Warsaw’s Jews in the inter-war period played a diverse range of sports. Due to a combination of anti-Semitism and cultural differences most clubs in Warsaw were not ethnically mixed. The most popular of Warsaw’s Jewish sports was football with six purely Jewish football clubs taking part in matches organised by the Warsaw Provincial Football Association (WOZPN – Warszawski Okręgowy Związek Piłki Nożnej).
The most successful of these was the Warsaw branch of the Workers’ Association of Physical Education ‘Gwiazda-Stern’(Stowarszyszenie Robotnicze Wychowania Fizycznego “Gwiazda-Sztern” w Warszawie). Gwiazda, meaning star in Polish, twice won the WOZPN championship (the effective second tier) but failed to achieve promotion in two play-off attempts.
To understand how Jewish sports clubs came about we need to go back to the late 19th century. This was a time when nationalist movements were on the rise across Europe. These movements sought to define who should be a part of future national communities. Unfortunately nationalist leaders in the main did not see a place for Europe’s Jews within such communities. Jews reacted to rising anti-Semitic violence and discrimination in different ways. For progressive Jews there were three main options: emigrate to the ‘new world’, join Zionist organisations or fight for a more inclusive Europe.
Jews faced similar choices in the ever-expanding late-19th century sporting world. In response to discrimination they began to organise sporting associations where they could practice sport on their own terms. The first strictly Jewish sporting associations spread across Europe in the 1890s. A key moment in this development was the founding of the Jüdische Turnerschaft (Jewish Gymnastics’ Association) in Berlin in 1903. Soon afterwards this association morphed into Makkabi, a Zionist sporting body which aimed to organise Jewish sport around the continent. The goal was simple: physically educate the Jewish nation in preparation for an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Makkabi was remarkably successful. A mark of this success was the organisation of two Jewish Olympiads (‘Maccabiah games’) in Tel Aviv in 1932 and 1935.
In Polish lands Jewish sport quickly gained devotees. 1896 saw the establishment of the first Jewish Gymnastics’ Association in the then Austro-Hungarian town of Bielsko-Biała. Soon afterwards similar organisations spread to Lwów (now L’viv in Ukraine) and Kraków in 1901 and then onto parts of Polish-Prussia, including the city of Posen (now Poznań). In Russian Poland the repressive policies of Tsarist Russia precluded the creation of Jewish sporting associations. The first Jewish sporting club in Warsaw actually arose due to a bizarre set of events. After their successful Eastern campaign in 1915 German forces took Warsaw and set about administering the city. German authorities decided only to permit the resurrection of of pre-existing societies. Seeing an opportunity Warsaw’s Jewish community came up with a plan. They would pay for adverts in local papers informing Jewish sportsmen and women to return to training. Luckily this ploy was enough to dupe the Germans and Makkabi Warsaw was born. The Makkabi idea went on to be extremely successful in the newly independent Polish state. By 1938 there were 150 Makkabi sports clubs in Poland with 200,000 members.
Jewish football in Europe also finds its roots in the late 19th century. MTK Budapest, one of Hungary’s most successful clubs, was partly founded by Jews in 1888 and was seen as a Jewish club. The most famous purely Jewish club however was Hakoah Vienna, founded by Austrian Zionists in 1909. Hakoah travelled round Europe in the 1920s and 1930s playing in front of adoring Jewish audiences. Hakoah were initially very successful; they finished 2nd in the Austrian league in 1922 and eventually won the championship in 1925. They famously became the 1st foreign team to win on British soil when they defeated a West Ham XI 5-1 in 1923. Hakoah were also an important staging post for Béla Guttmann, the coach who would later claim to have pioneered the 4-2-4 formation in Brazil.
Jewish football spread through Polish lands in the first decades of the 20th century. The first Jewish football clubs were Hasmonea Lwów and Makkabi Kraków (both est. in 1909) and Jutrzenka Kraków (est. 1910). Hasmonea were the most successful Jewish club in Polish football, appearing in the top division for two seasons in 1927 and 1928. Jutrzenka in 1927 were the only other Jewish club to play in the Polish I liga.
Makkabi Warszawa were Warsaw’s first Jewish club. They started out playing friendlies against fellow-Jewish teams during the First World War. In 1921 Makkabi were one of the five founding members of the WOZPN. Makkabi may have been Warsaw’s first Jewish football club but they were not its most successful. Their greatest achievement was finishing second in the WOZPN A Klasa (2nd tier) in 1929. They however found themselves relegated to the B Klasa (3rd tier) in 1933 where they remained until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Inter-war football in Warsaw was a diverse and conflictual beast. It was characterised by clashes between teams with different political positions. Warsaw’s (non-Jewish) clubs often were fierce rivals on and off the pitch. The primary left-wing club were the socialists of SKRA Warsaw – or Warsaw Worker-Academic Sporting Club (Sportowy Klub Robotniczo-Akademicki). On the other side of the barricades were AZS Warsaw – or Warsaw Academic Sporting Association (Akademicki Związek Sportowy Warszawa). AZS were the sporting club of Warsaw’s universities and were renowned for their nationalist tendencies.
Jewish football in Warsaw was also riven by divisions. The main divide was between Zionist clubs such as Makkabi and Socialist clubs such as Gwiazda. When Makkabi and Gwiazda faced each other, the games were often tense and eagerly-fought. Just like a good derby should be!
Gwiazda started life in 1923 and was closely associated with the left-wing of Poale Zion, a Jewish Marxist party which originally had its roots in Russia. By 1934 Gwiazda Warsaw had 800 members competing in a range of different disciplines. Gwiazda’s footballers were however the most successful branch of the club. In 1923 the side began in the C klasa (tier four) but by 1928 they were playing in the A Klasa.
1932 and all that
It is April 1932 and the start of the new football season is just around the corner. It is three years since the Wall Street Crash and six years since Józef Piłsudski’s coup d’état. Poland is in the midst of a deep recession. Industrial production has slumped and real wages have plummeted. Luckily there was sport to bring a smile to peoples’ faces.
Gwiazda’s pre-season preparations for the Warsaw A Klasa have not gone too well. In a friendly against I Liga side Polonia Warsaw Gwiazda were walloped 19-1. As the match-report in Przegląd Sportowy (PS) noted : "The match was played in snowy conditions. The Gwiazda goalkeeper was mostly at fault for the large loss. In any event Polonia played exceptionally well."
In late March PS devoted half a page to the new season. Of the eleven teams making up the A Klasa the favourites according to PS were AZS and Skra, the latter having been divisional champions in 1930 and 31. The newspaper was not positive about Gwiazda’s chances in the upcoming season. Indeed it saw them as relegation favourites along with Makkabi and three other sides. PS believed Gwiazda’s main strength was their attacking trio of the two Lerner brothers (referred to laconically as Lerner I and Lerner II) and Szulzingier. The omens were not good.
Despite the negative predictions, Gwiazda started the season very well with a 2-0 victory over AZS on 2 April 1932 with both goals coming from penalties. PS acclaimed a "Sensational start to the season!" and stated that "Gwiazda had the upper hand throughout the match. AZS played brutally at times." This auspicious start inspired Gwiazda to an impressive opening half of the season and by late May they were 2nd in the table. The A Klasa was however a relatively inconsistent league. Despite Gwiazda’s general good form, at times they were thumped. At the end of April for example I liga side Warszawianka’s reserve side clobbered Gwiazda 6-1.
Late May brought the Warsaw Jewish derby between Gwiazda and Makkabi, a match watched by 6,000 spectators, a considerable crowd for a Polish 2nd tier game. Makkabi started the game far the stronger and in the 5th minute went ahead via Górka. Makkabi were able to extend their lead in the 32nd minute through a goal from Kupiersztein. In the 2nd half Lerner I brought Gwiazda back into the game via a great headed goal in the 55th minute. Despite this Makkabi held firm for a 2-1 victory. PS noted that "Further Gwiazda attacks were destroyed by the on-form Makkabi defence."
Gwiazda’s second half of the season was marked by a series of victories (interspersed with several poor defeats). In their last game of the season on 14 August 1932, Gwiazda hammered Marymont Warsaw 6-1 with goals from Lerner (II) 2, Szulzingier 2 , Freiman and Bronstein. Against all expectations Gwiazda had somehow finished top of the A Klasa. They could now happily prepare for the upcoming regional playoffs offering the tantalising carrot of promotion to the I liga.
The Playoffs saw Gwiazda spar against Legia Poznań, ŁTSG Łódź and Polonia Bydgoszcz in a round-robin group. The first two clubs were daunting opponents. ŁTSG had won the Łódź A Klasa each year since the league had started in 1927 (apart from their one season in the I liga). Legia had just won the Poznań A Klasa for the fourth consecutive season. The task in front of Gwiazda was thus huge.
Gwiazda’s first play-off game was against the team from Poznań. The match was played in front of 5,000 souls at Polonia Warsaw’s stadium. It unfortunately was a baptism of fire for the Warsaw team who ended up being tonked 4-0. PS commented that "Gwiazda’s play was well below their normal standards…Nothing went for them."
In the next match Gwiazda were beaten at home 3-0 by ŁTSG Łódź. It was becoming pretty clear that Gwiazda were not going to qualify for the I liga. Despite going on to achieve a draw and a narrow win against Polonia Bydgoszcz, Gwiazda’s last two matches brought the team quickly down to earth. First they lost 7-0 at ŁTSG Łódź and then they were trounced 14-0 by Legia Poznań. PS commented matter-of-factly: "Legia were competing for the right to go through to the final play-off group but no-one would have expected such a score. The only person who was at the races for Gwiazda was their keeper."
So Gwiazda had been taught a harsh lesson by the group’s stronger teams. Undeterred by this setback they came back to win the Warsaw A Klasa in 1934. Unfortunately they were once more stuffed by ŁTSG Łódź and Legia Poznań. Gwiazda dusted themselves off from this battering and continued to prosper at Warsaw A Klasa level until the onset of the war. Indeed it was only Hitler’s execution squads which put an end to Gwiazda’s fight, as they did to Jewish life across the continent.
To write this piece I used Gawkowski, R, Encyklopedia klubów sportowych Warszawy i jej najbliższych okolic w latach 1918-39 and consulted with the guys at https://www.facebook.com/makkabi1915.Read more from Chris at Right Bank Warsaw.