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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: Ajax, The Dutch, The War by Simon Kuper

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"A book about soccer and World War II would go to the heart of Holland. Soccer was a place where the Holocaust met daily life. What had happened in Dutch soccer clubs during the war would be a microcosm of what happened in the country."

--- Simon Kuper, author of "Ajax, The Dutch, The War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe's Darkest Hour," page 11, published in 2012 by Nations Book, a Member of the Perseus Book Group, with a list price of US $15.99.

The theme of soccer and the Holocaust have rarely been discussed at length. Arguably, never in such detail as is found in this provocative, well-researched and captivating book. The author takes you down a road less-traveled to unearth a rich trove of remembrances: Memories that were previously hidden from public view but never forgotten by their protagonists.

Organized Format and Captivating Writing Style

The opening ceremony at De Meer Stadium in 1934.
Photo credit: Spaarnestad Fotogarchief/ANP/Foto.

There are 15 chapters, an Afterword geared to a US audience, a detailed sources section, along with an index. The author's writing style is detailled, journalistic and captivating. Mr. Kuper offers significant research about various topics and makes it interesting to digest. This book is framed around a historic soccer theme; however, its contents exceed sport in a striking fashion with little-known facts and rare interviews.

The American Who Played for Ajax: Eddy Hamel

Eddy Hamel.
Photo credit: Ajax.
"Eddy Hamel, the face I cannot forget, of calm friendliness
and body warmth. Eddy had a good circulation
and was truly warm.
" (Page 55)

Eddy Hamel was born in New York City to whom is thought to be Dutch Jewish parents. In a strange twist of fate, he emigrated to Amsterdam, played outside right for Ajax in the 1920s, and tragically was sent to the Birkenau concentration camp.

Mr. Kuper, in one of his many fascinating first-person accounts for this book that make it so engaging, met with Leon Greeenman, the author of "An Englishman in Auschwitz". Mr. Greenman spent three months sharing a bunk with Hamel in Birkenau. Decades later, he would share his story with Ajax.

The Jewish Identity of Ajax Amsterdam

"A soccer club is sort of family, and that is particularly true for people who don't have families of their own. Fans of other clubs began calling Ajax a 'Jew club' in the 1960s, but really it was more like a postwar Dutch-Jewish family. It wasn't made up of blood relatives, but then nor were many Jewish families after the Holocaust." (Page 194)

Although Jewish members were banned from Ajax in 1941, it seemed that any Jewish links were summarily dismissed by many officials and historians at the iconic Dutch club. The author dedicated an entire chapter to this topic which he called "Strange Lies." An interview with an Ajax historian, Wim Schoevaart, produced an interesting quote:

"I told Shoevaart I was a writing a book about Ajax, the Jews, and the war, and he kindly told me I was wasting my time, because I would soon find out there wasn't enough to say. Like every other Ajax official I spoke to, he instantly denied my suggestion that the club had ever had many Jewish members. How could he be so sure? Because there were few 'Jewish-sounding names' on the pre-war membership lists." (Page 106)

Mr. Kuper noted that despite such denials, Ajax supported and helped its Jewish members in notable ways that other Dutch clubs didn't replicate. The club also formed a "Purge Committee" to banish any members found guilty of collaborating with the Germans and/or tarnishing the name of Ajax. As the author concisely noted, "Everyone agreed that betraying one's country was a bad thing. However, to paraphrase E. M. Forster, many people thought it better than betraying one's soccer club." (Page 121)

The author conducted many interviews with Jewish players and officials at Ajax from the wartime era. Most were reluctant to talk openly about their past:

"Salo Muller, masseur of the great Ajax, was the only one of the club's Jews who spoke to me easily about the war... The silence of Ajax's others Jews was natural. Being a Jew born in Holland before the war is still not easy. Of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands when the Germans invaded, more than 100,000 were dead by 1945." (Pages 188-189)

Mr. Kuper also noted the special relationship of Johan Cruiff with the Jewish community:

"Little Johan Cruiff helped the groundsman raise the flags on match days, brought the players studs in the changing room, and kept goal in their training sessions whenever they let him. He joined Ajax at the age of 10, and two years later when his grocer father died, his mother was given work cleaning the changing rooms." (Page 190)

"Cruiff had a certain amount in common with Amsterdam's Holocaust survivors... Many Dutch Jews I met seemed to regard Cruiff as a sort of Jewish patron saint."  (Page 197)

"Johan Cruiff is regarded as an honorary Israeli. If Cruiff were to found a party here, he'd win at least two or three seats in the Knesset... We have a myth that Jews are at the head of every great cultural movement. We had Moses, Jesus, Freud, and Einstein, so if something like that happens in soccer it has to come from a Jew." Saggie Cohen quoted on page 209.

And a deplorable modern-day attitude that still exists:

"If you attend a Feyenoord-Ajax match these days you will be treated to Holocaust songs and imitations of escaping gas, performed not by a gang of teenage hooligans but by thousands of Feyenoord supporters, many of them middle-aged or well dressed or fathers with children." (Page 224)

Another Historical Aspect: How Politics Shaped the Growth of European Soccer

A Nazi salute given by England before a 1938 friendly
against Germany at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
Photo credit: Empics.

"I've been in a shipwreck, a train crash, and inches short of
a 'plane accident' ... but the worst moment of my life, and one I
would not willingly go through again, was giving
the Nazi salute in Berlin."  

--- Eddie Hapgood, England captain, on page 36.

Another salient facet of this book was its historical accuracy along with the injection of a sporting/political perspective. The author demonstrated how the rise of Fascism and Nazism were closely tied to the development of soccer in Italy and Germany, respectively. He also showed how politicians used the nascent sport of soccer to foment nationalistic tendencies:

"The Fascists had taken time to come to terms with soccer... It bothered them that soccer had been invented in England, and Mussolini's government initially tried to interest people in a new Italian ball game called volata. Many Fascists found the very idea of soccer offensive... To the early Nazis, sport could have only one purpose: breeding soldiers." (Page 26)

Soccer in England and Germany During WWII

I liked that the author digressed somewhat to discuss wartime soccer in two other countries; namely, England and Germany. For example, Mr. Kuper showed how the Germans added world-class talent in non-traditional ways:

"Germany's invasions had already proved an effective method of acquiring players. In the part of Poland annexed at the start of the war, the Germans had found Ernst Willimowski, who remains to this day quite probably the best Polish soccer player ever. He scored twenty-four goals in twenty-two internationals for Poland before the war, including four in a 6-5 defeat of Brazil in the Racing Strasbourg Stadium at the 1938 World Cup." (Page 127)

The author also introduced a few interesting tidbits from wartime England that might surprise younger readers:

"Bombs and other wartime exigencies forced Spurs (Tottenham) to share White Hart Lane with Arsenal, and Manchester United to move in with Manchester City; and England's Stan Mortensen once appeared as substitute for Wales... British soccer in the Second World War remains an almost untapped social phenomenon." (Page 154)

"Wartime soccer, like wartime jam, is always depicted as ersatz. Yet the truly remarkable fact is how little the game was disrupted. Many of the prohibitions that characterized the British war barely touched soccer... Soccer entered the communal British soul during the war as it never had before." (Pages 160-161)

And the ball was round and the game lasted 90 minutes also in Germany:

"In Germany, league soccer continued as if nothing were happening, even as Allied bombs flattened the country, and as the one essential commodity for top-class soccer, young men, was being dispatched to its destruction on the Eastern Front." (Page 154)

"Yet even in those last days of war, on April 22, 1945, with the Allies virtually at the gates of Munich, the city's two big clubs Bayern and 1860 Munich met in a friendly." (Page 167)

"I asked (Albert, a  former Germany international) Sing whether he experienced hostility playing in Nazi satellite states  like Slovakia, Bulgaria, or Hungary. Not at all, he said. They always got friendly welcomes everywhere..." (Page 175)

"The Nazi atmosphere pervaded everything, and inevitably it changed the style of the national soccer team... Generations of German soccer players were raised in a style of play set under Hitler... West Germany's 1949 constitution never had a clause about playing like Brazil." (Pages 184-186)

Intriguing Display of Letters

The author's detailed research included several actual letters which provide a rare look at Dutch life during  World War II. For example, the following penned by J. Kleerekooper on 4 November 1945 to the Amsterdam club, Neerlandia:

"Honorable gentlemen,

I am aware that in many areas there are great shortage, which on occasion force us to take all sorts of emergency measures. However, what I observed at your ground today seems to me somewhat to exceed the common term of 'bounderies.' The question to which I refer is the corner flags that mark your ground. These consist of parts of prayer clothing as used by Israelites. Personally I regard myself as a free thinker yet I none the less find the solution that you have found at the least inappropriate, certainly when one considers where this clothing comes from and why it is no longer where it ought to be." (Page 104)

The club replied that it was unaware of the situation, and replaced the flags in question.

Other Notable Quotes

"Ajax was the place where Jews and gentiles met. At the stadium you found poor Jews, rich Jews, middling Jews, in a sea of gentiles all shouting for the same club. It was a melting pot... A Jew at Ajax felt himself a part of Amsterdam. He was protected there." Page 23

"It's not every day that you hear the 'Marseillaise' while the Reich and Swatiska flags flutter in the wind." Referencing a 1933 friendly between Germany and France on Page 29.

"We have a boy, a very young boy, and he is a marvelous soccer player. Couldn't you place this boy with a Dutch club? (Meijer) Stad called Feyenoord, where a soccer player answered the phone, and later Ajax, but no one wanted the young Argentinian, whose name, of course, was Diego Maradona... From documents at his side, Meijer Stad picks up the Christmas card from Maradona." Page 65

"The Nazis regarded the Dutch as fellow Germans who had left the tribe due to a historical error and were to be brought back gently. As long as they weren't Jews or in the Resistance (and about 98 percent of Dutch people were neither), they were treated fairly respectfully until the last months of the war. The German soldiers who were barracked in the Ajax Stadium, for instance, would always ask Ajax's chairman for permission to use a pitch." Page 98

"Since its recent invention the game seemed to have become a basic human need, almost like eating and sex. The Dutch weren't about t o give up just because of a genocide." Page 101

"Ajax was a bourgeois club, and Ajax men would have considered themselves members of a particular caste. Belonging to Ajax was probably a clearer identity, a more tangible tie, than being Dutch."  Page 121

"The Dutch for decades propagated a false myth of having saved the Jews. The Danes, who really did save their Jews, rarely talk about it. In part, this is precisely because the Holocaust didn't hit Denmark." Page 151

"The King paused and said, 'How many times have you played for England?' I replied, 'Forty-three, Sir.' The King then asked, 'How old are you?' 'Thirty-four, Sir.' The King gave me a friendly smile, 'The same numbers reversed,' he said. Odd that, until that moment, I hadn't noticed the coincidence." Eddie Hapgood, quoted on page 162 about a pre-match meeting with his majesty, King George VI.

"Ajax? (Bill) Shankley is supposed to have said before the match, 'That's a cleaning fluid.' " Page 199

A Story that Needed to Be Told

Mr. Kuper told a story that needed to be shared with a larger audience. This book goes well beyond a well-research tale about a taboo topic that many prefer to avoid. This seminal work is not only about soccer, a country and a people, but rather the good and bad qualities found in human nature. Ajax, The Dutch, The War will make a valuable addition to your personal library.

About the Author

Simon Kuper was born in Uganda in 1969 and spent most of his childhood in Holland. His first book, Soccer Against the Enemy, won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year and went on to become an international best seller. He now writes for the Financial Times.

Please Note

I have received a complimentary review copy from a representative of the publisher, Perseus Books. I was not compensated by the author, publisher or any other party who would benefit from a positive review.
Steve Amoia is a freelance writer and translator from Washington, D.C. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries and The Soccer Translator. You can follow Steve @worldfootballcm on Twitter. 

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