Auschwitz and the perversion of football

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?

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