BY FERGUS DOWD
“Playing football, we didn’t think of deportation or the stress caused by life in the ghetto,” – Czech novelist and playwright Ivan Klima
On September 27th 1941 the head of the Reich Main Security office, SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, took authority over the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. A few days later in a conference in Prague he announced that he would ‘purify’ the area under his control of Jews. His decision was to create a so-called ‘transit ghetto for the Jews’ from where they would be eventually evacuated to the East. The fortress town of Terezin was chosen.
It lies 60 miles north of Prague and there were a number of large 18th century Austrian military barracks located in the town along with a railway line which would help the transport of Jews to and from the ghetto.
Theresienstadt – as the Germans called Terezin – was a hybrid concentration camp established by the SS that served three primary purposes for the Nazis: a collective camp for Jews to be deported to the East; a place of extermination and hard living conditions; and somewhere that had a use for propaganda reasons.
The seven thousand Czechs that lived in the walled town were expelled by the Nazis in June 1942 to make way for fifty thousand interned Jews. During the war some one hundred and fifty five thousand passed through the doors of the camp; eighty seven thousand were deported to camps further East while thirty four thousand souls perished in Terezin.
The Nazi era also saw the disappearance of more than 300 Jewish footballers, some dying in suspicious circumstances and many others perishing in the concentration camps. But in Terezin, football thrived in the form of a league and provided a lifeline for the cooks, butchers and the clothes makers who participated.
Led by German Jewish athlete Fredy Hirsch, a committee of Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, French and Danish Jews created a system of football leagues in the camp. Hirsch had dedicated his entire life to the training of young people in different sporting games at Terezin – he would later perish in Auschwitz after creating a small oasis which would see young Jewish children educated and isolated from what was going on in the camp. In his position as head of the section for physical education in the Terezin ghetto, Hirsch inculcated values of self-discipline and what he called ‘control of body and spirit’ – he was known to rise each morning in the camp at 6am.
With the teams in Terzin/Theresienstadt being named after the jobs the footballers did in the ghetto; in effect the ‘Electricians’, the ‘Kitchen Workers’ and the ‘Butchers’ played 35-minute seven a side games in a former barracks courtyard in front of thousands who viewed from the balconies.
Initially, twelve teams were involved in the league but by October 1943 until August 1944 the league was reduced to being a six-team league. Those six teams were aptly named: ‘Transportation’, Children’s Care’, ‘Clothes Store’, ‘Cooks and Butchers’, ‘Electricians’ and ‘Youth Care’. The record books show the ‘Children’s Care Department’ won the camp’s first league title in 1942.
Their trainer gave each victorious team member half a lemon each – a treasure in such a place. In 1943 the ‘Butchers’ prospered. Pavel Mahrer – a Czech international of Jewish ethnicity – starred for the ‘Butchers team’. He was detained in the camp after the annexing of the Sudetenland. In 1936 he had finished his illustrious playing career with DFC Prag, a German Jewish club. Mahrer went against the grain surviving the hell of Theresienstadt; he relocated to the United States of America after the Second World War and died in 1985.
Among those who played in the camp with Mahrer were Czech national goalkeeper Jirka Taussig and star striker Honza Burka who was renowned for scoring goals from all angles. Burka, who also survived World War II, was offered numerous professional contracts by top European clubs after the war but refused. His daughter Petra, born in 1946, would go on to be an Ice Skating Olympian winning a bronze medal at the 1964 Olympic games.
International games were also played in the camp where Prague would play Vienna and Paris took on Copenhagen.
Sadly, player transfers each Monday was a part of life in the ghetto as team line ups changed on a weekly basis with many being sent to the death camps. Slave labour was also part of everyday routine for the footballers who were forced to work 52 to 54 hours per week.
In retrospect Mahrer and his fellow captive comrades used the beautiful game as means of psychological escape from the tyranny of their captors.
The final match in August 1944 was played between the ‘Clothes Store’ and the ‘Children’s Care’ in front of an estimated 3,500 spectators.
A month later German film director Kurt Gerron was forced to direct a Nazi propaganda film depicting a game of football in the camp with thousands in the crowd smiling and cheering, just yards from a crematorium at the apogee of its productivity – up to 190 corpses a day were incinerated.
Gerron, who had starred with Marlene Dietrich in Blue Angel, was promised survival for his work by SS Officer Hans Gurther, but after the film was launched he was sent to the chambers of Auschwitz. Within weeks of shooting the film – which cost 35,000 marks to produce – most who took part, including the majority of the footballers, were dead.
At the end of World War II, 17,247 people had survived the death camp. In 1955 those who survived Theresienstadt met at a country-wide meeting in the kibbutz of Givat Haim-Ihud in Israel where games of football were arranged similar to those which had taken place in the Terezin league.
Today the Ghetto in Terezin is a museum familiarising tourists about the arduous and horrific daily life of the prisoners in the camp. One of the exhibits on display is a written page detailing the league table from the Terezin league of 1943 with the Küche (Kitchen Workers) team leading.
It also exhibits children’s art work and chronicles the rise of anti-semitism in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. More recently the Czech football authorities have recognised those who played in the Terezin football league and have given the league an official place in Czech football history.
It must be remembered that football in Terezin gave some a small comfort in a hellish place.
Header image taken from the album of reels from a propaganda film shot in the Terezín ghetto by Kurt Gerron.