KRAKOW, Poland (AP) — Walking through the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, the horrors of the Holocaust were brought home to England’s footballers on Friday.
Stunned into silence, shaking their heads in astonishment, the players spent around 90 minutes hearing about the magnitude of the atrocities committed at the former Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, where an estimated 1.1 to 1.5 million people died during World War II.
Striker Wayne Rooney paused to read one sign: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”
After entering the building housing gas chambers and ovens, defender Phil Jagielka read aloud another sign: “You are entering a building where the SS murdered thousands of people.”
“I knew a bit about Auschwitz but this tells you so much more,” Jagielka said later. “The lads wanted to come here. You would like to think society has moved on. Unfortunately, there are people out there who have extreme views.”
Most of the Auschwitz victims were Jews but the Nazis also killed many Poles, Soviet prisoners of wars, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and political opponents there.
The players, in Poland for the European Championship that kicked off on Friday, watched as England manager Roy Hodgson and Football Association chairman David Bernstein donned skull caps to light candles at the site where prisoners got off trains at the most notorious death camp Nazi Germany operated on Polish soil after invading its neighbor.
“There are so many lessons to be learnt and understood from the Holocaust and we believe football can play its part in encouraging society to speak out against intolerance in all its forms — and in advancing the important work of teaching future generations about the horrors of the Holocaust,” Hodgson said.
Linking Europe’s darkest days and football was the Jewish former Chelsea manager Avram Grant, who joined the England delegation to recall how 15 members of his family were among the Auschwitz victims.
“It’s very important you are here,” the former Israel manager told the players by the Auschwitz ovens. “It’s important to talk about this and spreads the message of what happened here.”
In one poignant moment, Grant stopped beneath a picture of an SS doctor at the selection point where it was determined who would go to work and who would go to the gas chambers.
Grant told Rooney and fellow striker Andy Carroll that on a previous visit, he’d called it the changing room — not for football but to die.
“The Nazis were very clever,” Grant said. “They gave you hope. They thought of everything.”
The seven England players and Hodgson saw another picture of an SS commander pointing an elderly gentleman to his death, a 400-yard march to a 20-minute execution.
“You cannot understand how it can be so systematic, dehuman,” Hodgson said. “It was a job. It is difficult to get your head around.”
Most people who died were killed within two hours of getting off the train.
“It is unreal,” winger Theo Walcott. “I learned some of this stuff at school but I could never imagine anything on this scale.”
Goalkeeper Joe Hart asked what happened to those who tried to escape. They were just shot.
Bernstein shook his head in disgust after hearing how prisoners were ordered to memorize the number of the hook where they hung their clothes before entering the “showers” — where deadly Zyklon-B gas pellets would pour on the victims.
“The intention was to deceive up to the very last moment,” said the guide, Wojciech Smolen.
One of the most harrowing scenes for the players was the stacks of shoes and glasses removed at the camp.
“You see the children’s clothes and shoes, it’s really sad,” Rooney said. “You have to see it firsthand. You don’t realize how those who lived there to work managed without food, without water. It’s a form of torture and then they died. The others got murdered.
“It’s good for us to see what happened and get that history, how it happened. It puts football into perspective. It’s a disaster, what happened. It will never be forgotten.”
Other members of the squad visited the Krakow factory where German businessman Oskar Schindler employed Jewish workers to spare them from concentration camps during the liquidation of the ghetto in the city where England is based for Euro 2012.
“Most youngsters today have a glorified image of a ghetto but the ghettos we have learned about today are not like that,” defender Joleon Lescott said. “I did not have a full understanding of what the word means. For a lot of people today it has been lost in translation. You see it in films and learn about it in music but to learn the origins of the word ghetto opens your eyes. People were chosen to go to Auschwitz. This is my first experience of something like this.”
Schindler’s story was chronicled in the 1993 Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List,” which won best picture and other Academy Awards.
Lescott found visiting the factory to be “very humbling,” having just won the Premier League for the first time with Manchester City and being called up by England for Euro 2012.
“Coming here makes you grateful for what you have got but you must not rest on that,” said Lescott, whose team faces France on Monday in their first match. “You must not take that for granted. You have to move forward and use this information to pass on to our children to show how people struggled and survived.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
“What the England players saw today will remain with them for rest of lives – we very much appreciate them taking the time to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau to pay their respects and the Football Association’s commitment to sharing the legacy of the Holocaust through a joint educational resource we are developing together,” said Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust.