Carrying out acts of remembrance is important; but it is not always easy to get it right. Dealing with History, what happened in the past, is hard enough. But Memory, how to manage the different ways people feel about the past, can be even more complicated. Sometimes, it can be so painful that it is just easier to forget, to think about something else instead. Sometimes it is comforting to have rituals, to “tick the box” of commemorating past horrors without really thinking through their real meaning. And, sometimes, remembering the fate of millions, such as the victims of slavery, or those who died in the mass murders of the 20th century can become impersonal, too difficult to relate to with real emotion.
Can football help with commemorating?
Something is needed to link the past to the present, to see the past through the lens of what we care about today. This is where football comes into the picture. Today, 27 January 2021, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Too often, it is seen as a day for remembering six million people as victims. But they were more than victims of a terrible crime against humanity. They were real people with real lives. Looking at our individual football life stories that were touched by the Holocaust can offer ways to grasp this.
Life stories that matter
Think of three great football players who won the Iron Cross fighting for Germany in the First World War: Julius Hirsch, Gottfried Fuchs and Fritz Otto “Tull” Harder. They were fine players, household names loved by fans of their clubs and of Germany’s national team. They had a place in football history before they were involved in the story of the Holocaust. Julius Hirsch may have felt too German to flee the country. He was killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau because he was Jewish. Gottfried Fuchs was also a Jewish German but he was able to get out. He emigrated to Canada and then to New Zealand. Tull Harder was not Jewish. He was German who followed the extremist form of nationalism, joined the SS, commanded a concentration camp and was convicted of war crimes. Harder’s life and context also needs to be addressed, too, alongside Hirsch and Fuchs.
Then we might think of Arpad Weisz, a fine Jewish-Hungarian player and coach who was killed in Auschwitz, or Bela Guttmann, his compatriot who luckily survived to achieve great success after the war, or Eddy Hamel, the Jewish-American flying winger loved by fans of Ajax Amsterdam, who perished in the camps as Weisz did. All three established a presence in the world through football that has saved them from being forgotten other than as nameless victims.
Other, less famous lives deserve to be remembered, too. Fritz Löhner-Beda was a Jewish-Austrian writer famous for the librettos of operettas by Franz Lehar; what connected Fritz Löhner-Beda to football was his enthusiastic backing for the Jewish team Hakoah Vienna FC. Fritz was murdered at KZ Buchenwald in 1942.
Neta Cohen was a Jewish girl in northern Macedonia; her only link to football was that she fell for a handsome footballer, Aleksandar Mladenov, and eloped with him. But football saved Neta’s life. Aleksandar and his FC Macedonia team protected Neta and kept her and her two young sons safe. Her entire Jewish family died in the camps.
How should we remember Fritz, Eddy and Neta, and the lost Jewish families they loved, on 27 January?
Actions in the memories of
So football has a special place in the memory of the Holocaust, not only to remember those who died, or had their lives changed forever in other ways, but to face up to the fact that football often failed to act or think in the right way, at the time or afterwards. In 2021, Joachim Löw and his Germany team visited Auschwitz-Birkenau just before the UEFA Nations Cup finals hosted by Poland and Ukraine. More footballers did this in 2012. Visiting, reflecting, learning and showing they are more than sport celebrities. Not only are they remembering the past, their own lives are being changed by the past. There are many initiatives by football communities in Germany to research, teach and commemorate the National-Socialist period and the Holocaust. A project led by Football Makes History partner Anne Frank House will in 2021 publish a compendium of such approaches. Our own partner Eintracht Frankfurt has also taken various actions, with fans to deal with the difficult past.
Look through the Lives section to find out more about football people connected to the Holocaust, or to other forms of discrimination and persecution. Comparing these stories can help young people to learn about the complexities of the Holocaust, the different sensitivities involved, and how moral questions change shape with the passage of time. Also Primo Levi’s work give educators possibilities to engage their students through football with the history of the Holocaust.
On our social media accounts educators could find more relevant stories. Anti-Semitism and the fate of the European Jews is at the heart of remembering the Holocaust and it should give all current and future European citizens an opportunity to face the dark past of this continent, also by celebrating Jewish life.
There are many more places educators could look toward to bring in football into their teaching about the Holocaust. One good place to start, for example, is the recent podcast by Outside Write on the issue.
Today, 27 January, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Educators can use the life stories of footballers to explore this painful past with the students.