Chris WeirComment


Chris WeirComment

In 2012, Los Graduados was the biggest telenovela in Argentina. The show focused on two families who are brought together by fate, circumstance, and an unfortunate love triangle.

The Falsinis are well-to-do, snazzily dressed, and streetwise. The Goddzers, meanwhile, are middle-class shop owners whose accents and demeanour mark them out as unmistakably Jewish. If it wasn’t already obvious, there is one further trait that makes their ethnicity clear.  Elías Goddzer, the head of the family, is a lifelong fan of Club Atlético Atlanta.

In the 19th century, Argentina was open for business. Despite having a landmass comparable to Western Europe, the country was severely under-populated, and the government sought skilled labour from abroad to augment a paltry workforce.

Thousands of free ship tickets were distributed in Europe with the promise of a better life in the Pampas. The initiative was a great success, but rather than the swathe of educated and lighter-skinned workers the Government hoped for, a wave of Southern and Eastern Europeans took the offer. With the dénouement of the First World War, a considerable Jewish population decided to follow the Spanish and Italian exodus, leaving behind the pogroms and discrimination of their homelands in search of a new beginning in the Southern Hemisphere.

Most of the migrants settled in Buenos Aires, an unassuming port city which had since exploded into a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. The new arrivals stepped off their steam ships and made their homes in the conventillos, specially erected tenement flats where space was cramped and hygiene was non-existent.    

As migration continued into the 20th century, many of the Jewish migrants settled in a barrio called Villa Crespo, opening small business or working in the local textile industry. The conspicuous Jewish presence eventually resulted in the area being given the moniker of ‘Villa Kreplaj’, after the savoury dumpling popular in Ashenkazi and Sephardic households. With its dance halls and cafés, Villa Crespo became one of the most vibrant barrios in the city, evolving into a hub of intellectualism and counter-culture.

As playwrights and authors debated literary theory over cups of maté, sport became a safe space where customs and cultures were exchanged. Football, in particular, offered a chance for migrants to ingratiate themselves with the locals and entwine themselves with the concept of Argentinidad. On the pitch at least, there was no such thing as the ‘other’, and social suspicions were placed aside in the pursuit of scoring in an opponent’s net. Naturally, the Jewish populace flocked toward a club that had made Villa Crespo its home.

On October 12th, 1904, a group of friends had met in the Constitución neighbourhood with the aim of establishing a football club. It would be the first ever meeting of Club Atlético Atlanta.

Stories differ about the origins of the club name, but the most likely explanation is that it was a reference to the USS Atlanta, an American warship that had been docked in the Buenos Aires harbour for a state visit. The origins of their famous blue and yellow stripes are similarly unclear.  Some believe they are a reference to the ubiquitous awnings of Buenos Aires shops, whilst others believe they are a homage to a Sweden flag that one of the club’s founders had noticed draped on a boat in the same harbour.    

Despite the enthusiasm of the club’s founders, however, Atlanta would suffer a turbulent beginning. Strapped of cash and without significant membership, they struggled to find a suitable home. Their continual hopping from ground to ground eventually earned them the name Los Bohemios (the ‘gypsies’), before they finally settled into Humboldt Street in the Villa Crespo district in 1922. They would stay there for good, evicting local side Chacarita Juniors in the 1940s to become the sole representatives of the barrio.

Atlanta was not only a football club, but a way for migrant Jewish families to meet and mingle. As the footballing structures evolved, the club reached out into the community, becoming famous for its extra-curricular events such as dances and parades, as well as putting on a number of shows and classes. The message was clear – Atlanta was home not just for the football-loving Jewish migrant, but for all Jews in Buenos Aires. Local Jewish businesses paid for the game to be broadcast on local radio, whilst Yiddish became the language du jour in the stands.

In the book Fútbol, Jews and the Making of Argentina, author Raanan Rein recounts the following anecdote from the 1950s:

A Jewish school teacher was struggling to maintain her students’ interest during Yiddish classes. The problem, she realised, was that “the children in her class wanted to talk about their Sunday experiences instead of studying. Many of those experiences related to the most recent game” played by Atlanta. The teacher allowed the discussions on one condition – all the experiences had to be recounted in Yiddish. Inevitably, the students’ linguistic skills flourished.

It would be wrong, however, to say that disdain for the Jewish population evaporated during the journey across the Atlantic. Bubbling suspicions eventually boiled over during the week of January 7th 1919, in what would eventually become known as the Semana Trágica. As anarchists and communists fought with the authorities, the newly-formed Argentinian Patriotic League marched on Villa Crespo, killing and injuring many of the barrio’s Jewish residents in front of their families.

As the Jewish connection with Atlanta solidified, the volume of anti-Semitic chants from the away supporters also intensified. After the Second World War, epithets about the Holocaust and genocide were commonplace, as supporters sought to tarnish the club with its association to the Jewish community. When the Israeli embassy and other community organisations were attacked in 1990, visiting supporters sang mockingly about the destruction in the stands.

On the whole, however, Jewish integration into Argentinian society proved a major success. U.S ambassador George Messersmith noted as much during a state visit in 1947, commenting that “there is not as much social discrimination against Jews here as there is right in New York or in most places at home”. Club Atlético Atlanta, whether directly or not, had helped smooth the transition immeasurably.

Despite its implicit connection with the Jewish community, however, the club itself remained relatively free of Jewish membership, and the number of Jewish players at the club remained relatively low for much of the 20th century. Osvaldo Piackin had become the club’s first Jewish director in 1922, but it wasn’t until the assumption of León Kolbowski as club president in 1959 that the club really attached itself to its Judaic roots.

Atlanta and Argentina were just emerging from the shadow of Perónism. Sport had been a key part of the President’s policy of justicialismo, with football in particular proving instrumental in mobilizing public support for the regime. The club’s owners had grown close to the government, even offering a lifetime membership to Eva Perón, and were swept along with the rest of the country when Evita perished from cervical cancer in 1952.

When Perón was overthrown in 1955, Atlanta’s new chairman sought to distance the club from the erstwhile president. León Kolbowski’s family had fled from their home in Baranowicz, Poland when he was fifteen, as anti-Jewish sentiment intensified throughout Europe. A lifelong member of the Communist party, he had established a number of mutual funds which, by the 1950s, had flourished into a financial behemoth with tentacles throughout the country. His attachment to the club was seen as a way to strengthen the Communist party’s reach in the community, but on a personal level, Kolbowski was keen to maintain his connection with his Jewish roots.

Every good president needs a good coach, and Kolbowski was blessed by the presence of Adolfo Mogilevsky. A former professional wrestler and kinesiologist who also happened to be Jewish, Mogilevsky brought the club its first major league triumph in the 1958/59 season, imposing a modern training regime and style of play that focused on spirited attacking football. In each of his three separate spells in charge, the club would finish no lower than 5th place in the league.  Off the pitch, meanwhile, Kolbowski continued to expand the club ruthlessly, completing the construction of a 34,000 seat stadium in July 1960.

By the time his presidency ended in 1969, however, Kolbowski was a busted flush, with pressures from the stadium debts and limited resources seeing him pushed out. But by the time he left the club, they had been converted into a genuine footballing and cultural force. Kolbowski, as Rein argues in his aforementioned book, “was the apogee of the social integration of Jewish immigrants in Argentine society”.

Despite a memorable campaign in 1973, the seventies would prove to be a disaster on the field.  Beyond football, however, Atlanta continued to flourish, though their healthy finances were perhaps due more to the ensuing fire-sale of the their best players rather than any commercial success.

With the club shorn of its talent, they were relegated from the first division in 1979. Two decades of stagnation eventually led to the club being declared bankrupt in 1991. To make matters worse, their stadium was closed in 2005 after being declared unsafe, only being re-opened four years later with a vastly reduced capacity.

Atlanta now find themselves entrenched in the Primera B Metropolitana, Argentina’s third footballing tier. Admirably, despite their struggles on the field, the club’s commitment to the community remains, with a whole host of classes on offer for things like yoga and Crossfit.

Today, the Jewish connection to Atlanta is more ceremonial than cerebral. Villa Crespo remains under threat from the scourge of gentrification, as the cortado brigade decamp from nearby Palermo to set up artisanal shops and exclusive boutiques. Jewish fans of the club are now attached more by familial tradition than any burning sense of identity, but most are conscious of the club’s history and its crucial role as a rallying point and safe space for their parents and grandparents. It is a relationship that, more than a hundred years later, brings continued benefits to both the club and the Jewish community.

By Christopher Weir.

Header image: Rogério Tomaz Jr.