The day starts with a sharp nudge from the future Mrs Mears “it’s time to get up” she says sharply as though it’s an inconvenience to her to be woken up by the 3 am alarm call.
This was a day that I had been looking forward to immensely. Having studied Nazi Germany at A-level, I had always wanted to visit the places we had spoken about in the classroom and seen in the textbooks.
And thanks to Chelsea FC and the Supporters Trust I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The death of 6 million men, women and children, during WW2 was and still is the greatest human evil during our 2000 plus years on planet earth.
Our hosts, the Holocaust Educational Trust, do a fantastic job in reminding us to think not only of the victims but also the perpetrators. What was the responsibility of those who worked in the camps, or who drove the trains into Birkenau knowing they were delivering thousands of people to their deaths?
And what of our responsibility? To help ensure this is never forgotten. As the philosopher, George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Well I guess, this article is me trying to share what I saw and felt during our day visiting these sites. What I will say now, before I’ve even started, is that no words can do justice to Auschwitz-Birkenau
You simply must visit at least once in your life.
A week before we left I had phoned Dad and asked if he would drop me to the airport, as it’s only me that’s a member of the supporters trust I took the chance for a fully paid trip thanks to the club.
Dad was drunk and said I’ll come with you. The club had some cancellations and added Dad to the list. Something he will never regret.
I got to Dads at 4, and we jumped in his car and made our way to Stansted. We were flying from a private jet hanger, and hoping it was the club plane.
But still, we avoided long check-in queues and dad avoided duty-free (for now)
The flight seemed to pass in no time, and we got on our coach transfer. The Holocaust Educational Trust handed out some reading material for us to read before we arrived.
I was immediately struck by the first page which chronicled Jewish persecution throughout history; those lessons had not been learnt.
We drove through some beautiful Polish countryside, how could something so evil happen in a place so quiet and unassuming?
When we arrived at Auschwitz 1, I was a bit surprised to see a gift shop and a snack bar.
I was expecting the sombre and harrowing place people had said about, although as soon as we passed through the famous ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI” gate, you were immediately struck with it.
There’s an indescribable presence when you walk through this site, which was at first a concentration camp for workers. The gate, which translates to “work brings freedom” shows that what followed in the latter years of WW2 wasn’t the original plan for the “Jewish problem.”
Our guide, Pawel, was excellent, there wasn’t an overload of information or facts and figures, but just enough to help us tell the story behind what our eyes were seeing.
The point that hit me the most was the thousands of children’s shoes left behind. I think to my own son Charlie, had we been Jewish, we would have simply been killed. It’s something that you don’t think is even remotely possible, that it would never happen to you.
What Auschwitz reminds us, is that it could so easily be you.
Those poor children didn’t choose to be born into the situation that they, unfortunately, found themselves in. When Charlie grows up, this visit will help me teach him how lucky he is.
Dad’s moment was with the book that contained the names of more than four million victims of the Holocaust. It’s the largest book in the world and filled the room.
As you’re walking around these sites, it’s hard to comprehend the true amount of people that entered but never left…
This one book certainly helped to highlight that.
The walk around Auschwitz I lasts a couple of hours before we hear back onto the coach for the short drive to Birkenau.
A quick bite to eat and a drink is the only respite from a fully packed day, but to see as much as possible you really can’t afford to hang around.
When we arrive at Birkenau, we go straight into the watchtower made famous in the film Schindler’s List. You can’t help but be shocked at the sheer scale of this camp. As far as the eyes can see; is the bricked chimney’s that used to heat the wooden barracks that housed the inmates.
I don’t want to share all the stories we were told during the day; I want you to visit and find out for yourself. But this was just such a huge scale operation, hundreds of people crammed into huts, with no real access to a toilet or a shower.
If you think, our country is constantly complaining about our rail network; the Nazi’s were bringing Jews from as far as Cyprus to Birkenau.
Able-bodied men, young boys and non-mothers to the right, everybody else straight to the chamber.
In 1943, the Nazi’s brought around 430,000 Hungarian Jews to Birkenau in just eight weeks. All of whom were killed on an average of 6,000 people a day.
The day finished with a service by Rabbi Marcus. His questions that he posed to us to reflect on were hard to swallow. At this moment my mind was clear, I wasn’t thinking of work, Charlie, only what happened here and our responsibility going forward.
I looked around; there were several staff members of Chelsea Football Club including club secretary David Bernard and press officer Steve Atkins.
How much more do we need to do as a club to show that we are serious about saying no to anti-semitism?
We’ve come a long way for sure. I remember growing up coming to Chelsea, hearing those chants sung at Tottenham.
These have mostly died out now thanks to the education the club has done with supporters to help them understand that using the word “yid” isn’t acceptable.
Growing up I thought the word “yid” just meant a Spurs fan. I had no idea of its connection to the Jewish faith, its true meaning.
That’s why days like today and groups like the Holocaust Educational Trust, are so important. Because we only expand our horizons through knowledge and understanding and we only get that through education.
Hatred is, of course, driven by the fear of the unknown
I think the club should be commended for the work they are doing to help stamp out not just anti-semitism but racism in general.
We tend to get a poor rep because of a few idiots, but on the whole, this club is doing some fantastic work.
And now as I type this, aboard the flight home awaiting our evening meal, I’m struggling to sum up the experience in a way that I feel is befitting.
I feel I can only say one thing, visit Auschwitz-Birkenau.
With thanks to Chelsea Football Club, Chelsea supporters Trust, Anita and the Holocaust Educational Trust and everybody involved in making this trip happen.