May 1922. The Polish national football team has just narrowly defeated Sweden 1-2 in Stockholm. It is their first ever victory, and on the score-sheet is defender Józef Klotz; his converted penalty their first ever goal. In the same winning side is Leon Sperling, a left winger with Cracovia renowned for his skilful dribbling and fast feet. They are both instrumental in one of Poland’s proudest and most important sporting achievements.
Two years later, the men are left out of Poland’s clash with Hungary: a repeat of their country’s first ever international. Lining up for the opposition, however, is József Braun, a right winger who made a career abroad before later going into management. It is a path followed by Hungarian contemporary Árpád Weisz, international footballer and three-times Scudetto winner, the latter achieved as manager of Italian giants Inter (once) and Bologna (twice) respectively. Hungary run out comfortable winners.
But these men have something else in common besides their overlapping careers and discernible talent – something tragic beyond words.
In 1941, Józef Klotz was murdered. That same year, his teammate Leon Sperling was shot dead in a Lwów Ghetto. In 1943, József Braun perished in a forced labour camp. And one year before the war’s end, fellow Hungarian Árpád Weisz was killed alongside his family in Auschwitz. All four were Jewish professional footballers, and all four were rounded up and murdered in cold blood by the Nazis.
Other internationals faced the same horrific fate as that which was delivered unto Klotz and Sperling, Braun and Weisz. One such victim was Julius Hirsch, the first ever Jewish player to represent Die Nationalmannschaft. A dynamic midfielder known for his powerful left foot, Juller (as he was known to fans) was Karlsruher FV through and through, supporting them as a boy and donning their colours either side of the First World War. (Incidentally, he lined up alongside fellow Karlsruher Jew and army veteran Gottfried Fuchs, best known for scoring ten goals in a single game against Russia in the 1912 Olympics. He fled to Canada to avoid the Holocaust.)
During the war, Hirsch was awarded an Iron Cross for his service and was considered a loyal patriot – something that couldn’t prevent the anti-Semitic persecution aimed towards him and his family. The man who had once scored four goals in one game for his country – against the Netherlands no less – was in 1933 forced to turn his back on football altogether. Ten years later, Julius Hirsch was deported to Auschwitz. Like Inter legend Weisz, he would never leave.
Eddy Hamel was another interned at Auschwitz-Birkenau – one more victim of perhaps humanity’s most heinous crime. A New Yorker by birth, he moved to the Netherlands as a youngster, signing for Dutch giants AFC Ajax – his only club – in 1922. He was the first Jewish player to play for the club: a club whose fans have since embraced Jewish culture and symbolism, often known to chant ‘Joden!’ or to display the Star of David at matches. Hamel starred as a member of the 1920's Ajax frontline, with Wim Anderiesen, a teammate who represented the Netherlands at two World Cups, naming him as one of the best players he’d played with at the club. The fans, it seems, were even more taken with the man they called Belhamel.
After a successful playing career, Hamel turned his hand to management in Holland, but tragedy struck when the Nazis occupied the country. After surviving in Auschwitz for a few months, a heavily swollen abscess was found in Hamel’s mouth during a Nazi inspection. He was sent to the gas chambers. He died on 30 April 1943.
In accordance with the unforgiving nature of war (and particularly so brutal a war as this), non-Jewish footballers lost their lives, too. Antoni Łyko, a compatriot of Klotz and Sperling who was known as ‘the man without nerves’ for his composure in front of goal, was shot in the head at close range by an Auschwitz guard in 1941. The Wisła Kraków striker was not Jewish, but a supposed political opponent and resistance member.
The story of Petea Vâlcov is perhaps more straightforward, even if no less harrowing. Before the war the Romanian was considered the most gifted player in his country, forming a deadly attacking trio with brothers Colea and Voleoda for Venus București (then the most successful club in Romania). Things quickly changed. Petea died fighting for the Axis powers, falling victim to the Red Army in 1943. He was 33, Łyko was 34.
The loss of every aforementioned man, however, is not primarily a loss to football (thought it most certainly is that). No, the loss of these great men is above all a loss to humanity. It is a reminder that none are immune to the horrors of war; a reminder that suffering does not discriminate. But it is also a reminder that we should never forget. These are men for whom we can trace a story; men idolised by many in their day and fondly remembered by a significant number even now. For others, that is not the case. We must never forget.
And yet how easily we do, even in the case of these élite level footballers. For their stories are predominantly untold, their suffering largely forgotten. Rather, on the rare occasion we are inclined to think of the relationship between the Nazis and football, most of us would do well to get beyond Pelé’s bicycle kick in Escape to Victory.
For the slightly more knowledgeable fan, the 1942 ‘Death Match’ between Ukraine’s FC Start (a team comprised mostly, but not exclusively, of ex-Dynamo players) and a German Luftwaffe XI might ring a bell. Several of Start’s victorious players were arrested in the aftermath and, some say, murdered (although one young Jewish Dynamo ‘keeper was forbidden from playing altogether, instead massacred at Babi Yar along with tens of thousands of others). A chilling and desperate situation, certainly, but by no means the only footballing tragedy that came to pass during the war. That much, one would hope by now, is abundantly clear.
Fast forward to September 2005. A joint Israeli-Palestinian youth team have earlier faced Bayern Munich U-17s in a ‘Match for Peace’ exhibition. FCB have accordingly been awarded the Julius Hirsch prize: an annual award for whomever best demonstrates the values of “tolerance and mutual respect between peoples.” Winners are chosen partly by members of the Hirsch family, and must be shown to oppose racism and discrimination in all its forms. It is a welcome step.
Earlier this year, another hero is remembered. On Holocaust Memorial Day, Inter present a plaque in Milan in remembrance of Árpád Weisz. Coach Claudio Ranieri rightly praises the man’s revolutionary coaching methods. Captain Javier Zanetti speaks about the need to remember the man and the importance of carrying on his legacy. And the Inter statement ends with a simple but poignant message. It reads: “Together, in order never to forget.”
Klotz and Sperling. Braun and Weisz. Hirsch and Hamel. It is time to remember football’s forgotten holocaust victims.
You can read more from Kieran at Kick Over The Statues.