Thousandsofpeoplearoundtheworldwillmarktodaythe70thanniversaryoftheliberationoftheAuschwitzconcentrationandextermination campbySoviettroopson27January1945. InGermany,football willjointheremembranceofthevictimsoftheHolocaust.
Football and the Holocaust
In Nazi Germany, sport was an important tool of the regime’s national propaganda machine.
If, on one hand, the lives of Jews were restricted by numerous laws, including on their participation in sport, on the other hand, the popularity and large-scale appeal of sport, such as football, made it an effective political instrument for the Nazis.
In the Theresienstadt concentration camp, also referred to as Theresienstadt Ghetto, a football league, played among prisoners, was often used by the Nazis to testify the camp’s alleged humane conditions, in response to international suspicion of mass exterminations. It was used a transit camp for Jews en route to extermination camps.
During the period, the 1933 ‘Aryans only’ law banned Jewish, Roma and Sinti athletes from practicing sports in any association or club.
During the Holocaust, countless athletes were persecuted, among these were several names of the football family, including the Hungarian coach Ernö Egri Erbstein, the Austrian player Matthias Sindelar, who rebelled against the Third Reich, and the Bayern Munich president Kurt Landauer.
But even then, football was a catalyst for chance. To World War II Welsh veteran Ron Jones, a prisoner of war (PoW) in Auschwitz, football helped save his life.
‘Football saved our lives’
In the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Jones was a prisoner until April 1945, PoWs were allowed to play football on Sundays.
“I think the Germans thought that letting us play football was a quick and easy way of keeping us quiet,” he told the BBC.
The matches would take place next to Auschwitz II, Birkenau, where killing was on an altogether more industrial scale.
“We could only play in the summer, because everything was covered in snow through the winter. But when it was hot, this awful stench would waft across from the crematoriums.
“Football kept us sane, it was a bit of normality, but it sounds wrong somehow to say I’ve got fond memories of playing football, considering what was going on just over the fence.”
As well as keeping up spirits, the Newport War veteran also believes football played a major role in his survival.
“You could say the football we’d played saved our lives. The football lads were fitter, yes, but more than that, they belonged to a group which kept each other going on the march.”
„Nie wieder!“ (‘Never Again’)
Seventy years on extreme nationalist groups and far-right mindsets continue to use football as a platform to promote anti-Semitic hatred.
In May 2014, Twitter users in Spain posted 17,500 anti-Semitic messages after Israeli basketball team Maccabi Tel Aviv beat Real Madrid to win the Euroleague Championship.
To counter this and, at the same time, honour the Holocaust victims, in 2004 a German fans initiative created the „Nie wieder“ (in English ‘Never Again’) campaign. Under the umbrella of the campaign, every year on 27 January, football-related activities mark the liberation of Auschwitz and raise awareness of anti-Semitism and discrimination.
In 2015, initiatives will include the screening of films, such as the League Terezin documentary in Stuttgart, Leipzig, Bremen, Dortmund, Munich and Berlin; discussions, lectures and debates on football and anti-Semitism; music concerts; exhibitions and educational visits to Synagogues.
To mark the day, Deutschlandradio culture podcast exploring the issues around anti-Semitism in German football was also produced and will be available online for the next sixth months.
Ahead of the day, Bayern Munich launched an exhibition celebrating the contributes of Jewish people to football, including some of the club’s greatest of that period.