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Hitler’s Jewish Soccer League

A new documentary exposes the football team of the Terezin ghetto—part of the Nazis’ strategy to fool the world

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1943 Theresienstadt league results and standing, showing that “Kuche” (i.e., workers from the kitchen) won first place. (Collage Tablet Magazine, original images courtesy of the author and Danielle Mahrer.)
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In 1939 there were hundreds of professional soccer clubs playing in every country in Europe. But as Hitler’s war swept the continent, clubs shuttered as players everywhere were called up to combat. Amazingly, one of the only places that maintained a soccer league during World War II was the Terezin ghetto—arguably the strangest of the Nazi transit camps and ghettos—where, under German imprisonment, professional and amateur Jewish players were allowed to organize and self-administer a vibrant soccer league: Liga Terezin (Terezin League). There, in the fortress and garrison town of Terezin, 40 miles northwest of Prague, hundreds of games with dozens of players were played between 1942 and 1944. For the Jews, it was a matter of survival; for the Nazis, it was part of an overall strategy designed to fool the world.

But many have never heard of the league, perhaps due to the musical, literary, and artistic legacy that Terezin’s prisoners left behind. A new documentary film is setting out to change that. Liga Terezin which was aired for the first time on Israeli television on this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, tells the story of the league through the perspective of its survivors and their relatives. The backbone of the film is extensive coverage of a game that took place on Sept. 1, 1944—just weeks before most of the players were sent to extermination camps. (Approximately 160,000 Jews passed through Terezin, of whom 35,409 died while in the ghetto; 88,129 were deported to extermination camps, and of these, just 4,136 survived.)

Take the story of Paul Mahrer, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in Terezin after the German occupation of the Sudetenland. He had played soccer for the Czechoslovakian national team, including two games in the 1924 Olympics, and then played on several teams in the United States before returning to Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. Though already over 40 when he was brought to the ghetto, he was still a well-known sports figure and ended up playing in Liga Terezin with the other Jewish workers. His “salary” as a player was the ability to obtain better food portions. He survived the war and ended up in the United States, where he died in 1985.

“Soccer saved my family’s life,” his 25 year-old great-granddaughter, Dani Mahrer, told me last week in Jerusalem.

***

Liga Terezin is the product of a love of soccer and a chance meeting between Oded Breda, the nephew of one of the league’s players, and Israeli television journalists Mike Schwartz and Avi Kanner, who became the co-directors of the film. All of them discovered quickly that they had two things in common: a great interest in commemorating the Holocaust, and their affection for soccer.

The film’s origin story begins with a photograph. In the early 1960s, a distant Argentinian relative brought a picture of Pavel Breda—a prisoner in Terezin who played in the ghetto’s soccer league—to his brother Moshe Breda in Israel. Moshe, who was lucky enough to get one of the few British certificates available for entry to Palestine in December 1939, shared the picture with his young son, Oded, on whom it left a lasting impression: “From the first day I saw this piece of paper with my uncle on it, this piece of paper virtually haunted me,” Breda told me. “What happened over there?”

Breda, 59, who never misses his twice-a-week soccer game, lives in Ra’anana. A hi-tech refugee, he now runs Beit Terezin, located at Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud between Haifa and Tel Aviv, which commemorates the memory of the Terezin Ghetto and houses a museum and archives holding thousands of original artifacts from the ghetto, including extensive documentation of the Terezin soccer league. “What brought me to the subject of the Holocaust,” he said, “was soccer.”

Breda remains struck by the detail that was paid to the league’s organization. Liga Terezin had league management, working committees, and professional referees. It published league results, standings, and statistics in the sports pages of makeshift ghetto newspapers, all written by the Jewish children of the ghetto. There were at least a dozen teams in the league in each of the three years that it operated, and players generally represented the areas in which they worked. (One ledger read “Clothing Warehouse vs. Youth Counselors.”) Others took on the names of their favorite professional teams. Every game had thousands of Jewish prisoners who packed Terezin’s enclosed Dresden barracks, which emulated a soccer stadium.

Toman Brod, a Czech author and retired professor of history, was 13 years old when he watched soccer games in the ghetto at Terezin. He says in the film that “football was a matter of pleasure—and we needed some pleasure in our desperate lives. It was very important not to lose our self-confidence and our self-dignity. It was crazy, but it was reality.”

***

To understand Liga Terezin, one must put the league into the context of the unique combination of the nature of the ghetto’s population and the Nazis’ cynical use of the Jews who were imprisoned there. “There was no other camp like it,” Rabbi Norman Patz, president emeritus of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews, told me. “Terezin was the Nazis’ show camp, cynically designed to deceive the world and to conceal their genocidal plans. And over the four years it was in operation, the cream of Europe’s Jewish intellectual and cultural communities, starting with Bohemia and Moravia (today’s modern-day Czech Republic), passed through it.” While the Nazis may not have intended to send artists and scholars to Terezin, the reigning culture of central European Jewry at the time created an especially creative atmosphere in the ghetto.

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Hitler’s Jewish Soccer League

A new documentary exposes the football team of the Terezin ghetto—part of the Nazis’ strategy to fool the world