Bas Kortholt with the Dutch U18 team on site (2019).
Bas Kortholt with the Dutch U18 team on site (2019).

Football at the Concentration Camp

Football clubs and memorial sites can do more on Holocaust research and education

Over the last year, we have conducted several conversations with Camp Westerbork Memorial Centre about the role of football in the Second World War and the Holocaust. In particular, with Bas Kortholt, a researcher at the former concentration camp site and current remembrance and education centre, we discovered the story of Ignatz Feldmann, which we recently included in our project Football Lives. In addition, original video footage of football being played at the camp during the war gave us the idea to find out more about the work of Mr. Kortholt and discuss the potential of football for remembrance and education. Enjoy the short interview answers which he gave us below.

Passion for history and football

I have worked at Camp Westerbork since 2006. As a researcher, I am involved in many different activities, including the creation of exhibitions but also writing books and activities surrounding commemorations, such as receiving groups at the site. When I started working here, I found out about the story of football in the former concentration camp. It immediately created a strong connection for me personally. I believe that people connect better with history when it is related to their interests, such as their hobbies but also their backgrounds.

In 2007, when UEFA chose Poland and Ukraine to host the European Championship 2012, I saw an opportunity to connect this occasion with Camp Westerbork. Although a connection seems improbable, there was an organized football competition within Camp Westerbork. This resulted in an exhibition and a small booklet. Furthermore, it inspired me to start researching information about the people behind the football competition in Camp Westerbork.

A Fake World of Football at Westerbork

Especially around 1943 and 1944, Camp Westerbork was a camp where life seemed to be better than in other camps, but this was ‘‘the Fake world of Westerbork’’. All the facilities like a hospital, an orphanage with a playground, and a football competition fall into that category. The inmates got hope out of this, as they might have considered that life in the camps of the east might not be that bad.

Where did this football element come from? In 1943 a small group of inmates went from Westerbork to Amsterdam because they had to work in a factory. When they were on the train from Assen to Amsterdam, they read a paper, De Telegraaf, a widespread Dutch Newspaper. In this newspaper, it said that the national football competition was still going on. Upon reading this news, one of the group members got angry; they were playing without him! How can this be?

Enter Feldman

Within that group that traveled to Amsterdam were multiple footballers, such as Ignatz Feldmann, a famous professional footballer from Austria in the 1920s and the 1930s.

Feldman was one of the best defenders at that time. He was quite a famous man, not only in Austria but also in The Netherlands. So he had a certain status within Camp Westerbork and the Jewish community. During that train journey from Assen to Amsterdam, he came up with the idea of starting a football competition in the camp. Together his reputation and the ‘‘fake world of Westerbork’’, allowed for a football competition to happen. Because Westerbork had small factories, they made the goals and shirts for everybody and sent out people to get footballs into Camp Westerbork. It was a quiet professional-looking competition that was being set up. With matches being played every week. The teams were divided into ‘‘dienstbereiche’’, so it was based on where people were working. So, every vocational place in the camp (e.g. kitchen, cleaners, office, etc) had a team, and they played each other as a tournament.

Distraction from fate

However, the football was not solely for the inmates. We now know that the matches attracted many visitors, thanks to the footage of the games you can see in the Westerbork film. This is also what strikes me the most, not only the football but also the people watching. Looking at the film, it seems like hundreds of people are watching this football match at Camp Westerbork. So, in a place like Camp Westerbork, football was popular, and even prisoners of Westerbork were standing there smiling and looking at the match. In more ways than one, football was a distraction, not only for those who participated in the Camp Westerbork competition but also for the broader public that went to the matches. Distraction from everyday life in the concentration camp and the war at large.

Connecting with learning today

To enable personal learning and development, it is crucial to get a connection with the group you are guiding. Of course, there are a lot of people that love football. We try to give a tour that connects everyone, also for the young people. There is a place where there are small stones in the camp nowadays, that was the place where the football matches were taking place. That allows connecting a group with the site. You can take one of the football stories and then immediately see how it relates to people.

This connection between the camp on one hand and football, on the other hand, is not only used for regular groups. Football supporters from big Dutch football clubs, such as FC Utrecht and Feyenoord, and the Dutch u18’s also made the trip. With these specific groups, you can tell about those football stories from the camp. The story should not be told just because it’s ‘‘football’’. You want to tell a complex story that consists of many layers. Football then becomes a starting point from which you tell stories about antisemitism in those times. You can tell about how there were ‘‘Jews Forbidden’’ signs at their clubs, like Sparta or Feyenoord. You tell the story of the Holocaust; the starting point can be different for different groups, and for some groups, the point where to start is football.

Guiding supporters

Chants in football are sometimes an expression of the passionate fans, and supporters feel for a particular club and are therefore part and parcel of the game. However, these chants are not always positive. The people who sing those chants are often punished or go on educational trips to Camp Westerbork, where they meet me. I believe is best not to take only the small group of supporters that shout those anti-semitic chants, instead take a bigger group and begin at a younger age to educate them about the topic they are chanting.

So if you are guiding supporters from Feyenoord, you can start with a Jewish story from Rotterdam or even Feyenoord; in other words, take a story from their town or city. With a story like that as a starting point, the connection becomes even more substantial. In 2012 when we had an exhibition which featured the football competition at the camp, supporters from Feyenoord were invited to come, and there they met Simon Hornman. A Jewish man from Rotterdam, who had played football for Sparta Rotterdam and survived the war. They, the supporters, immediately connected to him because of the football and the fact that they came from the same environment.

Simon was a Jewish footballer, a fan of Feyenoord, a player of Sparta, and Rotterdammer so he could tell his story about discrimination and exclusion. Afterward, the supporters asked for his autograph, and in that way, you could immediately see how strong a connection was made. Those were the football supporters who were there because they sang anti-semitic chants during a football game. They had to go to Westerbork to learn about the Holocaust, and they immediately connected to a man like Simon. These kind of things are something like magic.

Football can do more

Football can make an important contribution to learning by connecting past and present. Inmates from Westerbork and victims of the Holocaust played at the same football clubs people are now supporting, furthermore at almost every local football club in the Netherlands, and there was a ‘’Jews forbidden’’ sign.

What is lacking is a strong coordinated effort in which memorials and museums, football clubs and governing bodies like the Dutch FA cooperate. I think this would be a great step. Of course when a football team like Feyenoord or Ajax visit a museum like the Anne Frank House or the Jewish Cultural Museum this is a very big symbolic thing like we saw in 2012 when the Dutch National Team visited Auschwitz. You have to take this in, because this attracts the media  and then it can become a bigger story. People notice it and you do the smaller things at the museums, memorials and schools. So, in that sense you have to all work together and do your own small part so that it becomes something big.

A matter of urgency

Our documents, and archives, will be there in 10 years time. Digitizing of course is very important but the most important and urgent thing is to get those last survivors while they are still alive on tape and make video interviews of them. Simon, for example, passed away last year in 2020, and luckily we have his testimony on video. But still, and it’s even unbelievable, 76 years after the war there are still people whose testimony isn’t on video or audio. How can we use video to ‘recreate’ the magic in the eyes of the visitors who seek to learn?

And we can broaden our work. Of course the testimonies of former camp inmates are important, but why not also people who lived nearby football stadiums, who saw people getting deported. If you collect all of those stories you can connect them to these historical documents. And if we take football as the lens, what about the people who made the goal posts and the fabric of the balls?

Find out more

Visit the website of Camp Westerbork and the Westerbork Portretten to find out more about this history. You can also explore the work currently done by FMH partners Anne Frank House and Fare Network in the EU-funded project Changing the Chants, and watch the documentary by Stefano di Pietro on YouTube.  Also the initiative of historian Jurryt van der Vooren to build and connect a central online Voetbal Monument for footballers from The Netherlands who died in the Second World War is worth exploring.

Interview with researcher Bas Kortholt of Camp Westerbork Memorial Centre on football’s unique potential.

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Bas Kortholt with the Dutch U18 team on site (2019).
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