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Soccer in the torture state

Defiance and resistance under Nazi occupation

Nazi propaganda photo of prisoners playing at KZ-Dachau, June 10, 1933

Friedrich Franz Bauer

When faced with such dire circumstances as imprisonment in a concentration camp, chasing a ball around might seem like the last thing anyone would be interested in.

But the photo exhibition “Soccer Under the Swastika,” on display at The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art through September 3, shows how sports can offer distraction and inspiration, even in horrible situations.

Shared from the fascinating, comprehensive book of the same name by Dr. Kevin E. Simpson, a psychology professor at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, the photographs also show snippets of life at Nazi camps across Europe.

“It arose out of my teaching; whenever I was preparing for my ‘Psychology of the Holocaust’ class, I kept coming across memoirs, testimonies, photographs of soccer being playing in ghettos and camps, and it always astounded me, confused me, because all of these places were designed to destroy,” Simpson said.

The show includes action shots of soccer games, in which some players aren’t even wearing shoes, and others where crowds of thousands gathered to witness the athletic diversion.

“How could you sustain yourself through athletic competition or exertion and still make it?” Simpson asked. “And when you really start to get into the stories, you realize privilege came with the playing. For many of them, if they played, they got more food rations, they got protection, they were maybe saved from deportation.

“In one camp north of Prague (Terezin), for instance, there was a full-blown league. There was an amateur, a pro and a youth league. … The SS had an interest in maintaining it because it pacified, but they also had their favorite teams, they would bet on it, so it was interwoven into the torture state. But it was also rebellion, survival, a way to live to the next day.”

As an act of defiance and resistance, soccer at the camps played a similar role as other higher forms of culture such as music, art, and literature, in helping the Jewish prisoners maintain their dignity and sense of identity.

“It was almost everywhere,” Simpson said. “All the names we’ve heard—Buchenwald, Auschwitz, they all played there. Sometimes it was more vibrant and consistent, sometimes it popped up for a time and then went away. Even in the labor camps where people were worked to death, there would be leagues. It’s a strange reality, but woven together with all the other stories where maybe writers survived because they had some extra help or musicians who were part of an orchestra, or a chorus, such as the ‘Defiant Requiem,’ which was in Terezin at about the same time. It’s resistance, it’s defiance. It’s survival.”

The game was tolerated by the Nazis because they were trying to hide the true nature of the camps from the world, and showing a thriving soccer culture promoted the idea that there wasn’t anything sinister happening.

“Culture was allowed to thrive in some places, but sometimes it served the Nazis’ interests in creating a ruse for propaganda,” Simpson said. “Terezin was such a place, as many famous Jews were sent there who were from the sciences, arts, sports, so they could attempt to fool the world that they were being taken care of through these other pursuits.”

The Nazis also allowed the photos to proliferate because they wanted to demonstrate that they were firmly in control.

“The photos themselves gave me pause because there are these poor souls running around in these tattered clothes, they’re barefoot, but yet it’s a picture that the Nazis wanted to broadcast to the German people,” Simpson said. “At first, it didn’t make sense to me because the inmates looked so disheveled and unkempt. But of course, this is the build-up of the terror state, the security state, and the Nazis wanted to show that they were the authority, that the so-called enemies of the state were being held captive.”

It is a complex, sobering subject, especially considering many of the people playing in the photos were put to death soon afterwards. That’s what haunts—not just the possibility they were facing at the time, but what we know occurred in the days and weeks after the photos were taken. 

“Soccer Under the Swastika”
Through September 3
Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art         
2021 E. 71st St.
Mon.–Fri.,10 a.m. –5 p.m.; Sat, noon–5 p.m.; Sun. 1 p.m.–5 p.m.

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