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
Terezin was chosen by the SS in 1941 because, as an enclosed fortress town, it was ideally suited to be turned into a transit camp and ghetto. By the spring of 1942, the last of the non-Jews living in Terezin were expelled by the Nazis, creating a closed Jewish environment. Food was scarce and living conditions even worse. Although the military barracks and the houses of the civilian population normally accommodated about 7,000 people, the number of prisoners in the ghetto climbed to well over 50,000, reaching a peak of 58,491 in 1942.
Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, cautions against the impulse to put Terezin in a different category than the approximately 20,000 other transit, forced-labor, concentration, and extermination camps set up by the Nazis during 1933–1945. “Sometimes people think about Terezin differently just because an opera or Verdi’s Requiem was performed by the inmates there, but the conditions were very hard.” As they did in other European ghettos, the Nazis forced a Jewish council to nominally govern the internal affairs of the camp. Despite the enormous hardships—16,000 Jews perished at Terezin in 1942 alone—the Jewish leadership succeeded as best it could in taking care of education, the welfare of children and youth, food distribution, work, etc.
The extent of cultural activities at Terezin is well known and includes a long list of famous composers, musicians, actors, and artists, most of whom were ultimately sent in transports to their deaths. There were at least four concert orchestras as well as chamber groups and jazz ensembles; stage performances were produced and attended by camp inmates. The book University Over the Abyss documents the story of 520 lecturers and 2,430 lectures that were given at Terezin between 1942 and 1944.
The Nazis allowed Jews to have plenty of activities after working hours, “and why not,” said Rabbi Patz. “The Nazis figured it didn’t matter; the Jews were all going to die anyway.”
There was another reason why the Nazis allowed Jewish cultural life to flourish: During the latter part of 1943, 456 Jews from Denmark were sent to Terezin, including Jewish children whom Danish organizations had been attempting to hide in foster homes. Denmark’s King Christian and other Danish leaders insisted that the Danish Red Cross visit the deportees in order to see firsthand their treatment in Terezin.
Preparations for the visit took many months. Overcrowding in the ghetto was alleviated somewhat by a “beautification action” in which 17,517 people were deported to a “family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gardens were planted, houses were painted, and buildings were renovated.
On June 23, 1944, two delegates from the International Red Cross and one from the Danish Red Cross visited the ghetto. A soccer game was played in the courtyard of Terezin’s Dresden barracks with cheering crowds looking on, and “Brundibar,” a children’s opera, was performed for the visitors in a community hall built specifically for the occasion. The inspectors were completely taken in by the ruse.
Parallel to the preparations for the Red Cross visit and even after, the Nazis made a propaganda film directed by prisoner Kurt Gerron, a famous German Jewish director and cabaret star, called Theresienstadt—Self-Administration of Jewish Settlement. (The Jewish inmates ironically called it Hitler Gives the Jews a Town.)
The shooting of the propaganda film was completed in early September and featured prominently—perhaps half of the film—the Liga Terezin game played on Sept. 1, 1944. Within six weeks, the players, fans, most of the cast, and Gerron himself were deported to Auschwitz, and most of them were gassed. “Almost all the people you see in the movie were dead between four and six weeks after the film was made,” said Breda. And his Uncle Pavel? “He died of starvation in a labor camp before the war ended.”
Though the Nazis never ultimately screened the completed film, snippets from two copies of the film—one 18 minutes long, and the other 23—were recovered. Individual players, including Breda’s uncle, are clearly visible throughout the match.
Dutch Historian Karl Margry, who has extensively studied the Nazis’ Terezin propaganda film, was interviewed for Liga Terezin: “The surprising thing is how long the football sequence is. It makes football in Theresienstadt look more important than it was, which is part of the propaganda idea behind it. The SS realized that football is something that not just the people in the ghetto, but people all over the world liked.”
Soccer fans often call the sport “the beautiful game.” And for the Jews in the Terezin Ghetto, it actually may have been. What Liga Terezin shows, according to co-director Schwartz, is that the prisoners “weren’t just sitting around waiting to die—they did things.” Added Breda, “Our job in the film is to tell the story of this league—a story of life and not of death.”
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One in five Holocaust survivors in Israel goes hungry. We must fix this shame right away.