War, Auschwitz, and the Tragic Tale of Germany's Jewish Soccer Hero
Julius Hirsch won soccer championships before he was murdered by his own country. Today, he's become a symbol for tolerance.
Image via WikiMedia Commons
On the first day of May in 1910, the streets of Karlsruhe, Germany were choked with people. The crowd moved slowly west, past blocks and blocks of four-and five-story brick and brownstone buildings. It was May Day, when Germans celebrate the return of summer, but in Karlsruhe it was so much more: The south German city of about 110,000 people was set to host the most important soccer match it would ever see, the semi-final of the 1910 German national championship, a local derby pitting reigning champions Phönix Karlsruhe against the nation's hottest team, Karlsruhe Fussballverein (KFV).
KFV hosted the match at the Telegraphenkaserne stadium, a one-tiered bowl on the city's west side. The crowd arrived on foot, or crowded onto horse-drawn wagons, which clopped down the city's cobbled streets. Uniformed soldiers strolled through the gates, girls giggling on their arms. Heads turned at the sounds of motor cars, the scents of perfume and petroleum—the smell of money—lingering in their wake.
A record crowd of around 8,000 fans squeezed into the stadium. The rich sat side-by-side with the city's poor. Outside, the ticketless climbed the stadium's exterior walls and, perched there like birds, watched the action on the dusty field below.
It was a rough match, as local derbies always are. These teams had history. They were the dominant forces in Germany at the time, the era's Dortmund and Bayern Munich. They'd traded numerous blows over the last decade, but never with so much at stake. Twenty minutes in, Phönix lost a man to injury. There were no substitutions. With its man advantage, KFV went 2-0 up before Phönix's captain pulled one back, making the countdown to the final whistle a nervous one.
Amazingly, we have video of the match. The players are dressed in long, capri shorts and look strangely formal, especially KFV's, who wear white shirts that lace up the middle, giving the event a kind of renaissance flair. Skill-wise, it's not the Bundesliga, but something even more familiar: the kind of soccer you've probably played yourself in a park after school or in a Sunday league. The players look only vaguely organized. Nobody moves off the ball. When it bobbles their way, they swing their legs wildly. A century ago, this was the beautiful game at the highest level.
In the film, Gottfried Fuchs, KFV's lean center forward and one of the day's goal scorers, has more screen time than anybody. But he's not the star of the show. Behind him, playing to his left, there's a kid. He's got his pants hitched up a little too high, and he runs with a slight stoop. At one point, he rests his hands on his hips, just casually taking in the action, when the ball suddenly flies his way.
This is Julius Hirsch. He is 18 years old, the original wunderkind.
Over the next five years, Hirsch, Fuchs, and another KFV player, Fritz Förderer, would become the country's most famous attacking unit. They'd win titles and, with them, the loyalty of thousands of fans. They'd represent Germany in international matches across Europe, playing against some of their country's biggest rivals, past and present. By World War I, they'd rank among Germany's greatest ever sportsmen—and they'd return from that war as heroes both on and off the soccer field. But by World War II, Hirsch and Fuchs would be almost completely forgotten, their accomplishments erased, their lives discarded.
Fuchs and Hirsch were, respectively, the first and second Jewish players to ever represent the German national team. There have never been any others. Fuchs would escape the Holocaust. Hirsch would not. For years after his death, it was almost like he never existed at all.
Julius Hirsch was the youngest of seven siblings born over a 15-year period. For Hirsch's parents, Berthold and Emma, seven was a disappointing turnout: His mother was pregnant 14 times. As the German historian Werner Skrentny explains in his biography of Hirsch, Julius Hirsch. Nationalspieler. Ermordet—a book that informs much of this article—Hirsch's mother suffered through various still-births and infant deaths before Julius came along. Prior to his birth, in the aftermath of a stroke, doctors diagnosed her with dementia. For a couple of years, she went in and out of a mental institution—the Hospital and Sanatorium Illenau—just south of Karlsruhe, in the city of Achern, which is where she gave birth to Julius, on April 7th, 1892.
The Sanatorium was a place of spooky legend, the kind of establishment you wouldn't mention in good company but might whisper about around a campfire. Still, the treatment Hirsch's mother received there had the right effect. She eventually made a full recovery and returned to the family's apartment on Akadamiestrasse, in Karlsruhe.
The building the Hirsches called home was long since demolished and rebuilt, but the address is right in the heart of the city, on the same block as the massive, neoclassical brownstone building that today houses the city museum. Another imposing, ornate brownstone, the local high school, still stands just down the road.
Hirsch's parents were members of the city's thriving merchant class. They were proud, worldly people. His mother studied in Paris before returning to Germany to work as a hat maker. His father and uncles owned a textile business together, Gebrüder Hirsch. Later, they founded a company that specialized in signal flags and other fabric goods. With so much family in the area, the apartment on Akademiestrasse must have been packed with people on holidays and special occasions, laughing and gossiping in Badisch, the local German dialect.
Hirsch joined KFV as a 10-year-old with wide, probing eyes that gave him a resemblance to current German international Mesut Ozil. Like Ozil, Hirsch distinguished himself in the youth ranks immediately. When he was 17, the team's English manager, William Townley, a legendary figure in turn-of-the-century continental soccer, gave Hirsch, whom he called "junior," his senior team debut.
Back then, KFV played in a formation that resembled an upside down pyramid, with five forwards and just two defenders. Taking note of Hirsch's strong left foot, Townley deployed him on the left side of the forward line, where Hirsch had the fast feet and tricks to slice through entire defenses on his own. By the time he took part in the 1910 Karlsruhe derby, his shot was comparable to all manner of military weaponry, and he was accustomed to performing in front of thousands of fans. In the following match, the final, KFV defeated Holstein Kiel, and Hirsch became a German national champion.
Today, Germany has only three cities with more than one title-winning team: Berlin, Munich, and Karlsruhe. In 1910, Karlsruhe was the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Baden, one of the constituent territories of the German Empire. It had political power, but it wasn't exactly a metropolis. Today, with around 300,000 residents, it still isn't. But in 1910, it was the beating heart of German soccer, a fact that bemused and astonished the residents of Germany's bigger cities. In 1910, a Munich newspaper called Karlsruhe Germany's "football metropol." Over six percent of the city's population regularly turned up for matches. Prince Maximilian of Baden, the last Chancellor of the German Empire, was one of KFV's biggest fans.
But it wasn't just the size of the crowds that made Karlsruhe's early soccer scene special. That same Munich newspaper marveled at the diversity inside KFV's stadium. The level of economic and cultural integration seen in the stands—and on the field—speaks to the niche soccer occupied in pre-war German society.
When soccer came to Germany in the last quarter of the 1800s, the nation's sporting landscape was already crowded. Beginning in the early 1800s, gymnastics clubs, called Turnen, grew to dominate Germany's nascent sporting culture. They originated as a response to universal conscription in the Prussian military, which depended on a physically fit population. The organizations, led by a man named Freidrich Ludwig Jahn, modeled themselves around the teachings of the philosopher Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths, who argued for physical fitness "through unity of mind and body," as Ulrich Hesse writes in Tor! The Story of German Football.
The idea was originally quite liberal, but under Jahn's leadership, the gymnastics clubs took a dark turn. Before long, continues Hesse, "Jahn was no longer interested in GutsMuths' 'Perfect Man' but instead wanted the 'Perfect German,' physically prepared for life—and war. Soon, the once carefree, jolly, and relatively casual [Turnen] associations mutated into tight custodians of a nationalistic spirit and joined hands with the notoriously conservative student fraternities to build a bulwark against all things foreign."
This was in direct contrast to soccer, which couldn't get any more foreign. The game originated in England, after all. And although anti-Semitism and other social issues found their way into in German soccer from the very beginning, the soccer scene had an openness and looked outward in a way the rest of Germany's sporting culture did not. This is how Hirsch and Fuchs came to carry KFV—a team founded by Walther Bensamann, a Jew—to the German title in 1910.
The same year they won it all, Hirsch followed his father's footsteps, becoming a merchant himself. He completed a two year apprenticeship at a local leather works company, Freude and Strauss, which specialized in furniture. When he finished, perhaps seeing an opportunity in employing a local hero, the company hired Hirsch full time.
Hirsch was middle class. Gottfried Fuchs was anything but. His family owned a company with a 46,000 square meter factory that produced and exported all manner of wood and sawmill products. They became known as the "Wood Foxes" (Fuchs is German for fox), and business took them across the German Empire and beyond. Fuchs eventually became known as the first "Football millionaire," but the source of his fame and fortune were not one and the same.
German soccer remained officially amateur until 1945, when it became legal to pay players. This didn't mean players in the early days weren't being compensated. Between about 1920 and 1945, players received all manner of kickbacks and under-the-table incentives to join a rival team or move to a new city. Still, in Hirsch and Fuchs's day, the game was largely a leisure activity. The primary incentives to play were competitive glory and the love of the game.
But not every employer shared the love, and glory didn't make up for lost labor. This made it especially tricky for players to participate in national team games, which required longer travel and more work leave. Players had to arrange time off from employers who might not be soccer fans or even view kicking a ball as a legitimate pastime—let alone a reason to skip work. The difficulty with work arrangements coupled with the limited scheduling of national team games back then accounts for the small number of international appearances players made in the pre-World Cup era. Fuchs and Hirsch made their national team debuts in 1911, but they earned just 6 and 7 caps, respectively. They almost sound like fringe players, until you consider that by the beginning of WWI, the player who had represented Germany the most had only played 18 games.
As Skrentny illustrates, the logistics of national team participation were a nightmare: In March, 1912, Hirsch received a call-up to face the Netherlands. After begging time off from the leatherworks company, Hirsch sat on a train for more than nine hours. He stared out the window as it chugged north along the straightened Rhine to Mainz before wandering through the hills on the breathtaking, castle-dotted stretch of river between Mainz and Cologne. From there, it crossed into the Dutch lowlands, arriving in Zwolle just before 11 p.m. Zwolle and Karlsruhe are as far apart as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
But Hirsch was young, and the travel didn't seem to affect him. When Germany took on the Netherlands the following day, in front of 10,000 passionate Dutch fans, Hirsch put on the performance of his life. The game remains among history's most thrilling. The Dutch struck first, before Fuchs opened the scoring for Germany and Hirsch hit two first-half goals, but the Netherlands claw its way back into the match. The Dutch took the lead 4-3 at the beginning of the second half before Max Breunig, another KFV player, put the ball in his own net.
The Dutch fans must have celebrated as though the game were already over, but Hirsch wasn't through. He scored two more goals before the English referee John Howcroft blew his whistle for the final time with the score tied, 5-5.
Hirsch's legend was sealed.
Hirsch won another National Championship with Fürth, a team in northern Bavaria, before World War I punched a four-year hole in his career. He was the first German player to win a title with more than one team, which made him, at the outbreak of war, one of Germany's most celebrated players. The national championships were the highlight of his career, but the memories he'd most cherish in the darkness to come were those of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
Hirsch almost didn't go. The German Soccer Federation, the DFB, selected eight Karlsruhe-based players for its 22-man roster, of whom "Junior" Hirsch was the youngest. He received his squad invitation in the mail on May 28th, a little more than a month after Hirsch had begun a one year military conscription in a Badish grenadier regiment. He had reason to be pessimistic about whether he'd be allowed to participate. The military had denied past national team call-ups to other players, but Hirsch was accomplished at pleading his case by then, and the military brass let him go. (Another Olympian on military leave? American pentathlete George Smith Patton, Jr.)
The players left Germany on June 26th, and like respectable travelers, they dressed for the occasion: three-piece suits, pressed shirts. "In our beautiful new suits, we felt like gods," Hirsch remarked years later, as translated from Skrentny's Hirsch biography. (Unless otherwise noted, the quotations to follow are translated from Skrentny's work.)
The team stayed in the Crown Prince Hotel, right in the center of Stockholm, just five blocks from the Norrström River. Hirsch was just 20 years old. The world seemed enormous. It's easy to imagine him exploring the city with all the excitement of a study abroad student: evening walks along the water in the lingering summer daylight, stopping to watch ships unload goods from who-knows-where and then turning to peer up from the water's edge at the Swedish Royal Palace. Somewhere inside, Queen Victoria of Baden, another Karlsruhe native, lived a life of luxury about which the players could only dream, but she knew they were out there. Before they took the field, Victoria sent the team a good luck telegram.
Germany didn't play well, losing in the first round to Austria, Germany's other main rival. In the consolation bracket, the team dismantled Russia 16-0 with Fuchs scoring 10 goals, an international record that wouldn't fall until 2001. But in the following game, the team lost to Hungary, and Hirsch's Olympics were through.
Hirsch put the disappointment behind him and did his best to enjoy himself. He took in events at the brand new Olympic Stadium, which featured a kind of sporting opulence Hirsch had never seen before. It had a beautiful brick facade; a huge, arched entry; and a top with embrasures, like a castle wall. When events weren't happening, Hirsch attended parties on top of parties.
"I especially enjoyed the invitation we received from our Dutch friends," he remembered years later, "who still hadn't forgotten my good match in Zwolle."
The Great War came and went. Years passed. Hirsch returned from the Western Front to play on, first for Fürth and then again for KFV. He married a Christian woman named Ellen Hauser and they started a family. He lost his hair and his waistline expanded. When he started to lose a step, he turned to coaching.
The morning things started to unravel, in 1933, he didn't get a heads up or some kind of courteous call. It was just his coffee, the front stoop, the paper—or whatever Hirsch did for a morning routine. When he opened the pages of Sportbereicht Stuttgart, here's what he read:
"On Sunday, clubs involved in the Southern German Soccer Championship Finals [excluding Mainz and Worms] met in Stuttgart to address the situation, where after long discussions they prepared the following resolution:
"The undersigned clubs [...] gladly and definitively place themselves at the disposal of the national government's efforts in the field of physical training and are prepared to make every effort to cooperate. In the interest of this cooperation, they are willing to effect consequences in any way, particularly as regards to the issue of the removal of Jews from sports clubs."
This was on April 10th, a Monday. Among the numerous signatories were Fürth, Kaiserslautern, Nurnberg, Eintracht Frankfurt, and Bayern Munich.
It is not hard to imagine Hirsch's face crumple in anguish. He'd been a member of KFV for 31 years.
We can look back now and see the writing on the wall. Hitler was named Chancellor the previous January. His supporters in Karlsruhe celebrated the occasion with a torchlight procession down Keiserstrasse, the same road soccer supporters once poured down on their way to watch Hirsch play. The Bundestag burned the following month, and by the 5th of March, the Nazi takeover was complete. On April 1st, Karlsruhe began a boycott of Jewish goods. Nazi supporters plastered Jewish storefronts with signs warning the city's gentile population to stay away and then stood by menacingly, ensuring the boycott wasn't broken.
Inside Germany's soccer scene, things had also taken a turn for the worse. On March 27th, Kurt Landauer, the long-serving Jewish president of Bayern Munich, retired. He would flee to Switzerland before returning after the war to rebuild the team he loved.
For Hirsch, the soccer resolution came as a surprise, and it left a deep wound. Due to the global economic crisis, things had already become difficult for Hirsch. Two months earlier, he and his brother Max began bankruptcy proceedings on the sporting goods firm they ran together after taking over the family signal flag business. On the bankrupt firm's letterhead, Hirsch typed out an immediate response to the KFV leadership.
"My dear sirs," the letter began, "Today in Sportbereicht Stuttgart, I read that the big clubs, including KFV, have taken the decision to remove their Jewish Members." Hirsch reminds the club of his long affiliation, before declaring his resignation with a heavy heart.
"However," he continued, "I do not wish to leave unmentioned the fact that in this bully of a German nation, which is so hated today, there are still decent people and perhaps even more German Jews whose national loyalty is both evident in the way they think and proven by their deeds and the lifeblood they have shed.
"And it is for this reason, and not to boast, that I present the following:"
Over the next 15 lines, Hirsch detailed the death of his brother Leopold on the Western Front on April 30th, 1918, before going on to outline his own service during the Great War, as well as that of his two other brothers, Max and Rudolf. All four Hirsch boys were awarded the Iron Cross, second class. Rudolf also won the first class award.
For all of Hirsch's accomplishments—the important goals, the national championships, his participation in the Olympic Games—his service in World War I gave him the most pride, and caused him the most heartache as his country rapidly turned against him.
At the outbreak of World War I, the Hirsch boys—like many of Germany's Jews, who considered themselves as German as anybody—responded to call-ups and enlisted with a great sense of honor and duty. They were what Americans would call patriots: true believers in their nation, gladly willing to defend its honor. These were values passed down from Hirsch's father, who was a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war, which led to the creation of the united German Empire.
Adolf Hitler also served in World War I. Today, historians pin the source of his maniacal anti-Semitism to his service and his warped conclusions about the circumstances of Germany's defeat. When Germany lost the war, the Stab-in-the-Back Myth—which blamed Jews, communists, and other groups for undermining the war effort from the home front, among other things—was a persuasive (if factually baseless) explanation for defeat.
The myth fit nicely with still-prevalent Jewish stereotypes concerning money. Many believed Jewish bankers were responsible for the financial hardships Germany faced after WWI. The large numbers of Jewish doctors in the German Empire were also a source of great suspicion, believed to have arranged medical war exemptions for Jewish men of fighting age. Neither of these was true, of course. The country's financial woes were largely due to the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, which punished the country economically. And during the war, Germany's Jewish population suffered similar population loss as the rest of the German Empire.
Hirsch emerged from Paris's Gare du Nord train station—today Europe's busiest, and once the point of departure for France's WWI soldiers—on August 5th, 1938, sweaty and full of anxious hope. Between the economic collapse, the furthering anti-Semitic legislation, and with a young family to support, times had become increasingly difficult for Hirsch's family. Over the preceding five years, he'd traveled around Europe in search of a paycheck, at times finding employment coaching, at others as a salesman in the textile industry. His family survived on what little he earned and donations from a handful of non-Jewish friends. In 1937, he found work at a Jewish-owned paper company in Karlsruhe, but when it was "Aryanized" the following year, Hirsch lost his job and the owners lost their company.
His sister Rosa, who lived then in Paris, probably met him on the platform. They would have embraced before stepping back and taking stock of one another. Perhaps Rosa teased Hirsch about his pant size before they shuffled into the metro, talking rapidly in Badisch about family, and then in the soft tone of disbelief about the darkening cloud over Germany.
For Germany's Jews, Paris, the city of light, bustled with opportunity no longer present in their home country. This was especially true for Hirsch, who spoke French fluently enough that he worked as an interpreter during WWI.
Rosa and her husband lived in Paris's 16th Arrondissement. Just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the 16th is home to some of Paris's poshest neighborhoods. Rosa lived just a couple of blocks from the river. But the Hirsches had another connection in the 16th, too: Gottfried Fuchs lived just up the road from the Palais de Chaillot.
Like Fuchs and Rosa, Hirsch hoped to build a life in Paris for himself and his family. He spent his days walking the city's long boulevards, responding to ads, explaining his expertise in leather goods. He likely stopped by the city's soccer clubs too, offering his services. But a month passed, then another. Hirsch was still jobless.
On November 3rd, Hirsch returned to the Gare du Nord, said his goodbyes, and prepared himself to reenter Germany. He must have felt unbearable desperation. On the tracks, he hurtled toward a country in which he had no future.
The train from Paris arrived in Karlsruhe without Hirsch. When Rosa contacted Ellen to check on her baby brother, she found he hadn't made it, and the family grew concerned.
A week passed.
On November 9th, a Jewish teen in Paris shot and killed a Nazi diplomat. The assassination served as the pretext for Kristallnacht, which laid bare the depth and savagery of Nazi Germany's long-simmering anti-Semitism. Over two days, years of rising anti-Semitism bubbled over into a series of sustained and coordinated attacks on Germany's Jewish people. Across the country, crowds wielding torches and axes formed outside synagogues, including the two in Karlsruhe. They kicked in the doors or hacked them to bits, before burning the places of worship to their foundations. They roamed the city streets, breaking the windows of Jewish storefronts and damaging the goods inside. They shouldered into private residencies and dragged the Jewish families inside out onto the streets, where they were beaten and spit on. The mobs abducted tens of thousands of Jewish men, including Hirsch's uncle Heinrich, and took them to concentration camps.
A month passed. Hirsch's family feared the worst. They still hadn't heard from him.
In December, Ellen Hirsch finally received word about her missing husband. The Nazis hadn't killed him or taken him prisoner. He hadn't even been in Germany during the November Pogrom. Rather, Hirsch was in a French mental institution.
While traveling back to Germany after his unsuccessful stay in Paris, Hirsch suffered a mental breakdown and became convinced Ellen and their two children had died. When the train called in Commercy, a tiny town just west of Nancy, Hirsch shuffled off, wandering through the quaint train station and out into the town's dusty streets. Sometime later, he was found with a knife in a rock quarry outside of town, covered in blood. Believing he didn't have a family to return to, Hirsch had tried to kill himself.
Ellen dispatched her brother to bring Hirsch back to Karlsruhe, but he was not well. On March 5th, 1939, like his mother before him, Hirsch was taken through the front gate of the Hospital and Sanatorium Illenau. At the Sanatorium, the central building's facade, visible through the gate at the end of a tree-lined courtyard, is cold, sterile, and plain. The facility was not built for pleasure.
Hirsch came to understand this in a most intimate manner. Almost as soon as he got in, he wanted out. Over the coming weeks, doctors treated him with high doses of insulin until he slipped into hours-long comas—an antiquated therapy later replaced by electric shock treatment.
By the 20th of June, Hirsch had been institutionalized for months and desperately wanted out. That day, rain battered the Sanitarium's roof and windows, and patients took their exercise inside, in one of the facility's large halls. According to hospital records gathered by Skrentny, Hirsch slipped away from the group and into the pouring rain. He didn't have a hat and his shoes were nothing but felt slippers. He was discovered two hours later, in another part of town, sopping wet, attempting to steal a bike. He planned to ride it 30 miles north, to his family in Karlsruhe.
On the first of September, Germany invaded Poland. Hirsch was released into Ellen's care 20 days later. While inside, he'd lost 20 pounds. The doctor's didn't consider him healed but also noted he wasn't a critical case.
A few months after his release, a line of gray buses pulled up to the Sanatorium's front gate. The mentally ill and handicapped inside were taken to the Grafeneck Euthanasia Center and gassed.
On October 21st, 1940, train whistles pierced the cold, Karlsruhe air. Inside the train station—an enormous, rectangular brownstone with a slanted, slate roof—SS officers shouted orders at the crowds of confused and frightened people. Just hours before, these people—all Jews—were ordered to pack a small bag of necessities and no more than 100 Reichsmarks. At the station, the SS officers carried long lists with names like Altmann, Dryfuss, Goldschmidt, and Rosenberger. Entire families, multiple generations, were checked off and ordered aboard. Once loaded, the trains left for Gurs, a concentration camp in Southern France, reducing the Karlsruhe's population by nearly 1,000. Across Baden and the neighboring now-French region of Alsace, the Nazis deported an additional 14,000 Jews to Gurs.
No names from Hirsch's immediate family appeared on the list. The Hirsch children, as the offspring of a Jewish-Christian marriage, were considered Mischling, a subcategory of the "Jewish race" as defined by the Nazi regime that roughly translates to "half-breed." This designation placed them in what was essentially a higher caste than "full blooded" Jews, which gave the family certain "privileges," and precluded them from the first rounds of deportations. As the husband of an Aryan woman, Hirsch enjoyed similar privileges.
The Hirsches knew these wouldn't last. The trains would be back. Over time, the family became further and further ostracized from Germany's Aryan population. And talk inside the family unit began to revolve around saving the kids.
Escape was one option. At one point, the Karlsruhe postmaster arranged for Hirsch to meet a mail truck early one morning. It would smuggle him to Basel under a stack of mail bags. The truck arrived at the meeting point at 4 a.m. It waited until 5, but Hirsch never showed. He couldn't do it without his family.
With escape for the entire family too difficult, the Hirsches attempted to shed their Jewish heritage. They had a simple, excruciating plan: Julius and Ellen would divorce, and the children would be baptized. Julius didn't accept the decision lightly, but after nights of arguments and soul searching, he eventually acquiesced. Julius and Ellen had been together for 22 years. They met in Karlsruhe before WWI, during the heady days when Hirsch's star was on the rise. Ellen had always waited for Julius. She waited when he moved to Fürth for work. She waited when he went away to war. She waited while he went to Paris and then vanished, and then she waited for him to get well. But on December 2nd, 1942, the family jettisoned Hirsch: Ellen changed her name back to Hauser, and Julius moved into the Karlsruhe "Jewish house."
Hirsch's daughter Esther was two days shy of her 15th birthday and not yet baptized when the trains returned. It was March 1st, 1943. With her mother and brother at work, it fell to her to accompany her father. She left her house alone and walked north, across the train tracks, crossing near the station. The air was crisp enough to turn her nose red, but spring was close. She continued past the city garden. If she crossed Karl Friedrich Street far enough north, for a moment she may have looked up, between the buildings, and seen the Badish Palace set back there, across its massive, manicured courtyard. When she got to the Jewish house, Hirsch must have been waiting.
Her dad wore the Star of David on his coat, just as she did. (She had not yet been baptized.) People stared as they walked the two miles back the way she'd come, perhaps cursing them as they passed. They didn't cross the tracks back to the family home, as they often did when Hirsch came to visit. Rather, they met a man at the train station named Philipp Hass, or maybe one of his lackeys. Whoever it was, the man wore a black SS uniform and carried another list with Jewish names. This time, one of the names was Julius Hirsch.
They wept. Julius boarded the train, and then he was gone.
Esther's birthday came and went, but the following day, or maybe a day after, she received a postcard. Somehow, her dad had managed to send it for her birthday, when his Auschwitz-bound train stopped in Dortmund.
He was 51 years old. Nobody ever heard from him again.
It remains unclear whether Hirsch ever actually made it to Auschwitz. His name doesn't appear on the books at the infamous death camp. After the war, he was declared dead as of the 8th of May, 1943.
The divorce and baptism didn't save the Hirsch children from the Nazi hate machine. They were aboard the very last deportation train to leave Karlsruhe, on February 14th, 1945. French troops captured Karlsruhe the following month. The Hirsch children were taken to Theresienstadt, a "model camp" in what is now the Czech Republic. Theresienstadt was a centerpiece of Nazi propaganda, where they showed off the "humanity" of their detention system. Nevertheless, some 30,000 people died at the camp, and nearly 100,000 were sent to their deaths at places like Auschwitz. That the Hirsch children survived has to do with timing more than anything. Russian troops liberated the prisoners at Theresienstadt in May.
The Nazis also deported Max, Hirsch's brother and business partner, to Theresienstadt. Like Julius, Max was married to a Christian woman, but unlike his baby brother, Max didn't divorce his wife. Max Hirsch survived the war.
After the war, Ellen Hauser changed her name back to Ellen Hirsch. She died on March 1st, 1966, 23 years to the day after her husband's deportation.
Hirsch's good friend, teammate, and fellow World War I veteran Gottfried Fuchs escaped the Holocaust. He made it to England, then to Canada in 1940, where he changed his name to Godfrey Fochs. He died on February 25, 1972. He was 82 years old.
Fritz Förderer, the last member of KFV's legendary attacking trio, lived out a far different life. After his playing days, he remained involved in soccer, traveling the country and coaching a half-dozen different teams. One of the teams was located in Buchenwald. Buchenwald is home to one of the largest Nazi concentration camps located inside the borders of contemporary Germany. Förderer's players were members of the Third SS Death-Head unit. The unit presided over the deaths of some 56,000 people. Förderer joined the Nazi Party in 1942. He died of an illness 10 years later.
Today, the Holocaust is a central part of the curriculum for school children across Germany. Many visit Dachau and Buchenwald and other camps as part of their studies. The German people share a great national shame, but lately, especially among the younger generation, there's been some pushback—a kind of shame fatigue. There's a generational gap opening between those who lived through the war and the youth of today, who no longer have personal connections to that fading generation. The feeling of responsibility is beginning to wane.
Modern Germany is of course quite different than it was during the Nazi era. Today, it's very much an immigrant society, and with a declining birthrate, the country's economic future depends to a certain degree on population growth through immigration. A big part of the national discussion revolves around how to integrate immigrants—and by extension, how to define "German."
Soccer plays an interesting, perhaps even key part in this discussion. Germany has the biggest soccer association in the world. The DFB has some seven million members. Most of those members aren't playing in the Bundesliga, they're playing in Germany's ninth, tenth, and eleventh divisions. And it's in these lower soccer divisions where society's divisions are most visible, where teams often take on ethnic identities, and where the game becomes something more than kicking a ball around—it becomes a means of defining a group's identity. In 2013, a small, semi-pro club, Berliner AK 07, made headlines across Germany for defeating Hoffenheim, a much larger professional club, in the German cup. The story was notable beyond the upset, because Berliner AK identifies as proudly Turkish-German. Just two weeks ago, KFV, which now plays in the country's 11th division, took on a team called Croatia Karlsruhe.
You could look at the lower divisions as a hotbed of ethnic strife. Or you could see them as a great opportunity. This is where Hirsch's memory comes in. He was almost entirely forgotten for the 60 years following his death, but since then he's become an important symbol both of the monstrosity of the Nazi regime—which murdered one of its own patriots and heroes—and the power of an integrated, diverse society—one where integration and cultural acceptance can lead to national championships and 10-goal matches.
Since 2005, the DFB has given out the Julius Hirsch Prize to groups and individuals in German soccer who represent, "The sanctity of human dignity and an opposition to anti-Semitism and racism," who oppose the exclusion of people; and for promoting diversity in the face of discrimination and xenophobia. Andreas Hirsch, Julius' grandson, is a member of the jury.
Last year's award was presented in Gelsenkirchen, not far from Dortmund, where Hirsch sent his birthday card to Esther. The ceremony took place in a newly-renovated, high-ceilinged building decorated with banners that showed a map of Hirsch's final journey, from Karlsruhe to Auschwitz. A Bayern Munich fan group named Schickeria won the award for its effort to popularize the story of Kurt Landauer, the former club president who spent the war in exile, only to return and set Bayern on course for its global dominance.
Karlheinz Rummenigge, the current Bayern president, spoke, thanking Schickeria. Rummenigge mentioned that when he played for Bayern in the 70s and 80s, Landauer's story was almost completely unknown. Simon Muller, a representative of Schickeria, accepted the award in a t-shirt that read, in bold, gold lettering, "No Mensch ist Illegal"—No person is illegal. An audience of hundreds applauded, and a local high school band played "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohen song. And all the while, on the stage's backdrop, there was a picture of Hirsch, looking out at the crowd.
I recognized the picture. It was cropped from a larger team photo featuring KFV's entire 1910 team. In it, players appear to be wearing their championship rings, having just defeated Holstein Kiel for the national title. Hirsch is seated sideways on a chair, legs crossed, arm resting on the chairback. He's dressed to the nines in a three-piece suit, feeling like a god, a faint smile on his lips. He's young. He's full of life. He's a German champion.
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