Chelsea fans have no shortage of experience when it comes to travelling together to locations across Europe, but this week there was an overseas trip with a difference, and one with a highly important message to spread.
A group of 150 people consisting of Blues supporters, plus club employees with a wide range of roles including Stamford Bridge matchday staff, left London early for Poland where a visit to the former Nazi concentration and death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau was the latest activity in the club’s Say No To Antisemitism initiative, launched at the start of the year.
The visit follows a few weeks on from Chelsea representation at the annual March of the Living, which also took place at Auschwitz and contrasts with the death marches so many suffered during World War Two. The story of that day back in April can be read here.
This week’s return by Chelsea again afforded the chance for those present to see with their own eyes locations where human history reached its lowest point and the trail of destruction of life left behind.
It is estimated 1.2 million died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the vast majority of them Jewish people. This visit was organised in conjunction with the Holocaust Educational Trust, which aims to raise awareness of the Holocaust and its relevance today, and arranged the guided tours for the fans and staff around the two camps. Previously, the Trust has organised talks for players and fans from Holocaust survivors.
Individual stories about and testimonies from those who suffered played an important part in this week’s visit too. At Birkenau, the second site visited and the primary extermination camp, there was even football history involved, with a number of prominent players of the time among the victims.
Eddy Hamel, who was Ajax’s first Jewish player, was an American citizen who lived in the Netherlands but did not have a passport so was rounded up by the Nazis when his US citizenship should have protected him from deportation. At the camp he shared a bunk with someone he had met previously, Leon Greenman, a British citizen from a Dutch Jewish family who should also have been protected but documents proving he, his wife and child were British turned up too late. Eddy and Leon’s wives and children were murdered on arrival. The two men were selected to work but Eddy was sent to the gas chambers after three months in Birkenau after he fell ill.
There was even for a brief period a football pitch at Birkenau. However, sport as recreation was primarily for the amusement of the guards and a few privileged ‘Aryan’ prisoners, and certainly not for Jewish prisoners who, like Eddy Hamel, continued to be murdered throughout this time.
This week’s visit by Chelsea concluded with a powerful memorial ceremony adjacent to the remains of those same gas chambers, conducted by Rabbi Barry Marcus MBE from the Central Synagogue London.
Afterwards, fans present spoke about the day.
‘It has been affecting, enlightening and sometimes depressing,’ said Peter Trenter from the Chelsea Supporters Group. ‘Out of all of it, the thing to remember is the people, not the places.
‘I think this visit is a great idea and having done it today, I think it should be done on a more regular basis. Long may this sort of thing continue. What Mr. Abramovich has done by setting this up and getting it in motion, we have to keep this going and get more people to understand what actually happened if we are serious about tackling antisemitism and everything that goes along with it. If more fans get the chance to come here, I would recommend it, 100 per cent.’
Liz Nurse, also from the CSG, was pleased to see young Chelsea fans present as well as older support and that was a sentiment echoed by Neil Beard from cfcuk:
‘My children have come as well and it is important for them as young people to experience it and it is something you can’t pick up from just reading and seeing films,' he said. 'To be here in person and understand the scale of it is amazing. The exhibitions were very direct and the messages that come across are very strong. The speech by the Rabbi at the end was fantastic, covering difference and intolerance and it hasn’t gone away, as he rightly said. It is still an issue for today and it is good to see the club doing this. One hundred and fifty people came and we all go back as advocates to pass on the messages.
‘I would highly recommend this visit to anybody of any age. It reinforces the views I had before but for anyone who doesn’t know about it, it is very well explained.’
Karen Pollock MBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said:
‘We are delighted to be working with Chelsea Football Club to Say No To Antisemitism. Whether it is in the football stands or on the streets - antisemitism should never be tolerated.
‘To stamp it out, we must educate – and there is no better way to educate than seeing first-hand the site where men, women and children were murdered, simply for being Jewish. I have no doubt that for the Chelsea staff, fans and stewards, this visit to the notorious former Nazi concentration and death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, is a moving and memorable experience – seeing the pile of shoes, the human hair, the gas chambers, leaves an indelible mark. Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau shows where hatred can ultimately lead.
‘The Holocaust was the organised murder of six million Jews from across Europe; communities wiped out, families torn apart. We must never forget it and this crucial initiative led by Chelsea Football Club is a great example of how we can educate about the past to create a better future.’
Click to read more about Chelsea’s Say No To Antisemitism campaign