Chelsea joins March of the Living and learns so much

They came in their thousands and they came from all over the world, and this year the annual March of the Living at former Nazi concentration camps in Poland included a group of representatives from Chelsea Football Club.

It is a special year for the March of the Living. It is the 30th anniversary of the walk between Auschwitz and Birkenau which takes place on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day and contrasts with the death marches so many suffered during World War Two. It is also the first March of the Living to take place since Chelsea commenced our Say No To Antisemitism campaign, with the club playing a part in this week’s commemoration the next important step in the educational work being done.

The message there is that the March of the Living is a march of all humans, not only Jewish people, and it is clear it is an event with a large emphasis on youth and the passing on of history down the generations.

Representing the young of Chelsea were three players from our Academy, Marcel Lavinier, Conor Gallagher and Charlie Brown, fresh from FA Youth Cup semi-final success earlier in the week. For people like these players who were on the march for the first time, it was our former manager Avram Grant who was able to give an insight beforehand into what to expect, having attended it many times before.

‘When I see these young people, it shows you there is hope even in darkness. At this place that was the worst of humanity which you cannot even imagine, you will see thousands of the young who will come today, happy with flags. It shows that from the deep, deep darkness of the worst era ever, you can recover. I think this is the victory of this place.

‘This year me being there with Chelsea will be different. Through football you can achieve a lot. Chelsea is the first club that has come officially and for me, having been a manager of Chelsea, it is very symbolic. It is good work by Roman Abramovich who started this project.’

As well as Grant and the youth team players, who were there with their manager Jody Morris, Chelsea were represented by directors Bruce Buck and Eugene Tenenbaum and as an ambassador and Blues fan, Sir Steve Redgrave, the five-times Olympic champion rower.

The day began with a tour of the Auschwitz concentration camp, with insights into the harrowing progression of a former army barracks into a main location for the Nazis’ ‘final solution’ which resulted in the murdering of millions.

A torture block and the place where experiments were carried out on living people were viewed, as were mountains of artefacts taken from the prisoners on their arrival.

‘I am definitely going to talk to people about this when I get back,’ said Charlie Brown, as the young players completed the tour. ‘It is a very big subject and it is good for me to know about it in a detailed way now I have actually been here.

‘Everyone deserves respect in football and problems with antisemitism need to be known about. The more people who experience visits like this and understand it, the better it will be for the game.’

‘I had obviously read things about Auschwitz,’ added Jody Morris, ‘but it has been an experience. A bleak one if I am being honest, seeing what people had to go through, but it is one that is important.

‘It has certainly been an education. We have brought some of the younger boys here and the earlier you can educate people on problems like antisemitism and racism, the healthier we will be in the future, because what went on here is totally inhumane. If you find out things that are shocking and harrowing, it is important you share those and help people to understand what some people have had to go through in their history.’

The March of the Living that followed on a sunny afternoon was led by Holocaust survivors who were joined at the start by national presidents. The route was the two miles from the original Auschwitz I camp to Auschwitz II at Birkenau, the extermination camp that survives as a chilling reminder of where antisemitic behaviour can lead.

‘There are around 10,000 people here today and it was difficult getting around the camp because there were so many,’ observed Sir Steve Redgrave while on the march. ‘That was 10,000 people but 1.3 million people were exterminated here and so comparing those numbers has quite an impact regarding the scale of what went on.

‘As did the huge pile of glasses when you see them as a mass of tangled wire and the guide said think about all those people who looked through those glasses. Probably the biggest impact on me was the shoes. A shoe has a sole and you think about the souls that were in those shoes. The whole corridor was jam-packed and it was not just one soul in one shoe, it was three or four people who had been handed down those shoes, and you think how and why did this happen.

‘There has been a positive side to the day too. There have been quite a lot of smiles on people’s faces and people meeting people they see each year. On the walk there is singing.

‘As a Chelsea fan, my reaction was positive when the club launched this campaign. I believe in getting messages out. With some of the chants that go on at matches, there is a lack of understanding behind them and that is where education is everything, and what Chelsea is doing is educating. It will take time, as everything does, but you don’t give up on it.’

It was our Chairman Bruce Buck who summed up how the March of the Living fits into the overall message.

‘The key part to this Say No to Antisemitism campaign is education, and Mr Abramovich and the board firmly believe that education can make a big difference in combating racism and antisemitism. By bringing some of our executives here and importantly some of our young players and Jody, it gives everyone an experience that we can take back to London and pass on. 

‘We had a special tour guide spending a lot of time with the young players and I think they are affected by it. We are not going to solve antisemitism, we are not going to solve racism but maybe we will get others involved and make our little contribution.

‘We have plans to bring fan groups here and we had a Holocaust survivor talk to the first team and a holocaust survivor talk to fan groups, and it is all part of one big education programme.

‘Hopefully other clubs will get involved in their own programmes, or with us because we are happy to cooperate. What all of us in football recognise is the power of football, and we can use that for something good.’

- There will be more video from Chelsea TV of the March of the Living next week