What Visiting Auschwitz Showed Me About Football's Role In Ending Anti-Semitism

As a Chelsea supporter all my life, I am distinctly aware of the long-standing anti-Semitism issue amongst sections of our fanbase – it's vital we all learn what happens when anti-Semitism is allowed to thrive unchecked
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

“I always ask myself why a 13-year-old had to bury his sister, mother, and father, in a forest in the middle of nowhere, all alone.”

The words of former Chelsea manager, Avram Grant, as he told the distressing story of his father’s survival of the Holocaust, and the murder of several family members by the Nazi regime.

Grant’s speech at a welcome lunch certainly set the tone for an emotional two-day educational trip to Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau for the March of the Living, set up by Chelsea Football Club in partnership with New England Revolution.

The now annual visit formed part of the Chelsea’s Say No To Antisemitism campaign, launched in January 2018, which has also seen the club work with Kick It Out and the Community Security Trust to produce an educational film and training resource for stewards around anti-Semitism.

Representing Kick It Out, I joined a delegation made up of a selection of Chelsea representatives – including academy players, director Eugene Tenenbaum, former players Andy Myers and Jon Harley – and a contingent from New England Revolution, as well as a number of journalists.

“It’s vital that we learn about the Holocaust, and from the Holocaust.” That was the blueprint for the trip laid out by Anita Parmar, a leading figure at the Holocaust Educational Trust for the last 15 years, and it was a message I carried with me throughout my stay.

After our lunch and Grant’s moving speech, we were led on a tour of the Jewish quarter by our guide, Anna, and I was struck by how little I knew about the full history of Jews in Krakow beyond the Holocaust.

As far back as the 11th Century, Jews were a central part of life in Krakow and on the eve of World War II, there were as many as 70,000 living in the city – 25% of the population.

Less than 5,000 survived, the rest murdered by the Third Reich along with 6,000,000 other Jews across Europe.

Yet from the horror of the Holocaust, a tale of hope for Jews in Poland has emerged, explained the chief rabbi of Krakow at a talk delivered in the city’s Jewish Community Centre.

All across Poland, new Jewish communities are re-emerging as a new generation discovers their Jewish roots, aided by educational projects that are building relationships between young people and the remaining Holocaust survivors.

But the vibrant history of Jewish contribution to Krakow was in stark contrast to what we saw the next day at Auschwitz-Birkenau – a death factory, designed to facilitate the most efficient possible extermination of 1.1million Jews, together with 200,000 Poles, Roma gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war and other ethnic groups.

Behind the numbers, our tour guide stressed how important it was to think of the individuals, and the families killed at the camp.

The hair, the suitcases, the pots, the shoes on display – all served as powerful reminders of the lives behind the numbers, as the museum attempts to humanise the people who were stripped of all humanity.

And that is a key sentiment behind the March of the Living, an educational program launched in 2008 that invites students from around the world to visit Krakow, learn about the Holocaust and march from Auschwitz to Birkenau.

To see Holocaust survivors and the global Jewish community, as well as people from all faiths and backgrounds, come together for the March – it sent a powerful message: fascism will never win, but only if we remember what happened, and only if we are united in our determination to ensure it never happens again.

As we were told beneath the infamous ‘Arbeit macht frei’ gate whilst we waited for the March to begin: “The only thing worse than Auschwitz, would be if we forgot Auschwitz had existed.”

It’s a message which carries particularly importance in today’s climate of rising anti-Semitism, encapsulated by a spate of recent attacks on Jewish people across the world, from a violent assault in February not far from Kick It Out’s offices in Highbury, to the mass shooting of worshippers at the US synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego in the last six months alone.

So where does football fall into this story?

The trip itself was an example of the power of the game as a platform for education – a message Kick It Out will never stop championing.

As a Chelsea supporter all my life, I am distinctly aware of the long-standing anti-Semitism issue amongst sections of our fan base. It’s a source of personal shame that I share a stadium with people who choose to spout the most vile anti-Semitic abuse.

But the hierarchy at the club must be commended for attempting to tackle the issue head on, and the annual visits to Auschwitz will only serve to instil greater understanding of the evils of anti-Semitism among club staff, players, and in turn, hopefully the fans too.

Of course, it’s not feasible for the club to take 42,000 supporters to Auschwitz, or even the entirety of the vocal minority who continue to sing disgusting anti-Semitic chants.

But the trip, filmed in detail by Chelsea TV, will be broadcast on social media to the club’s millions of followers – and hopefully at the stadium on a regular basis too, to encourage fans to make the journey of their own accord. At the very least, it will give supporters an insight into the reality of what happens when anti-Semitism is allowed to thrive unchecked, which begins by the casual dismissal of abuse as ‘banter’.

And that, ultimately, is the role football must play in tackling hate. Discrimination is a societal problem, but the national game has a unique platform to reach millions of people who wouldn’t usually engage with these issues.

Clubs have the power, the resources, and the access to influence and educate society. If we are to learn from history and resist the rise of fascism across the word, long may trips like these continue.

George Starkey-Midha is media and communications officer at Kick It Out


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