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“. . . 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.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.