On the coach to Auschwitz, former Chelsea manager Avram Grant tells me what can fairly be described as a Holocaust joke. His sister and late father Meir, who suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Nazis, were at the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow to see Avram’s Chelsea play Manchester United. The game went to penalties and a John Terry miss cruelly lost the biggest game in the club’s history.
At the end of the match, Meir, whose mother, father and five siblings perished in the Holocaust (he buried his parents and sister in a forest, aged 13) simply shrugged his shoulders and said: “Oh well. There are worse things in life than losing in the final.” Avram’s sister instinctively knew what her father meant, but politely asked the question anyway: “What’s worse than losing in the final?”
“Losing in the semi-final,” Meir smiled.
Avram is still happily reminiscing about his father as the Chelsea delegation arrives at Auschwitz on a sunlit May morning to join the annual March of the Living to remember the six million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis.
“My father was a born optimist, despite all he went through,” Avram says. “When we’d talk about the war he’d always say the past is the past, live in present and look to the future. For him life was all about seeing the bright side.”
Seeing the bright side is what March of the Living is all about. More celebration than lamentation, it’s the one day of the year when the deathly graveyard of 1.1 million souls stirs with new life and fresh optimism that the lessons of this place might be learned – and re-learned – by generations to come.
With proud common purpose, 10,000 people who’ve travelled from Seoul to San Francisco, line up behind the infamous wrought-iron Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) sign, to begin the two-mile walk to the extermination camp of Birkenau for a memorial ceremony.
It’s a march of flags, banners, songs, chants, and joie de vivre. It’s called March of the Living for a reason. Avram’s dad would’ve loved it.
Along with Avram are former players Jon Harley and Andy Myers, chief executive Guy Laurence, director Eugene Tenenbaum, club ambassador Sir Steve Redgrave and six members of the under 18s team, who walk in quiet contemplation, despite constant demands for selfies.
Defender Dynel Simeu says he’s proud to be chosen for the trip and will take home the message that it’s everyone’s responsibility to tackle ignorance and intolerance. Goalkeeper Jake Askew adds: “I’ve learned about the Second World War in school, but being here puts it all in perspective. I will share what I have seen here with my friends and family.”
Five-time Olympic gold medalist and Chelsea ambassador Sir Steve Redgrave flew in from Beijing, where he’s coaching China’s rowing team, to be part of the group for the second time. He returned because once wasn’t enough. “I struggled to take it all in last year,” he says. “It seems like the wrong word to use but I’ve ‘enjoyed’ being here again to see this celebration of the human spirit. I urge everyone to come to this place to see what humanity is capable of and reflect on the positive things it can do.”
Also with us are players and staff from Chelsea’s sister American club, New England Revolution. Former star striker Charlie Davies seems shocked when I tell him racism has poisoned the British game for decades – with some of Chelsea’s followers, the notorious Headhunters, even wearing the Nazi SS death-head insignia.
I tell Charlie about my first experience of antisemitism, at Stamford Bridge in 1985 when Chelsea played Tottenham, hearing so-called fans making ‘Ssssssss’ gas chamber noises and chanting ‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz’.
Charlie, one of America’s top black stars who played for six US sides and the national team, says: “That level of hatred isn’t seen in US sport. We have fierce rivalries but they are expressed more in pride in your team than racist hatred of the opposition.”
Lancing the boil will be a monumental task, but it’s fitting that the football club with perhaps the most notorious reputation has become the prime mover in eradicating racism in the sport.
Since launching its Say No To Antisemitism campaign last year, Chelsea has run education programmes in primary schools and for supporters banned for antisemitic behaviour, produced a video and training resource for stadium stewards with equality watchdog Kick It Out, invited survivors to speak to the men’s and women’s first teams and announced plans to host an international anti-racism summit in Paris later this year.
Abramovich has also personally helped fund the Imperial War Museum’s new Holocaust Galleries and a project to record the testimonies of Lithuanian non-Jews who saved Jews from the Nazis.
With two deadly attacks on American synagogues fresh in the memory, and racism and xenophobia again on the rise, teaching empathy, respect and understanding is tragically just as essential in this century as it was in the last.
As Avram puts it: “We know what victory in football looks like. But to be here in Auschwitz with all these young people learning about where intolerance can lead, that’s what victory in life looks like.”
• First published by The Independent