As part of their R’n’R, England’s footballers have been out and about in Poland, learning about the very bad places that parts of that country became during the Nazi occupation. Some visited the factory that inspired Schindler’s List, while others made the journey to Auschwitz. Here they were accompanied by former Chelsea and Israel manager Avram Grant, who lost many family members in the Holocaust.
Grant was in no doubt as to the value of their visit: “It’s very important you came here. It’s so good that you came here. It’s important to talk about this and spreads the message of what happened here”. And the effect on the players was sobering and chastening: there was no joshing, no humour, just the attempt to take in the full horror of what went on there.
But not everyone approved of the visit and its attendant publicity: Melanie “not just Barking but halfway to Upminster” Phillips registered a dissenting view in a piece titled “The unique evil of Auschwitz and a deeply distasteful PR stunt”. Even – a particularly delicious irony this – the BBC is cited approvingly as Mad Mel lays into the FA and Uefa for not doing more to combat prejudice.
Behold the voice of calm moderation
She concludes, after pulling the odd whopper – “Conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media or U.S. presidents are now commonplace in British public life” – that the Holocaust “has been effectively sentimentalised”, which is a strange idea, given the preservation of sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with all the grim detail of the killings, which took place on an industrial scale.
Mel’s rant seemed at first bizarre, but I held off discussing it until someone who was part of the visit gave their perspective. This has now come from Stephen Pollard of the Jewish Chronicle (JC), who accompanied the team. He admits to being wary at the outset, but reports that within minutes of the players alighting from the coach, “it was obvious that such fears were misplaced”.
He continues: “Rooney and the others paced out the path taken by the victims. As footballers they think in spaces; it was as if they needed to see the geography itself, fully to grasp the implications of the picture ... as Rooney put it afterwards ‘There was the guy who made all the decisions, whether they lived or died. He’s probably gone home after that, listened to music, and had dinner with his family as if nothing had happened. It’s crazy. It’s hard to understand’”.
Pollard concludes “Make no mistake, this was no mere PR stunt”, and notes that the impact of work by the Holocaust Memorial Trust and the FA “will be immeasurably stronger with the participation of the England team”. If only Melanie Phillips had given him a call before launching her tirade.
Sometimes the impression is given that she rants just for the sake of it.