Theresienstadt soccer news

The Nazis’ model propaganda camp fostered not only creativity, music and the arts, but also the top European ball sport.

Old football photo (photo credit: Courtesy)
Old football photo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Theresienstadt concentration camp is generally noted for the unique cultural life that took place there. In addition to the forced labor and the inhuman conditions to which the inmates were subjected, prior to being shipped eastwards to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, all sorts of musical and other artistic activities were held at the camp on a regular basis. Top-notch classical musicians such as pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, now at 109 the oldest living Holocaust survivor, and pianist-composer-conductor Rafael Schachter gave a large number of recitals and concerts, and the children’s opera Brundibar, created at the camp, later became an acclaimed work.
While the existence of the musical events are common knowledge, far fewer people are aware of the fact that between 1942 and 1944 there was a soccer league at Theresienstadt, with seven-a-side games played on a pitch in an inner quadrangle of the Dresden barracks. The latter is the subject of a documentary called Liga Terezin, made by Mike Schwartz and Avi Kaner, which is due to be screened on Holocaust Day on Channel 2.
The film is based on some incredible footage of one of the soccer matches played at Theresienstadt, taken by the Nazis as part of their propaganda effort to cover their criminal tracks. The Nazi film is something of an open secret and is actually freely available to the general public, at Beit Theresienstadt (a.k.a. Theresienstadt Martyrs Remembrance Association) on Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud. Schwartz, who also works for CNN, came across it by chance while he was on a very different assignment.
“We were doing a story on Monopoly for CNN,” he explains. “CNN was doing a worldwide story on Monopoly and I found out that they had Monopoly in the ghetto [Theresienstadt]. They made game sets up in the ghetto and played it there, with the real places in the ghetto marked on the board. The story took us to Beit Theresienstadt, and part of the exhibit there was [the film of] this football match, with still photographs of footballers around it.”
The discovery took Schwartz by surprise.
“We started talking to Oded Breda, the director of Beit Theresienstadt, about it and we were just amazed by what we’d seen in the film. We never knew about football at Theresienstadt and, when we left, we said ‘we have to make a documentary about this.’ The opera and the orchestras [at Theresienstadt] are better known. Not that many people know about the football league.”
Schwartz also discovered that there was some added familial value to featuring the soccer footage in the Beit Theresienstadt display. One of the players in the film was Breda’s father’s brother, at the time a strapping 20-year-old. Four or so weeks after the footage was shot, the uncle was deported to Auschwitz and died of typhoid shortly after that.
While the Nazis also made films of the classical and jazz concerts at Theresienstadt, and Brundibar, for the purpose of pulling the wool over the eyes of the world, and the soccer match footage was created for the same purpose, the league actually operated for two whole years.
IT WAS the Nazi film that brought Breda to his current job. “I knew about the football at Theresienstadt, because my father had told me about it,” recalls Breda. “A family picture, including my uncle, somehow got to us around 40 years ago, but I was never convinced that my uncle was in the film. The photo was taken when he was 15 and he was around 20 when the Nazi film was made, so the connection wasn’t clear at all, because of the age difference between Pavel in the family photo and in the film.”
In an effort to ascertain the accuracy of the matchup between the photograph and the soccer film footage, Breda called Peter Erben, now in his 90s, who was one of the few filmed footballers to survive Theresienstadt.
Erben was straight and to the point.
“He told me: ‘I wrote a book, read it, goodbye,’” says Breda. “I read the book, which Peter wrote about 20 years or so ago, and there was my uncle Pavel’s name, in black and white.”
Breda had worked in the hi-tech industry for many years and was looking for something else to do. Meanwhile, his imagination moved into overdrive and he went to Theresienstadt with his Holocaust survivor father and his son.
“While I was there I had this mad idea of arranging a sort of reconstruction of the soccer match in the Nazi film, but I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work out. The barracks compound where the matches were played was unsafe and, anyway, it would have cost a fortune to get the project off the ground,” explains Breda. “I am a football fan but I could see that idea wasn’t going to happen.”
Back in Israel Breda took himself over to Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud where he met photographer and museum exhibition curator Guy Raz, who had himself been to Theresienstadt and taken photographs there, and was planning to put on an exhibition. While Breda and Raz chatted, Breda was approached by the then-outgoing director of the museum who, without too much ceremony, suggested to Breda that he take over her position. Breda has served as director of Beit Theresienstadt since 2009.
Breda says that, while the football film footage has been out there for quite a while, he is aware that Theresienstadt is normally associated with the unique musical life which was maintained there, rather than the sporting activities. He adds that the concentration camp catered for a special sector of the Jewish population of Europe. “Theresienstadt is a slightly different Holocaust story, even though there was a lot of death at the camp, and most of the inmates – around 80 percent – did not survive the Holocaust.
It was different, primarily because of the people who were incarcerated there, Central European Jewry and so-called privileged German Jews who had served in the German army in World War I.” This, he says, has led to all sorts of inaccuracies surrounding Theresienstadt. “There are all sorts of categorizations of Theresienstadt which we strongly oppose. Some people call it ‘the ghetto of the privileged,’ others refer to it as ‘the model ghetto’ and some call it ‘the artists’ ghetto.’ All that is a misconception, because Theresienstadt was set up for one purpose only, to serve as a sort of transit camp for Jews before they were sent on elsewhere, sent on to the Final Solution. By the way, many people call Theresienstadt a ghetto, the Germans called it that, but it was a concentration camp which served all sorts of goals.”
The latter, of course, included using the camp for propaganda purposes, to dupe the world into believing that the Germans treated the Jews well.
“There was a visit by the Red Cross in June 1944, when the Germans already knew the war was lost, and they tried to promulgate the idea that they were not killing Jews. By this time, around 60-70 percent of European Jewry was no longer alive.”
The Germans backed up their propaganda efforts with a film of the socalled good life the Jews enjoyed at Theresienstadt, with shots of the inmates enjoying musical soirees, chatting happily and relaxing while taking part in knitting and other “everyday” activities, as well as the soccer match, which they made a couple of months after the Red Cross visit.
LIGA TEREZIN portrays a lot more than some of the sporting activities that went on in Theresienstadt and also examines the pressing issue of racism among contemporary soccer fans. “We wanted to look into the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the game today, and especially in Europe,” says Schwartz, adding that there is a message to be had here. “We also had the understanding that there is a way of educating people to appreciate the concept better.”
The documentary incorporates clips from a British film made to counter racism among soccer fans in the United Kingdom, as well as an interview with then-chairman of the Ajax Amsterdam soccer club Uri Coronel, who happens to be Jewish. Ajax is one of Europe’s leading clubs and, over the years, took on a Jewish identity even though few of its supporters over its 100-year history to date have been Jews. The Israeli flag is on sale outside the ground, alongside the official team flag and scarf, and Ajax fans often call themselves “super Jews.” That also elicits anti-Semitic chants from supporters of rival teams.
Schwartz says that, for him, one of the surprises he encountered while making the documentary, and a highly salient topic that requires scrutiny, is how we can become inured to some of the dangers of racism over time.
“Uri Coronel says it is amazing what you can get used to,” notes Schwartz.
“He says that 40 years ago he would have been shocked by some of things he hears in the Ajax stadium. I think that’s an important message to get across.” ■