Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

Rooney, Hart, Walcott and the England Euro 2012 players who will never forget the Holocaust

    Avram Grant with England's Jack Butland, Andy Carroll, Wayne Rooney and Leighton Baines at Auschwitz
    Avram Grant with England's Jack Butland, Andy Carroll, Wayne Rooney and Leighton Baines at Auschwitz

    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.

UK News

Livingstone decision shameful, says Tom Watson

Lee Harpin and Marcus Dysch

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Livingstone decision shameful, says Tom Watson
UK News

Anti-Israel conference faces delay

Lee Harpin

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Anti-Israel conference faces delay
UK News

Commission criticised over inquiry into 'antisemitic' charity

Daniel Sugarman

Monday, December 5, 2016

Commission criticised over inquiry into 'antisemitic' charity
UK News

Strictly Orthodox Ukip candidate 'should not run for office'

Marcus Dysch

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Strictly Orthodox Ukip candidate 'should not run for office'
Special Reports

Dublin benefits from overseas aid

Barry Toberman

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Dublin benefits from overseas aid
UK News

Luciana Berger troll driven by 'fierce antisemitism'

JC Reporter

Monday, December 5, 2016

Luciana Berger troll driven by 'fierce antisemitism'
UK News

Government drops pledge to aid 3,000 child refugees

Rosa Doherty

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Government drops pledge to aid 3,000 child refugees
UK News

Limmud: Food for thought at session on 'ethical eating'

By Simon Rocker

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Limmud: Food for thought at session on 'ethical eating'
UK News

Local MP blocks visit from David Irving's 'secret tour'

Rosa Doherty

Friday, December 2, 2016

Local MP blocks visit from David Irving's 'secret tour'