“Jewish” Soccer in the Netherlands
by Mitchell Abidor
Discussed in this essay: Ajax, the Dutch, the War, by Simon Kuper. Nation Books, 2012, 288 pages.
I am a Houston Astros fan. This is a fact of no significance. It doesn’t mean I support Rick Perry or believe that Texas should secede. Nor does it mean I’m from Houston. It simply means I love this particular baseball team and have done so since its founding in 1962.
If, however, I were Hungarian and a fan of Budapest’s MTK soccer team, it historically would mean that I was likely a Jew and of the left. If I were a fan of their cross-city rivals, Ferencvaros, I would not only not be Jewish, but probably be a Jew-hater with politics far to the right.
Similarly, the ethnic or political profile of a New York Yankee fan or a New York Mets fan would likely not differ, nor would the one wish death on the other. In the tribal world of soccer, however, a Glaswegian who was a fan of Celtic would be Catholic and of Irish extraction, while a fan of Glasgow’s other team, Rangers, would be Protestant — and in this case, the two sets of fans, residents of the same city, do actively wish for each other’s death.
The sport of soccer sits at the juncture of tribalism, politics, and history, and all are inscribed in the various teams. The great Barcelona club is, as their motto goes, “més que un club,” more than a club: It is an expression of Catalonian specificity and Catalonian resistance to Madrid’s centralizing power — indeed, in the past, to fascism (the team’s chairperson was executed in the final days of the Spanish Civil War). During the 2012-13 season, as calls for Catalan independence grew stronger, the games at the team’s stadium, the Camp Nou, took on the air of political rallies. The team’s Catalan-ness is expressed in the smallest details: the team’s captain, for example, doesn’t wear a simple elastic armband saying “captain,” but a yellow armband with red stripes, the colors on the Catalan flag.
Not surprisingly, we can find the traces of imperialism in soccer, and not just in the fact that the game, invented in England, spread with the empire. Three of Argentina’s most famous teams bear distinctly English names: Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, and the eccentrically named Newell’s Old Boys of Rosario, named after the headmaster of an English school in the city. The Old Boys’ colors, red and black, take them further into the world of European empire: red from the English flag, black from the German flag, the homeland of the eponymous Newell’s wife. In fact, the Argentine Football Association, founded by an Englishman, was called exactly that from 1903 until 1912, when it finally assumed a Spanish name.
Soccer is perhaps the only sport in which politics has even influenced the style of play. Though the fluid style played by Barcelona is usually considered an extension of the Total Soccer played by Ajax of Amsterdam in the 1960s and ’70s, the style is actually the child of the soccer played by Hungary’s national team in the 1950s. That team, known as the Golden Team, was coached by Gusztáv Sebes, who was a communist labor organizer in France before World War II. He thus developed a style of play, expressing the egalitarianism of the socialist ideal, in which every player had both an offensive and defensive role, and no one position had offensive priority over any other.
The ethnicity of a league team is seldom made visible on the field, but in Russia, the largest fan group of Zenit St. Petersburg issued a manifesto calling for the team to sign only players from northern Europe and Slavic countries — and in Israel, the fans of Betar Jerusalem demonstrated in the stands when the team (which, as its name indicates, grew out of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement) announced that it had signed two Muslim players. The demonstrators called for protecting the racial purity of the team, and when the management announced it was going ahead with the signing of the two Chechen Muslims, the team’s offices were burned down.
In England, Tottenham Hotspur, which plays in north London, home to a large Jewish population, has become known as a “Jewish” team. The Spurs are familiarly called the Yids, and its fan base the Yid Army. Yet there is currently not a Jew to be found on the pitch in Tottenham colors (although the team’s chairman is named Daniel Levy).
A similarly “Jewish” team, Ajax of Amsterdam (pronounced even by the non-Dutch as “Ayax”), is the subject of Simon Kuper’s brilliant Ajax, the Dutch, the War. With soccer so implicated in the life and history of the nations where it is the dominant sport, Kuper uses it to cast light on Holland’s horrifying experiences of Nazism, occupation, collaboration, and the extermination of 80 percent of the country’s Jewish population. “Football,” says Kuper, “was a place where the Holocaust met daily life.”
Ajax is known as the Joden, the Jews, and Israeli flags are waved at the team’s games — not as a sign of support for the Jewish state, but in support of Ajax’s supposed Jewish identity. Yet it was only after the near-annihilation of Holland’s Jewish population that the team was considered “Jewish.” Even the club’s official history affirms this: “the club didn’t have a Jewish culture at all before World War II,” despite there being a strong Jewish presence in the city of Amsterdam. For Kuper, an Anglo-Dutch Jew (and one of the best writers on soccer today), “Whenever Ajax denies its Jewish links, or tries to apologize for them, it is denying people who were murdered.”
Brought up like so many post-war Dutch youth on tales of Dutch resistance to the Nazis, Kuper finds that an examination of Ajax and Dutch soccer demonstrates that “the Dutch had not been as ‘goed’ in the war as I had once thought. And even more, in the ‘goed/fout’ [right/wrong] dichotomy, soccer as a whole falls perhaps more on the fout side than was comfortable.” In the pre-war years, the major Dutch soccer teams were composed of members of the sports clubs whose names the teams bore, and Kuper provides an in-depth history of how these clubs, which were subject to Nazi strictures on Jewish membership and participation, confronted the occupier. The picture isn’t pretty.
On September 15th, 1940, Jews were prohibited from publicly participating in sports. Jewish membership in clubs was then altogether prohibited on October 23rd. Sparta, the Rotterdam club with the highest Jewish membership, didn’t wait for Nazi prompting: “Anxious to be on the safe side,” Kuper observes, “it sends a circular to its Jewish members on 23 September, saying the German order of September 15th must be understood to mean that ‘entry to our grounds . . . is forbidden under any circumstances.’” Although the effect is in no way comparable, this case of getting a step ahead of the Germans resembles France’s wartime Prime Minister Pierre Laval’s suggestion that when parents were deported, their children accompany them. In both cases there was a willingness to take a Nazi decree to a point to which even the Nazis had not yet extended it.
Sparta’s banning of Jews was intended to be hidden from the public. However, a large sign reading “Forbidden for Jews” was hung over their playing field by a long-time member, and an emergency meeting of the Sparta board was called to discuss the sign, which some members considered unseemly. It was replaced with a more discreet one, and by October all eighty Jewish members of the club had left Sparta. The director was named Jos Cohen who, as a half-Jew, was not under threat of deportation or subject to the Nazi ban. In fact, Kuper relates, “at the board meeting of 31 July 1943, by which time most Dutch Jews have been gassed, he is upset when the board fires him as ‘leider’ (a sort of general manager) . . .” After a brief period in hiding, Cohen would return to prominence in international soccer circles as treasurer of the European soccer association, UEFA: “Cohen later changed his name to Coler,” Kuper writes, “explaining to friends that he didn’t want his daughter to have to bear a Jewish name.”
As would be expected, when the Germans invaded the Netherlands, there was a temporary end to sport in the country — but it soon recovered with a vengeance: In 1940, Kuper reports, “a little over four million tickets to sporting events were sold. In 1943, the figure exceeded eight million.” Membership in sports clubs also exploded, and the Nazi “occupiers were delighted” with this fact. “‘He who plays sport does not sin,’ was a motto of Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Government commissioner of the Netherlands.”
Because the Nazis regarded the Dutch as fellow Aryans, the treatment meted out to those not involved in the Resistance (with the exception of Jews) was not as harsh as elsewhere. German soldiers based at Ajax Stadium even asked permission of the team’s leadership before using the field! While Resistance newspapers called for the suspension of soccer for the duration of the occupation, this “was never going to happen,” Kuper observes.
“. . . Hardly a man in Dutch football seems ever to have wondered whether the fate of the Jews should deter him from carrying on just as before. Since its recent invention, the game seemed to have become a basic human need, almost like eating and sex. The Dutch weren’t about to give it up just because of a genocide.”
In fact, Jews, too, were not about to give up soccer. Even as they were beginning to realize that transit to the east meant probable death, “they were still upset at being excluded from sport.” Kuper reports that games were played in the transit camp at Westerbork, “the antechamber of death,” and while in that camp a goalkeeper from Haarlem wrote to his wife: “Jenny, please send me my football boots.”
The ignominy of Dutch soccer did not end with the war. Amsterdam formerly had five Jewish clubs, but when they applied for membership in the national football association, they were informed they wouldn’t be automatically allowed to return to their former divisions. Far worse was the reaction to the Jewish club HEDW’s request that its debt be forgiven, Kuper writes, “on the grounds that it had no money now that more than two hundred of its members were dead. The association refused, perhaps fearful of setting a precedent for future genocides, though it did allow the debt to be rescheduled.” One must be thankful for small favors.
It was Ajax that was the most Jewish of nondenominational sports clubs, and “what distinguishes Ajax from most other Dutch clubs is the support and help it gave its Jews in the war.” It is “scandalous,” Kuper writes, “that the club says in an official history that ‘there were no deaths to mourn among the Ajax members,’” when the reason for this was that Jews were forced to resign from the club, so at the time of their death they were no longer members. However, although Ajax expelled its Jewish members, there were important instances of solidarity. Future club chairman Jaap van Praag, for example, who spent the war in hiding above a photography shop, wrote in the November 10th, 1945 issue of Ajax’s newspaper thanking “all Ajax friends who have treated me with such friendliness after my long period in hiding.”
Kuper attributes the higher-than-average survival rate of Ajax’s Jewish members to two factors: first, they were wealthier than the average Dutch Jew, and “the wealthy had the best chance of finding cover.” Secondly, “the Jews at Ajax also benefited from belonging to a predominantly gentile club. They knew gentiles, and a few of these gentiles were very brave. Jews who lived in the Jewish quarter and played for Jewish football clubs practically knew only Jews. In the war, that mattered.”
There is, of course, an irony in the fact that Jewish members of what is considered the quintessentially Jewish club survived precisely because it was not a Jewish club.
Not all survived. There was the case of Eddy Hamel, a New York-born footballer who played for Ajax from 1922 to ’30. He was named to Ajax’s all-time squad, played for the team’s old-timers in December 1939, coached a local team — and was deported with his family to Birkenau in January, 1943. Hamel died in Auschwitz on April 30th, 1943. A survivor of the camp said of him, “Eddy Hamel was always a gentleman.”
Ajax’s immediate post-war history, when they became known as the Joden — after 100,000 of Holland’s 140,000 Jews had been killed — was the period when the fans of Feynoord of Rotterdam greeted Ajax with “There comes the Ajax train from Auschwitz,” or simply “Sssssss,” the sound of escaping gas. This was also when the Ajax fans started waving Israeli flags: If the team was going to be identified as Jewish then, like the fans of Tottenham Hotspur, they would wear this intended slight as a badge of honor.
It was also the period when Jews, without ever stepping onto the pitch, shaped one of the greatest teams of its era. “The non-Jewish players of the great Ajax,” notes Kuper, “. . . inhabited a Jewish environment that was almost unique in the post-war Netherlands: the chairman, the sugar daddies, the masseur. . . why, you’d almost think there were a lot of Jews in Holland.” So strong was the Jewish presence in the Ajax front office by the 1960s and ’70s that the Jewishness of the environment rubbed off on virtually the whole team. The player who dominated Ajax and led it to domination of its opponents was Johan Cruyff, who was brought to the team thanks to the largesse of its Jewish financiers. Cruyff himself was so philo-Semitic that, as Franklin Foer tells us in his essential “How Soccer Explains the World,” “his club’s strange pre-game rituals included the delivery of a kosher salami, and locker-room banter self-consciously peppered with Yiddish phrases.” The Ajax trainer said that “the players liked to be Jewish, even though they weren’t.” It should come as no surprise that Johan Cruyff’s son Jordi is now the general manager of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
At least one member of team was actually Jewish, and went on to moderate stardom: Yossi Benayoun, brought to Europe by Ajax for its youth team. Benayoun eventually returned to Israeli soccer, then moved to Spain and England, where he played for Liverpool (and complained of his difficulty finding kosher food), Chelsea, Arsenal, and West Ham — the latter team located in the formerly Jewish East End, with fans who as recently as November, 2012 gave Hitler salutes and shouted anti-Semitic chants during a match against Spurs (“the Yids”).
Benayoun, despite his travels around the English Premier League, has never been a Yid.
Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. His books include Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.