Football in times of war: Terezin league
It is Sunday at noon in the Terezin ghetto. Everyone in the Dresden barracks is excited: from children to the elderly. The noise is palpable in the environment and comes from the patio. A beep accelerates the incessant tingling in the barracks. The beep is that of a whistle. The whistle is that of a referee. The match of the day has started in the Terezin ghetto League.
Between the Elba and Ohre rivers, just 60 kilometers from Prague, emerges imposing Terezin. Founded in the 18th century, its streets and its walled shape are witnesses of well-known episodes in contemporary history. With an area of less than 15 km², it has played a leading role in the two world wars of the last century. In 1914, Gavrilo Princip was jailed there after perpetrating the well-known murder of Francisco Fernando, inherited from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. Assassination that ultimately was the trigger for the World War I. During World War II (1939-45), Terezin was used by the Nazis as a passing ghetto for the Jews.
Football as evasion
A Chinese proverb says that the cleanest and purest water falls from the blackest clouds. That happened in the Terezin ghetto. When the darkest side of the human being emerged, and Europe was covered with black clouds for six years, in Terezin a halo of light sprang up in the form of a ball.
From 1942 to spring 1944, three leagues and two cups were played. The league championship, initially made up of ten teams, ended formed by 12 teams starting in 1943. With a seven-versus-seven format, a referee and a kit, every Sunday a match was played with a free-for-all configuration.
The teams were organized by guilds or origin. So, different teams were composed, the most popular being that of the Jugendfüsorge (caretakers of young people) or the Köche (cooks). In terms of origin, Prague stood out above all, made up of Jews from Prague.
Stars of Terezin
Many names passed through the different teams, which were constantly renewed. Not for injuries. Not for sanctions. The reason was quite different: the transfer to death camps.
On the top teams there were players who had been professionals before being in the ghetto. This is the case of Peter Erben, who played for the Jugendfüsorge and recently confessed in the Marca newspaper: “In Terezin, I was part of the Jugendfürsorge and we were among the best there was. All my life I have been an athlete and before the war I was also at Maccabi Brno”.
Paul Mahrer was another of the highlights. With a prolific career in Germany, where he played for Hertha in Berlin, and in the United States, he arrived in the ghetto in 1943, already retired professionally. However, in Terezin he put his boots back on. This time, it was not with the Hertha, but with the butchers’ team.
Being a player in the ghetto was a privilege, since those who had this preeminence got an extra ration.
The ball made its way, and journalism with it. Along with the Terezin league, Kamarad was born. Magazine published in the ghetto, which recorded the chronicles of the matches, Kamarad was created and written by the children of the place, for whom their football idols were their ‘comrades’.
“Jugendfürsorge (JF) 14-1 Hagibor Terezín (HT). The game was held on Wednesday and was more of a comedy than a game. JF observed an overwhelming supremacy and all their players, except for Breda and Mayer, scored goals. Breda, despite being a forward, did not score, and Mayer missed the opportunity of the ten steps. JF played well. There’s nothing to say about HT”, published the magazine about ´Jugendfürsorge´, the most popular team in the league.
The players were not the only protagonists. The referees were also recorded: “Handball and the referee saw nothing. Referee Kende was terrible and hurt both teams”; «In minute one of the second half, there is a goal for AZ, but as the goalkeeper has not yet joined, the referee cancels it”.
Ghetto and nazi propaganda
Despite being an escape route for the prisoners, it was not all a bed of roses. The Nazi regime used football as a smokescreen in the Terezin documentary from 1944, in which they tried to convey to the world the ‘good conditions in which the prisoners lived’.
The documentary was not the only German propaganda stunt. Months before the presentation of the documentary, when the barbarity of the Holocaust was beginning to unfold in Europe, a delegation from the International Red Cross visited the Terezin ghetto.
The place was prepared for the occasion, adapting the scene and characters as if it were from a theater play: the main streets were paved, new clothes were provided, as well as an extra ration of food to the prisoners, and all kinds of cultural activities were even held. The Red Cross accepted its role as a passive spectator and ‘swallowed’ with the Nazi trick.
The match just ended in the Dresden barracks. The last spurts of people who are still commenting on the game begin to disperse. The moment of escape and freedom represented in the ball, the one that does not stain, has ended. Life in the ghetto returns to normal. The harsh and cruel reality.