Reclaiming Eastern European Jewish Identity Through Soccer

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This weekend marks the grand opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is built on the grounds of the former Warsaw Ghetto. The main exhibit presents artifacts from the 1,000 year history of Jews in Poland.

This weekend also marks a rematch between two Jewish amateur soccer clubs.

Before World War II, Team Warsaw and Team Krakow were rivals. But in the decades since the war, the teams never faced off. That finally changed thanks to the help of the international Jewish sports organization Maccabi.

Stars Of David

The teams met again for the first time on a hot, summer day in Krakow, Poland. Amid the usual soccer spectacle was something a little different: Stars of David printed on the right side of Team Warsaw’s black jerseys. Unlike their predecessors in Poland 70 years ago, the Jewish players of  Team Warsaw wore the stars voluntarily.

We had Jewish football clubs, we had Jewish synagogues, we had Jewish political movements. Anything that could be Jewish was Jewish. And now we’re trying to reclaim that.

Maayan St. Anton

“I really didn't actually believe that I’d be here one day and looking at them actually playing another Jewish team, so I’m here to support them," said Den Patrovsky, a fan of Team Warsaw. “It’s actually the first Jewish game in 70 years that’s taking place in Poland, so it’s actually a historical event.”

Jewish life thrived in Poland in the 1930s. There were more than 400 synagogues in Warsaw alone. And between World War I and World War II, 100 Jewish sports clubs were legally registered in the country. Their athletes included championship boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters. There was a community of young people who weren't just focused on survival — they were focused on living full, healthy lives.

That is, until 1939, when Nazis and their Polish collaborators began to obliterate Jewish culture. And Jews. During Nazi occupation, all Poles were banned from playing any games whatsoever. Some were banned from everyday activities that most people take for granted.

“My grandmother’s side were heavily affected by the Holocaust," said Maayan St. Anton, a young American Jew living in Warsaw and the vice head of her local Maccabi chapter.  “One of the sons was shot by a Nazi in Warsaw. He was walking on the sidewalk and the Nazi told him to get off and he didn't and he was killed on the spot.”

Today, young Jews play soccer not far from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

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"It’s less about, 'It’s 40 miles away from the place where all of our family members died,' and more about, 'We were Jewish before the Holocaust,'" St. Anton said. "We had Jewish football clubs, we had Jewish synagogues, we had Jewish political movements. Anything that could be Jewish was Jewish. And now we’re trying to reclaim that. So when we think about Auschwitz, we don’t think about Auschwitz. This is Krakow, because Krakow is a really interesting, large city in Poland that's fun to go to on the weekends."

A New Generation

Another soccer fan, Mateusz Maima, a major in Hebrew Studies at Warsaw University, stood in the bleachers.

“I have an aunt; she is 102, she’s in her 102nd year, and she was a member of Maccabi since 1928 until 1949," he said. "When I spoke with her family members and I told them that Maccabi was starting again in Poland, it was really exciting for them. And for me it’s like something very cool — that it's really happening."

Mateusz is part of a new generation. He was born in a world without Nazis or communists in power.

“For us, there’s nothing problematic to call ourselves Jews," he said. "We are the first generation that can talk openly about this subject and can do something.”

Some young Poles only recently learned they were Jewish. Their parents and grandparents grew up in Nazi-occupied and then in communist Poland without Jewish soccer teams. Now, being Jewish can be a source of pride.

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“You can have the synagogue, but it doesn't mean you have a community," St. Anton explained. "It means you have Jews. And so when you have something not specifically religious, it means that you have a community.”

That’s why the young Jews of Poland deliberately revived soccer. The Maccabi Warsaw team isn't just about the religion, the dark history or remembrance. It’s active — it’s about the now and establishing a long term future for Jews in Poland.

Team Warsaw beat team Krakow, 5-3, and Warsaw celebrated their victory at the Krakow Jewish Community Center.

"It's so natural to bring back any kind of organizations that could still work and that people would still love," said Team Warsaw coach Karol Strzemieczny. "I think everybody in Warsaw would want a club like this to still be here, you know? I really wonder how far this could go."


This segment aired on October 25, 2014.


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