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An emotional day for England stars; Three Lions in Auschwitz visit.

WERE it not for the fans eager to get a picture, the England players who visited Auschwitz yesterday could have been any group of tourists coming to look and learn.

They had the same reactions.

Respectful silence turning to bewilderment and eventually utter incomprehension.

Just a group of lads being told about the worst mass murder mankind has ever known.

It was a special group because Wayne Rooney was among them, so too Joe Hart, Theo Walcott, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Andy Carroll and Jack Butland.

They are extremely successful in their day jobs and enjoy riches beyond belief.

Yesterday, for four-and-a-half hours, that was irrelevant.

The England players heard first-hand accounts of what went on here last week, when survivors Zigi Shipper and Ben Helfgott spoke at the Grove Hotel in Watford, offering their own moving testimony on this shocking scar on humanity. Yesterday, though, they got to see for themselves, as Baines put it: "To see it for real."

Some had been before. Of the four journalists present, three were previous visitors. Former Chelsea manager Avram Grant was also there, offering his own observations, having already made such a moving radio documentary of the place where so many members of his family perished.

But as Grant said, it doesn't matter how many times you walk under the sign which reads 'Arbeit Macht Frei', it never makes it easier to understand what horrific crimes were committed. The systematic abuse of an entire race, a dehumanisation on scale so vast it is beyond belief.

"It doesn't get any easier," said the former Chelsea manager. "In fact, the worst time I came was the second time. You look round and wonder.

"You see all the shoes and the glasses and wonder how could people just do this. How can man do this to man. It is utterly beyond comprehension."

There is so much to take in.

Walking into what was once a gas chamber, former Newcastle striker Carroll pointed skywards at the hole in the roof, through which the deadly Zyklon-B gas pellets were poured. Walcott acknowledged with a sad shake of the head, having already been told that of the vast numbers that arrived at the site, some after journeys wedged in cattle trucks that lasted for up to nine days, 80% were dead within two hours.

Hart wondered if it was possible to make a run for it.

It was generally not considered, England's goalkeeper was told, because those who arrived did not realise what was about to happen.

The deception was so incredible it even extended to hanging clothes on a peg so they would be easier to find once the 'shower' was finished.

"It is unreal," said Walcott. "I learned some of this stuff at school but I could never imagine anything on this scale."

Scale, systematic, dehuman. Those words were used a lot.

The statistics are chilling. Of Jews alone, 1.1million were killed, Soviet POWs, gypsies and Poles were also massacred - just not on the same scale.

A picture shows an SS commander pointing an elderly gentleman to his death, a 400-yard march to a 20-minute execution - 10 minutes would have done it but they wanted to be sure noone survived.

If anything, the alternative was even worse. Those who were chosen to work had to take out gold fillings of those who had died, or remove their clothes, or burn them. Average life expectancy? Nine months tops. If you were chosen to dig ditches it came down to three. Tough job on a couple of slices of bread a day.

"It must have been like a slow torture," said Phil Jagielka, the Everton and England defender who is of Polish descent.

There are so many personal stories. From the big ones of Zigi and Ben, to that of FA chairman David Bernstein, who donned a skull cap to light a candle to those who died, as did Roy Hodgson.

Jewish himself, Bernstein revealed his grandfather had been born in Budapest but the family emigrated to the United States a hundred years ago.

Had he remained, he could well have been among those rounded up on Hungary's streets under the orders of Heinrich Himmler in 1944 as the Final Solution brought up to seven trainloads a day from Hungary to Birkenau.

Those seven lads soaked it all up, eager for knowledge, a generation after the generation whose parents knew how real the Nazi threat was.

As their bus swung back in front of the Stary Hotel in Krakow, the fans were there to shout and sing, Poland were playing Greece in the opening match of Euro 2012 and they once again became superstar footballers.

But like anyone else who walks under that sign, life will never be entirely the same again. They will never forget.

That would be impossible.

JAMES OFF HIS FEET JAMES Milner sat out England's visit to Auschwitz and the Oskar Schindler factory after suffering blisters.

The Football Association confirmed the Manchester City midfielder was advised to stay off his feet but were confident he would train today.

Apart from Jermain Defoe, who has returned home following the death of his father, Milner was the only member of the England squad not to visit either Auschwitz or Schindler's factory.

The 26-year-old (right) is also the only member of the squad to have played every minute of manager Roy Hodgson's first two games in charge and heavily tipped to start Monday's Group D opener against France.

Milner was one of nine players not to take part in full training yesterday, eight of whom are expected to play on Monday. The FA were at pains to stress all the absences were planned after a tough session behind closed doors on Thursday.

CAPTION(S):

HUMBLING VISIT John Terry and Jordan Henderson at the Schindler factory. Right, England players - including Andy Carroll - visit Auschwitz
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jun 9, 2012
Words:978
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