newspaper, like all others, presumably, will report the responses of England’s players because the FA has already established it as a public event. But do we really need to observe industrialised killing through the prism of what Joleon Lescott or Joe Hart might say about it?
As it happens, players from Holland, Italy and Germany have offered some interesting thoughts. Italy were joined by three survivors of the gas chambers. Giorgio Chiellini, the Italy defender, said: “The image that stuck in my eyes was when they showed us their tattoos, the numbers on their arms. And the way they told us about being taken away from their families right there on those tracks.
“I told my brother: ‘If you come to see a match, you should go to the camps, too’. It leaves you with emotions that are difficult to forget.”
Those impressions are affecting not because they come from a footballer but because they chime with the universal human response you would expect from any sentient being. And while you can understand Jewish groups wanting Euro 2012 contenders to go there to support the cause of vigilance, some sympathy is due to the German football federation for the adverse comment it had to deal with for sending only three players alongside Oliver Bierhoff, the team manager, coach Joachim Löw and Wolfgang Niersbach, president of the Deutscher Fussball-Bund.
“Honestly, I can’t really understand that criticism,” Niersbach said. “We have had very good feedback from the international Jewish community and even the German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent me a text message in appreciation of our gesture.
"Let me just say we didn’t do this for the public effect or for our image. On the contrary, we wanted to do this trip even if there hadn’t been a single camera there. There is an obligation for us, as Germans, to visit the site.”
It is not for us, of course, to tell individual German players or citizens born long after 1945 what they should feel. But we know Germans grapple with their history all the time. For the other countries here, the more quietly you go to Auschwitz the better.
Images depicting famous footballers honouring the dead and words conveying shock might help to keep the death camps alive in the global consciousness, where they need to be.
England’s reactions, though, are no more important than anyone else’s. The English FA should have said: “Everyone who feels the urge to go is welcome to join our group.” Believe it or not, some things transcend news management, and Auschwitz is certainly one of them.