It would be difficult to think of a more inappropriate venue for a PR stunt than Auschwitz. So when it was announced that the England football team, staying in Krakow for the European Championships, was to visit the death camp, there were some howls of protest.
I was asked by the Football Association to accompany the team. Truth be told, I was wary. Footballers are hardly renowned for their sensitivity and decorum. But within minutes of the seven footballers and manager Roy Hodgson stepping off their coach, along with FA Chairman David Bernstein and former Chelsea and Israel manager Avram Grant (the rest of the team visited the Schindler Museum in Krakow), it was obvious that such fears were misplaced.
They may be footballers but they are also human beings. And when anyone with an ounce of humanity encounters Auschwitz, he leaves everything else behind.
The next time I see Wayne Rooney on the pitch, I’ll see not just the mindless oaf of caricature but a man with a hinterland. I’ll see the man who stood, silent and alone, reading the sign by the side of the entrance to the Auschwitz museum: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.’’
And I’ll see the man who, with his team mates Andy Carroll, Phil Jagielka, Jack Butland, Joe Hart, Theo Walcott and Leighton Baines, was transfixed with shock when shown the picture of SS doctor, Heinz Thilo, greeting the new arrivals at Birkenau and pointing them into two areas: one for work, another for the gas chambers.
Indeed, when we moved on to Birkenau and the exact spot where that picture was taken, Rooney and the others paced out the path taken by the victims. As footballers they think in spaces; it was as if they needed to see the geography itself, fully to grasp the implications of the picture.
As Rooney put it afterwards: “There was the guy who made all the decisions, whether they lived or died. He’s probably gone home after that, listened to music, and had dinner with his family as if nothing had happened. It’s crazy. It’s hard to understand.
“I’m a parent and it’s tough to see what happened there. You’ve seen the amount of children who died. You see the children’s clothes and shoes, it’s really sad. You have to see it first-hand.”
The whole squad had heard from two survivors the week before. But Rooney was already aware of what had gone on: “I did history at school but never really appreciated it at the time, so I wanted to understand more about what happened in the war. I watched the documentary The World At War last year, the night before away matches in Europe, and a lot of it is about what happened at Auschwitz.
“So I wanted to see it first-hand. What happened here puts football into perspective. It’s good for us to try to understand this history.”
In their normal lives these are some of the most confident young men on the planet. But here, they struggled even to summon the courage to ask the guide questions. They didn’t want to seem stupid, one told me afterwards.
Far from stupid, their questions — such as how long was the gap from arrival to death, why the Nazis did not burn all the victims’ possessions, did any try to escape and how many arrivals were there every day — were exactly those that any visitor finds difficult to comprehend.
Outside the crematorium at Auschwitz, Avram Grant, whose family were murdered there, spoke quietly but emotionally to the players: “It’s very important you came here. It’s so good that you came here. It’s important to talk about this and spreads the message of what happened here.’’
They knew this.
On the rails where the carriages had brought the latest set of victims, David Bernstein said kaddish alongside Roy Hodgson. The players did not understand a word; but they understood everything that mattered about the small, intensely moving ceremony.
Make no mistake, this was no mere PR stunt. For one thing, the FA’s decision to maintain decorum by allowing only three print writers, of whom I was one, to accompany the team angered most journalists — those who were excluded.
The visit was designed to give a group of influential young men a first-hand lesson about the greatest evil ever perpetrated. And then to turn that encounter to practical use, beyond just the education of seven footballers.
The Holocaust Educational Trust and the FA will now produce a range of tools for use in schools. And their impact will be immeasurably stronger with the participation of the England team.