The Dark Heart of Europe

The Euros have started, to keep us all occupied, and surprisingly the games have been entertaining. My pre-tournament prediction of the winner, Germany, are looking like likely winners already, beating Holland though enjoying less possession.

This year the tournament has gone to Poland and Ukraine. It is only to be expected that any country hosting a major tournament will comes under the spotlight, and Euro 2012 is no exception. Accusations of endemic racism have been levelled against both those countries, and although probably exaggerated, there is likely a kernel of truth in these accusations. I confess that I have been surprised by the enmity of many of the Polish immigrants – most of them born since 1980 – towards Jews. This is all the more surprising since most of the worst excesses of the Holocaust took place within Poland  – Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Birkenau were all within current Polish Borders. As a European on the Western fringe of the continent, the idea of central Europe usually involves France and Germany, but for a Nazi, concerned with lebensraum, Poland is as central to Europe as it gets.

If any inanimate object such as a building can be said to possess evil characteristics then surely the prime candidate must be the entrance to Birkenau, although the “arbeit macht frei” gate at Auschwitz comes close. On one side of the entrance is innocence, on the other almost certain death. Auschwitz – Birkenau has, quite rightly, been assigned as testimony to man’s inhumanity to man.

With the European Football tournament being held in Poland and Ukraine this year, and several teams being based in the nearby, beautiful, city of Krakow, Auschwitz – Birkenau has recently been in the news. Some of the England squad visited before the tournament started, and the Dutch and Italian teams did likewise.

Striker Wayne Rooney added: “It’s good to get that history of what happened. It puts football into perspective.”

Rooney was joined at Auschwitz – where an estimated 1.1 to 1.5 million people died during World War II – by England team-mates Joe Hart, Phil Jagielka, Theo Walcott, Jack Butland, Andy Carroll and Leighton Baines.

After walking through the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, Rooney described his feelings of near disbelief.

“It’s hard to understand,” Rooney said. “I am a parent and it was tough to see what happened there.

Football is certainly put into perspective. But others have wondered whether this is just all a publicity stunt, which raises the question, as Melanie Philips points out, of whether Auschwitz has become part of a media circus. There might be some truth in this, as awareness is raised not just of the inhumanity of  Nazism but of the teams involved in Euro 2012.

But personally I feel that the greater the exposure of the general population to places like Auschwitz, the better. I have visited the site as well – I joke that I am the only person to take his wife there for a birthday treat, and this is true, but only because an airline strike postponed our visit for a couple of days.

It is being said that “genocide tourism” is becoming fashionable, with the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia and even Rwanda being put on the map as tourist destinations, and therefore this is somehow devaluing their importance. I cannot but disagree. Nothing, not even publicity for other reasons, should prevent us from recognising the effects of humanity dividing itself rather than uniting itself. Auschwitz – Birkenau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. While it exists, there is hope that it never will again.

I stood on the spot where a million people were murdered. Many others have stood on that same spot and rightfully said that this must never happen again, although it has, in Cambodia and Rwanda to take just two examples. The reminder is never a bad thing. However, I confess that the scale of it was a difficult thing to take in. The most moving part about the whole Auschwitz exhibition was, for me, in the entrance to the museum at the original camp. This was simply a collection of photographs of local Polish people from the time, most of them Catholics, I presume, that took it upon themselves to help the prisoners at great risk. Many of these people lost their lives and their future when they didn’t have to do what they did. In my previous post I wrote  about heroes, and possibly wrote out of turn, because no-one could be more heroic. This, more than anything else, managed to put a human perspective on something that we think of as inhuman.


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