Anatoly Kuznetsov and Dynamo Kyiv’s ‘almost incredible’ story

Uzi Berger—it is not known whether he is related to the Berger in Knoll’s account—numbered among the players ultimately killed by the Nazis. It is not clear from memorial records precisely how the Nadworna footballers died, whether in the 6 Oct 1941 execution of 2,500 Jews in a forest outside town or in 1942 at Belzec death camp. Nor is it known why 12 kaduregel players are set apart in an alphabetical listing of victims. Does it reflect their prominence in the community, or were they murdered as a unit? The Jewish community in Nadworna—all its institutions, civil and religious—ceased to exist, like more than 90 percent of the Jews in Galicia. “All was swept from the earth,” says Nadworna rabbi Samuel Hubner.

Certainly these were not the only soccer players to die in the Nazi death factory. For starters, Andy Dougan acknowledges that, before Dynamo’s Nikolai Korotkykh, Ivan Kuzmenko, Alexei Klimenko and Nikolai Trusevich died at the hands of the Gestapo and Siretz concentration camp executioners, squad player Lazar Kogen and referee Lev Chernobylsky, one of the club’s first managers, had been murdered at Babi Yar. Both were Jews. Neither is typically included in retellings of the Dynamo story.

Ha-koach Kalisz, ca. 1933

Ha-koach of Kalisz, Poland, ca. 1933. (© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Zionist-fueled sporting enthusiasm in central and eastern Europe led to the establishment of Jewish football clubs, meant to help instill zeal for a return to Palestine. At Hakoah stadium in Vienna, visiting supporters hailed the 1925 Austrian champions with shouts of “Hoppauf, Herr Jud!” On a U.S. tour that year, the team played before 45,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York. Sides named Hakoah, meaning “The Strength,” formed throughout central Europe.

Hakoah Vienna temporarily disbanded in 1938 as the result of German policies that banned Jews from municipal sports grounds. Jews had been expelled from German soccer clubs in 1933. Former national coach Otto Nerz, decrying the professionalism that Jews allegedly propagated within the Third Reich, in 1943 envisioned a “final solution” in soccer and in all other recreation: “In the end there will be left a Europe free from Jews with sports free from Jews.”

While Karel Berkhoff in an exhaustive survey of Ukrainian society under Nazi occupation includes less than one page on sport—“sports played a small role in people’s lives,” he says—he perhaps understates the capacity of FC Start to consolidate anti-Nazi sentiment. As in much of Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev, Dougan’s sourcing on the Start-Flakelf match is unclear—presumably eyewitness testimony and Ukrainian- and Russian-language resources compiled by Kyiv-based journalist Vitaly Yerenkov. In reconstructing the pre-match atmosphere Dougan says that Kyivan women with twists of lace in their hair joined in Ukrainian folk songs. FC Start, he concludes, was a “walking advertisement for resistance.”

But the players had no design on making political statements, according to the last survivor from the team, Makar Goncharenko. He died in 1996. To Goncharenko, Start served as a “convenient toy” for Nazi occupiers. “In reality,” Goncharenko said in 1992, “this toy only seemed to be under control, it had its own character and its own understanding of the rules of the game. There were nine victories in nine games, they scored 56 goals and conceded only 11 and it was not a legend, it was true.”

Again, as a metaphor for Ukrainian history, these Dynamo players fit well. After Kyiv’s recapture by the Red Army in Nov 1943, Soviet tribunals regarded the Start players as collaborators for having played football against Germans. Over time, their stories were exploited to suit ideological needs. Says Yerenkov in the documentary series History of Football: The Beautiful Game:

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