A reckoning with the past and present: Auschwitz 2017

tracksI’m feeling physically drained but mentally uplifted and energised having just returned today from the 2017 Unite Against Fascism visit to Auschwitz/Krakow. It was an immensely powerful, life-affirming experience that provided a chastening reckoning with the past and a confrontation with racism and fascism in the present. Just a few days before our visit 60,000 ultra nationalist Poles, with neo-Nazi groups and their special visitors from abroad in the forefront, had marched and rallied in Warsaw.

We were based in Kraków, where, before the Holocaust, 26% of the city’s population were Jews, and where synagogues and other buildings in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz remain intact and a community is gradually and successfully renewing itself (the same is happening in more than a dozen other Polish cities).

We were a cross-generational, multicultural group of 48 anti-racists and trade unionists, from those in their teens to those in their mid-70s; from Caribbean, African, Asian, Scottish, Brazilian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian, and other backgrounds. Among the Jewish participants were children, grandchildren and relatives of both Holocaust victims and survivors.

The richness of the casual, friendly conversations across these backgrounds and affiliations, and in responses to the organised educational programme of talks, discussions and walks, is impossible to convey. Just to say that many hugs, tears but also moments of laughter were shared every day of the trip.

barracksOn the third day, we visited Auschwitz 1 camp – whose solid brick buildings have been turned into an excellent but horrifying museum – and then the much bigger expanse that was Birkenau, where gruesome ‘selections’ were made every time trainloads of deportees arrived. Most were selected for imminent death in the gas chambers located within this complex, while a minority were selected for work within the camp, and others temporarily housed in the indescribable conditions of the camp barracks before being transported to slave Labour camps in Poland and Germany.

This was my third visit – my second as one of the group ‘leaders’ – and each time I learn much that is new to me. This time I was able to gain new information and insights about the lives of those selected for slave labour, and reflect on their circumstances. Between the longstanding slavery of Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean which ended in the 19th century, and the story of contemporary slavery currently keeping around 30 million people globally in bondage (despite every country declaring it illegal), there is the slave-labour story principally but not exclusively of Jews during the Nazi period, which remains to be examined and told in more depth – with the potential to be linked more closely to both historical and contemporary examples in our understanding and campaigning today.

At every stage in the trip the past was living in the present as we talked of modern daybirkenau processes of stereotyping, labeling, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation of various communities – and also resistance then and now.  We recognised some of the key continuities too, such as with antisemitism. It was refreshing to hear participants from a range of ethnic/cultural backgrounds perceive and condemn the current growth in antisemitic conspiracy and Holocaust denial propaganda and say how dangerous it is.  It was even more refreshing to see that those activists calling it out felt no need to qualify their condemnation of antisemitism with statements about the separate issue of Israel/Palestine.

IMG_0243Equally welcome was the recognition of the role of culture in resistance to the Nazis in the 1940s. Many participants remarked how moved they were, in Auschwitz Birkenau, when we stopped by a stone plaque in Yiddish that was part of a monument and members of the Jewish Socialists’ Group sang “Zog nisht keynmol” – the Yiddish hymn of the partisan resistance fighters – whose first and last verse ends with the defiant words of struggle: “Mir zaynen do” – “We are here”.

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Farewell Slaven – you were not to blame

I feel sorry for Slaven Bilic, sacked as West Ham’s manager today, after two and a half years at the helm of the team. He is probably feeling relieved and liberated.

In his first full year managing the club in 2015-16, West Ham finished 7th playing exciting football, and scaring the elite. They won away from home convincingly at Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool – in the latter case, where they hadn’t won away for more than 50 years. In the final home match that season, they beat Manchester United 3-2 in one of the most dramatic games played at Upton Park since I first went there in 1966.

We, the fans, were ecstatic at the victory, but, when we should have been feeling that “the only way is up”, we knew, and Bilic must have known too, that a terrible downward spiral was likely to follow because of a cynical decision that had been taken long before he took over.

Bilic was an unusual Premier League manager, with a law degree, fluent in several languages and happy to describe himself politically as a socialist and an anti-racist. I have haven’t heard any comments from him since the sacking but I would so love it if he has the courage to say what he must really be feeling. My fantasy Bilic speech is this:

bilic-playing“It was a dream come true to return to Upton park to manage a club I once played for, to hear the roar of the East London crowd again, breathing down the neck of the players, willing them to put in maximum effort, a roar that intimidated away teams. It was a beautiful experience once more to walk in Green Street and Barking Road among ordinary West Ham fans and feel part of the bigger West Ham family again, but the moment that those with more money than sense, who are making even more money from the club with rip-off seat prices and tacky commercialism, decided to throw away that tradition, to spit in the faces of the fans, and say, ‘we don’t care anything for you, we have just seen a great financial opportunity. We are moving to Stratford to the Olympic Stadium,’ the club was on a downward spiral.

It is not a football stadium. It has no atmosphere. We do not play at Home any more, there are just two away teams on the pitch. When the teams walk out a few minutes before kick-off nobody notices. The players look uncomfortable, nervous, unmotivated and slow. The clubs owners have presided over a disaster, a catastrophe, entirely of their own making. I regret that I ever felt obliged to talk up the opportunities of the new stadium, and how we could supposedly take the club on to a new level. It was bullshit. I never believed a word of it. I hoped I could mitigate it and over time and we would improve, but now the only way is down. I genuinely fear for whoever takes over. This club had been murdered. I am so sorry for the true fans.”

Of course, this whole scenario it is of a piece with a club where two of the three owners made their money in the sex and pornography business while the third grew up in a wealthy family after her dad did very well producing top-shelf magazines. That’s modern football. Bilic probably won’t find a club to manage run by left-wing intellectuals, but he might find one that still cares to some extent about its fans and community.

Myself and four friends were regulars at Upton Park. When the club moved to Stratfordbilic-managerone of our consortium gave up, on principle. Then there were four. I had grave reservations but tried it for a year and hated it (with the one exception of the evening we beat Spurs). At the end of last season I gave up my ticket as well. Then there were three. I am sure this pattern is repeated among season ticket holders around the ground. In a way I hope we go down and get used to being a small club again. Maybe, some years down the line we will rebuild a community club that cares about its real fans, and will play in a proper football stadium again. I might even come back. Until then I am happier living on my beautiful memories seeing our team playing the “West Ham Way” and hearing the  Upton Park roar, beating some of the big clubs, losing to some of the smaller ones but always keeping that two-way dialogue between the players  and fans and sharing the love, the heartbreak and the successes.

Farewell Slaven. You tried your best. Good luck!