Auschwitz and the perversion of football

For benefit of the International Red Cross, Nazis stage a football match at Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia, on 23 Jun 1944. Inspectors watch the game taking place in the camp square. (Comite International de la Croix Rouge)

For Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we publish a 2008 interview with William Heyen. A Brooklyn-born child of German immigrants, he has authored numerous collections of poetry and essays about the Holocaust. In his poem “Parity,” Heyen addresses the collusion that Nazis at Auschwitz forced on special squads, or Sonderkommando, by giving the primarily Jewish units the job of running the crematorium. At least once in 1944, the SS also staged a football match between representatives of the two groups, held in a crematorium courtyard.

Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved uses the phrase “gray zone” to describe the camp’s network of complicity in which perpetrator and victim were bound institutionally to the job of extermination. The warped reality is captured in the soccer game. In Heyen’s poem, the SS in this match envisions “the conjoining of spirit / for mutual health & benefit.”

“They put the ball into play. Sonorous laughter filled the courtyard,” writes Jewish doctor and Josef Mengele assistant Miklos Nyiszli in his eyewitness account of camp life. He continues:

The spectators became excited and shouted encouragement at the players, as if this were the playing field of some peaceful town. Stupefied, I made that mental note as well. Without waiting for the end of the match, I returned to my room. After supper I swallowed two sleeping tablets of ten centigrams each and fell asleep. A badly needed sleep, for I felt my nerves stretched to the breaking point. In such cases, sleeping tablets were the best remedy. (57–58)

Heyen reads “Parity.” Download interview (MP3) » (28:34)

Interview with William Heyen, 11 September 2008

GG: Say some of your connection with soccer. I know it’s long-standing and that you’ve played the game. What are some of your first recollections?—I imagine it was a while before there was organized soccer for you to play.

WH: As a kid I played lots of kickball games and that kind of thing at the playground. When I went to high school, and this was at Smithtown in Long Island, I think I was a sophomore when I began playing soccer and felt part of a team. That’s when I began playing. And then because my high school coach had gone to [SUNY] Brockport here in western New York, I ended up at this place. I played more than three years on the varsity. I was all–New York State for a few years, and then I was all-American for two years, including first-team in my senior year. Just a few months ago for the first time I was vain enough for the first time to have one of my all-American certificates framed.

In those days there were no divisions in college soccer. Even little Brockport. We had just 800 or 900 students. We played the University of Pittsburgh and CCNY [City College of New York] and Army and Navy and other good schools. Brockport was co–national champions with Penn State in 1955. After that the centers of soccer moved out to the Midwest and to the West. But in those days we were at the hub of things.

I played what we called center-half back in those days. I don’t know how much I’m in touch with the game anymore. I did follow the [2006] World Cup, and I’ve watched big matches in the past. I’m sort of an American now who has fallen under the spell of football and basketball. But soccer is maybe my heart’s sport.

GG: Growing up and learning the game of soccer, did you recall many other players outside the university context? Was there a network of amateur teams, ethnic-based teams—Portuguese, Italian and so on? Did that make an impact on you, to the extent that you were aware of them?

WH: I didn’t follow any of the leagues, but I did during summers for a couple of years—college summers—I played for a Brauhaus team on Long Island. This was an all-German team. We did play other ethnic teams. We played a couple of games at Jones Beach I remember. I got to know something about the foreign players and how the game was played.

In college, because I did handle the ball a little bit better than most of the American players, a couple of times I was asked what country I was from. But I was born in Brooklyn. My old man, who was born in Germany, had been a goalie as a young man, and I kicked the ball to him a little bit against the garage once in a while. But no, I wasn’t aware of leagues and things like that. …

GG: Thom Satterlee, who was coeditor of [The Global Game: Writers on Soccer] and was a student of yours, seems to think you had a trial with a professional side. It might have been the New York Generals …

WH: I had an invitation when I was a senior to show up and try out for a team in New York. I even forgot who they were. But I thought better of it and went to graduate school. I did when I taught at [SUNY] Cortland help out as an unofficial assistant coach. … When I was in graduate school at Ohio University in Athens again I helped out. That year I remember the team won the Mid-American Championship.

I remember hearing when I was in graduate school that they were having tryouts for the Olympics up in Cleveland. I thought I maybe could make it, who knows? But by then I had a child and had a car that didn’t work very well. I fell into another kind of life. I got to be more interested in literature and reading and writing than in seeing what I could do in soccer.

GG: Your poem titled “Parity” appears in [The Global Game: Writers on Soccer]. It’s ironic for it to be there in a way. It takes place in a setting in which sport seems very illogical and seems like the antithesis of sport, the antithesis of soccer, the match that’s described there. Is that how you reacted when you first read about this occurrence?

WH: I think what happened, and this is in Primo Levi‘s terms, what happened there at Auschwitz with this soccer game was a perversion of sport in which the SS who were running the camp, Levi says, suggested that these special commando, Jews and others, were on their level and that is the reason they would play with them. It’s as though they dragged down another segment of humanity, and this game was a manifestation of that. … [Heyen reads “Parity.”]

I guess when I write a poem it’s successful—and this one is somewhat successful anyway—when I can keep reading it and keep hearing things in it. And this one continues to give of itself for me. I’m listening to its sounds, “spirit” and “benefit,” and then those long “a”s at the end, “Come, said the SS, today / we must play …” It seems to me to be a very sardonic poem. I don’t get anything in there per se of the working of the game, and I’ve read an awful lot of Holocuast literature—and I haven’t read about this soccer game anywhere else, so that’s all I know about it.

Levi got it from a book by a Hungarian physician [Nyiszli] who worked with Mengele who talked about this soccer game. But there aren’t any details about it. Again, the point being that when the SS who ran the camp had reduced the special commando to people like themselves, then a kind of parity was created. It’s as though they destroyed another race’s morality; therefore, they could, so-called, play.

I wish I did know more about soccer matches at Auschwitz. …

GG: You’ve done a lot of Holocaust literature, a few books of poems and essays, and assimilated what seems like an extraordinary amount of source material, survivors’ literature and other sources. How has the process gone for you, turning that language and that source material into poetic form like in this poem “Parity,” for instance? How does that transformation occur?

WH: I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if this answers your question. But I have a new book coming out this fall [2008]. It’s called A Poetics of Hiroshima. Most of it, three-quarters of the book’s poems, are Holocaust poems, and then there are some Hiroshima and “bomb” pieces. And what my theme is this time, and I face it fully maybe for the first time, is that art truly has to do with this collision between beauty and atrocity. So even writing a poem like “Parity” I’m trying to create something on the page that I care for, something of rhythmical intensity, something of imagistic interest and even beauty. And at the same time, lurking in the background, there is this idea of the absolute horror that’s going on, so that it can seem almost obscene to be pursuing art.

Raul Hilberg, the famous scholar who wrote The Destruction of the European Jews—three big volumes—also has a newer book called The Politics of Memory. He talks about writing The Destruction of the European Jews and drafting it when he was a graduate student at Columbia and he was working in his parents’ apartment. While he was constructing that book, which is kind of a ground zero for Holocaust history, he was listening to classical music, for example, Beethoven symphonies. And he was trying to construct his book, his study, as though it were a symphony.

So he very early on faced the idea that, yes, this is what we do, even while we are responding to the darkest history of the human race. I say in one poem, “Here is where God’s darkness grew darkest.” Even while we’re responding to that, we have this other urge to create something meaningful and something beautiful, even if it’s darkly beautiful. And we know of course from the camps that people too were trying to make paintings and make poems. There’s a lot of literature that comes out of that.

… I have a German family background. My father got here in 1934. I think it was 1934 and [he] met my mother here as they were both born in Germany. But his two brothers died on the German side. My wife’s father was a student at Tübingen. When he was given credit for getting rid of Jewish professors there he drew the attention of Dr. [Joseph] Goebbels, who called him up to Berlin. He was one of 50 regular participants at Goebbels’s news conferences for years. So there is that German background in me that drew me toward it.

But it’s that history. Still I read book after book, and I find myself just shaking my head saying, “Could this have happened? How could this have happened, that so-called civilized people of my blood did to others what they did?” Susan Sontag says that the Holocaust is opaque. We can’t see into it, we can’t finally see through it. And for me this is a good thing to keep in mind so that I don’t freeze myself into any positions about how this kind of aberrant behavior, this sickness, this psychotic behavior could have occurred.

GG: You said you had been to one of the camps, Bergen-Belsen. One of your volumes is titled Erika, which is the type of heather or vegetation that now covers the ground. I wonder how much of that atmosphere, seeing a camp environment, was important in your creative work. Was it necessary physically to see one of the camps at some point?

WH: I don’t know if it was necessary, because I seem to throw my mind—although really this is impossible—into these other scenes as I read these books. I still remember being at Bergen-Belsen that day. And what I really remember, and I don’t think I’ve talked about this before, is that night at home I drafted an essay about the visit to Bergen-Belsen. It became the essay “Erika.” But in early drafts I said it’s important for me not to change a word. But then as time went by I did improve its various redundancies and clumsinesses and I inserted other things, so I could not resist trying to make the essay into a work of art.

To stand there in that very ground where so much had happened. It’s unforgettable. In general the Holocaust has cast a shadow in my life. The city of Rochester has adopted Cynthia Ozick‘s The Shawl as a book that the whole city will read, and I’ll be doing two or three talks in relation to the book over the next month or two. And one of the things I’m going to emphasize is this idea that in order to understand such a book or any Holocaust fiction, say, or poetry we have to understand that the term “Holocaust survivor” is an oxymoron. Someone like Charlotte Delbo just says over and over and over again, “I’m dead, don’t you realize it? I’m dead.”

So there is that. I’ve got a poem “The Legacy” in which I mention that—basically the poem says that the more alive we are, the deader the past is and the deader the dead are. The more we empathize with and bring them up and recall them and bring them back into our memory, then the deader we are. So this is finally the legacy of this terrible history.

GG: We mention in the introductory note to the poem “Parity” that you had a couple of uncles who fought on the German side in the Second World War, and I believe perished in it, and you dedicated some poems to them. How much do you know of their background, and did you ever know them personally?

WH: I didn’t know them at all. I think I remember, when I was a boy, my father receiving the news of the deaths of his brothers. And all I heard was that one of them was a rabid Nazi, an idealist as they called them in those days, so he was glad to be doing what he did. This was Hermann Heyen, and he was shot down over Russia finally. The other one, my father said, Willy, Wilhelm, after whom I was named, was just a foot soldier who was one of the not many Germans who were killed at the beginning in Holland.

No, I never knew them or had any contact with them. My father was quiet about things regarding World War II.

GG: You had a volume earlier called The Swastika Poems. One of your earliest memories—you were born in 1940—and you still recalled swastikas, because you were from a German family, being painted—was it on your house or near the house?

WH: On the steps and on the side of the house. There was a tremendous amount of tension. I didn’t know what the swastika represented, but I knew that it sort of vibrated within the house and made everybody nervous. At that time my father was working against the Axis for Bethlehem Steel.

By the time I got to high school, I don’t think any high schools were offering German courses or anything like that.

GG: How is your connection with the sport of soccer now? You see the World Cup and occasionally a college game, the college team you played for?

WH: In fact there’s an alumni weekend coming up here, and I’ll be there and bullshit with the old ballplayers. Maybe I could tie together soccer and poetry in one thing that’s been on my mind. What has really bothered me for a long time is how, to me, dirty the sport has become when I watch it on TV or even in the college ranks. I remember being bothered many years ago watching great players like Maradona chopped down from behind and then the yellow card coming out very reluctantly, and then maybe the red card. I saw in this recent World Cup in so many matches—I can’t stand seeing some of the elbowing and some of the spikes flashing and especially the uniform pulling. It disrupts the whole finesse and the beauty of the game.

So I’ve done some thinking about this lately. The most brilliant thing anybody ever said about poetry to my mind was in Emerson’s Journal, when he says, “Form always stands in dread of power. What the devil will he do next?” So there’s always this equilibrium between form, shape, orderliness, control and, on the other hand, power or wildness or force. And in the real poem those things achieve a kind of balance, a sort of blending. And you know it when you’ve hit it, when you’ve got a forward velocity mixed in with a stasis. It’s just a feeling you can get.

I think all this dirty play in soccer which gets out of hand—you’ve only got one guy on the field staying in control of things really. Even in pro basketball you’ve got three refs on the court. All of that disrupts the beauty, the poetry of the game, the rhythm of it, the skill of it. So that’s been one thing that bothers me. I watch a game on television once in a while, and I have to look away and I become irritated with it. I know well enough as an athlete—I still play basketball at 67, I’ve been an athlete of one kind or another all my life—I know that in soccer you can fend off other players with forearms and keep your balance and everything else. But this deliberate dirty play of people being pulled down by their uniforms and all of that, that has put me off and, as I said, disrupted the possible poetry of the game and the great skills of these players now.

GG: Related to your own history as a soccer player, when you were playing the game did you think of it as a poetic form, as a sport that was capable of that kind of expression?

WH: I went to college as a phys ed major, and I was a phys ed major for two and a half years. If someone had told me back then that I’d be interested in literature or poetry someday, I’d have felt sort of insulted. No, I didn’t. But I felt the rhythms of the game. When a play snaps into place in soccer or basketball or anything else you just have that feeling. It’s like the proper swing of a golf club or whatever. But no, I wasn’t thinking of the poetry of the game. I was thinking of trying to get a win and to get around the guy in front of me.

I’m six-five, so I was, again, center-halfback. I played mainly defense, but I was always in there on corner kicks, and so I did my share of damage to the other teams.


  • Tadeusz Borowski, “The People Who Walked On,” in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, trans. Barbara Vedder, Writers from the Other Europe (1959; Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1976).
  • William Heyen, “Sunlight,” The American Poetry Review (March/April 2007): 55–56.
  • Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, trans. Tibere Kremer and Richard Seaver (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Crest, 1960).
  • Stanislao G. Pugliese, review of The Grey Zone, The American Historical Review 108 (June 2003).
  • Debarati Sanyal, “A Soccer Match in Auschwitz: Passing Culpability in Holocaust Criticism,” Representations 79 (summer 2002): 1–27.


Heyen’s poem “Parity” appears in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (3)

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  1. sportsbabel says:

    This is also the game that the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes about in his book Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Thank you for posting this. I will definitely look up Mr. Heyen’s poem.

  2. Thanks kindly for the reference. I will look up Agamben’s work.

  3. Black Rabbit says:

    They played football all the time at Auschwitz, the pitch was immediately next to the main Birkenau gas chambers.

    One of the linesmen, Leo Goldstein, in the “Battle of Santiago” in the ’62 World Cup, was an Auschwitz survivor.

    He claimed it’s only because he’d read the “rule book” that a German international footballer / Auschwitz gas chamber guard pulled him out of the queue for the gas chamber.

    Jewish survivors of Auschwitz reminisce about matches they played on a Sunday in Steven Spielberg‘s Shoah Foundation videos (the testimony of 55,000+ holocaust survivors).

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