Soccer Championship Stirs Up the Ghost of Anti-Semitism

Jun 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published on GeoCurrents in June 2012]


Like the upcoming London Olympics this year and the planned Sochi Olympics in 2014, the Euro 2012 has attracted worldwide attention to a political topic seemingly unrelated to soccer: anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. The main reason is the choice the venues: Poland’s Warsaw, Gdańsk, Wrocław, and Poznań, and Ukraine’s Kiev, Lviv, Donetsk and Kharkiv. These cities are not necessarily popular tourist destinations, but they were sites of important Jewish communities that suffered terribly during World War II and of concentration camps where both Jews and non-Jews were exterminated in staggering numbers. Warsaw Ghetto was the site of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943, the largest single revolt by the Jews during World War II. The majority of the Jews from Gdańsk—known as the Free City of Danzig under the protection of the League of Nations—were able to leave in the wake of the Kristallnacht riots in November 1938, most of them to Palestine. Those who remained until the city fell to the Germans were murdered in the Holocaust. Many of Wrocław’s 10,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps and killed, and a network of brutal camps was established around the city, known as Breslau in German. Poznań too was a site of a concentration camp, and its pre-war Jewish population of about 2,000 were mostly murdered in the Holocaust. Kiev’s Jews—nearly 34,000 men, women, and children—were rounded up by the Germans and massacred at Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941; this tragedy became subject of a famous poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13. In Lviv, Jews were subject to prosecution by Germans, Poles, Ukrainian nationalists, and the Soviet authorities alike. In Donetsk, 3,000 Jews died in the ghetto and 92,000 Jews and non-Jews were killed in the local concentration camp. Kharkiv was the largest Soviet city to be occupied by the Nazis; its Jewish community, which prided itself with the second largest synagogue in Europe, suffered greatly as well: an estimated 30,000 people were killed between December 1941 and January 1942 and buried in a mass grave by the Germans in a ravine outside of town named Drobitsky Yar.

Israeli students have launched a social media campaign to use the Euro 2012 soccer games to commemorate the Holocaust. The campaign, consisting of a website, smartphone applications and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, is titled Euro1945 and its graphics echo the official advertising campaign of Euro2012. The welcome page of the site (see screen shot above) displays a map where each EUFA 2012 hosting city and stadium is marked with a Jewish tombstone. A click on the icon produces a summary about the local pre-Holocaust Jewish community. Some of the text on the Euro1945 website relates soccer to the Holocaust more directly, such as the note on Poznan’s first Jewish labor camp set up where the city’s Municipal Stadium now stands, or the story the Kiev Death Match, held in August 1942 at Zenit Stadium: a team of German soldiers lost the game 3:5 to local players, but the Germans sent the victorious team to a concentration camp. At times, the Nazis used soccer for propaganda, as when they had the popular Jewish German actor/director Kurt Gerron direct a film about life in the Theresientadt camp and give an on-screen appearance testifying to the camp’s humane conditions. A long scene shows a soccer game played in September 1944 on a field within walking distance to a crematorium at its apogee of productivity. After the film was completed, Gerron, as well as the Theresientadt jazz band “Ghetto Swingers”, were transported to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Unlike the aforementioned London and Sochi Olympics, which refuse to address such political issues, Euro2012 has been willing to confront this legacy. Official visits to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp were conducted by four out of sixteen Euro2012 teams. Players and coaches from Germany, Italy, England and the Neatherlands, accompanied by the Holocaust survivors from their respective countries, paid tribute to the victims, while warning against prejudice and violence on today’s field. “Our generations are fortunate in that we’ve only seen these horrors in films and books,” Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini said.


But for some Jews living in Euro2012 host cities, especially in Ukraine, anti-Semitism is alive and kicking. As pointed out by Efraim Zuroff of The Times of Israel, Lviv is the capital of Ukrainian ultranationalism, historically linked with anti-Semitism. The names of Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Stepan Bandera are associated not only with Ukrainian nationalist movement but also with mass killings of Jews. Khmelnytsky was the nationalist leader of the Cossack uprising against Polish rule in Ukraine in 1648. Though his primary aim was to establish an autonomous Ukraine, he also aimed at eradicating Jews from the country. The precise number of Jews killed at the hand of Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks is not known, but historians today estimate it in the tens of thousand (Jerome A. Chanes Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook). Stepan Bandera, the head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), is a highly controversial figure in contemporary Ukraine, due to his cooperation with Nazi Germany in 1939-1941. OUN perceived the Jews as “the most faithful support of the ruling Bolshevik regime, and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in Ukraine” (from the OUN Krakow declaration made in 1941). As a result, the Minority Policy document ordered that “Jews must be isolated, removed from governmental positions in order to prevent sabotage, those who are deemed necessary may only work with an overseer… Jewish assimilation is not possible”. The controversy surrounding Bandera and OUN was stirred anew in January 2010, when the outgoing President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko awarded to Bandera the title of Hero of Ukraine. The award was condemned by Jewish organizations and Russia’s Foreign Ministry and was declared illegal by a Ukrainian court in April 2010. In January 2011, under President Viktor Yanukovych, the award was officially annulled.


In recent years, the ultranationalist ideas in Ukraine have been carried forward by the Svoboda (“Freedom”) party, originally known as the Social-National Party, which is rooted in Nazi collaboration. Svoboda is now the largest party on Lviv city council and in the regional council. It has taken power in other major urban centers of western Ukraine, including Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk. In October 2012, when the country holds national elections, Svoboda is expected to move up to the next level and win seats in the Verkhovna Rada, the national parliament, for the first time. This is in part because the moderate nationalist politicians, such as the leaders of the Orange Revolution Yulia Timoshenko and Viktor Yuschenko, quickly fell out among themselves and are now seen as shrowded in a “blizzard of allegations of corruption”, in the words of Efraim Zuroff. Yulia Tymoshenko is in prison, convicted of “abuse of office”, although rights groups say her incarceration is politically motivated.

Even though there are almost no traces of Judaism remaining in Lviv, soccer teams and fans coming to Lviv are likely to encounter manifestations of anti-Semitism. The city’s most elegant hotel, the Citadel Inn, which hosts many guests for the Euro 2012 matches, was built on the site of the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews. Two restaurants in the center of town have brazenly anti-Semitic themes. The first, “At the Golden Rose,” located near the site of the Golden Rose Synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941 with numerous Jews inside, offers its guests black hats like the ones worn by Hassidim, along with payot (sidelocks). If that’s not enough, the prices of the dishes on its menu are not listed, since Jews are expected to haggle over the (highly inflated) prices, a notorious anti-Semitic stereotype prevalent in Eastern Europe. The second eating establishment is named Kryivka, or “Hiding Place,” which recreates a bunker used by Ukrainian ultranationalist “partisans” allied to Stepan Bandera who actively participated in the murder of Jews in 1941. To enter, the password is “Glory to Ukraine”, but there is no room for Jews or other minorities in the Ukraine as envisaged by Ukrainian ultranationalists.




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