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.

Page 1 of 5 | Next page