An excursion to Auschwitz – somehow the two words don’t go together. A visit to the largest Nazi death camp can hardly be seen as a fun trip or an outing for pleasure. So, why did the Dutch national football squad choose to go to the camp where more than a million people, mainly Jews, were killed?
“It was the manager’s decision,” right-back Gregory van der Wiel sighed before the trip. He expected a “heavy experience.” The tour guide confirms that a visit to Auschwitz can be overwhelming - “People frequently faint here” – and often leaves a lasting impression.
So, it was Holland coach Bert van Marwijk’s idea. He’s known to attach great importance to widening one’s experience, to broadening one’s horizons. In his view, there’s more to life than football, even for professional players.
During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Van Marwijk took his squad on a boat to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other prominent black political prisoners were held for many years. The Holland boss regretted that there wasn’t time last june to visit a favela in Rio during Holland’s Latin America trip, so he went back a few months later to see what life was like in the sprawling city’s poorest settlements.
And now Auschwitz. The squad went quietly on Wednesday morning, for about an hour, without much ado, incognito. Dark jackets and jeans. They were shielded from the press, who’d been instructed not to venture too close to the players. After all, this was a private matter, an emotional confrontation with the darkest page in human history. Auschwitz - a pars pro toto for the Holocaust, a death factory where up to 20,000 people were murdered on a single day. And with them, humanity as a whole, to quote a German philosopher.
“This is something we should never forget,” defender John Heitinga tweeted from Auschwitz-Birkenau. His fellow centre-back, Ron Vlaar, posted a picture on Twitter: “This is the death gate through which the trains arrived - beyond comprehension really.” Right-back Khalid Boulahrouz was deeply touched too: “There are no words to describe Auschwitz.”
For Van Marwijk and his son-in-law, Holland skipper Mark van Bommel, there was only one word to capture what they felt: “moving”. No more, no less. They wouldn’t or couldn’t elaborate on their personal emotions. Not in public anyway, and certainly not in front of a massive number of TV cameras and journalists.
Moving. Not the right word either. But, of course, this is “a place where no words can tell the truth about what happened... But they have to. This was hell on earth," former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski once said.
So, what does a glimpse of hell do to football stars preparing for a major tournament? Will it affect their ability to focus or even their performance at Euro 2012?
“It’s unlikely that the Auschwitz visit will throw them off balance,” says sports psychologist Harry Kraan.
“After all, we’re dealing with top-class players who have a special mentality. But it would be sensible to talk about the visit afterwards - just to come to terms with it.”
Winger Dirk Kuyt concurs:
“It’s always good to put things into perspective. Look, the entire nation is in the throes of the Euros, the whole country is orange now. But sometimes it’s also worthwhile to reflect on things that didn’t go so well in world history. And I think we should learn from that, all of us. We should definitely never forget. Because sometimes the world is like that and then you should seize those moments to reflect so that hopefully it will never happen again.”