Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
Ajax, a leading Amsterdam soccer team, was Dutch champion many times and winner of the European Club Championship on several occasions. However, discussion of the soccer club and game in Simon Kuper’s book is, for the most part, a means by which to tell the story of the Jews in Dutch society before, during, and after the Holocaust. This is a clever marketing exercise. A book with a title focusing only on the Holocaust in the Netherlands would probably have attracted far fewer readers.
Kuper, the book’s Jewish author, was born to South African parents and moved to the Netherlands when he was six. Afterwards, he lived in the UK and worked for the Financial Times. He now resides in France. The book was originally published in Dutch in 2000. In 2003 an extended version was published in English, the source for the current Hebrew text.
While at the heart of the book are Ajax and the Netherlands, it also addresses some other countries and the attitude in their soccer world to Nazism and the Jews. One of its most telling illustrations is a picture of the British team lifting their arms in the Hitler salute at an international game against Germany which took place in Berlin in 1938.
Jews presently constitute less than two percent of Amsterdam’s population, compared to ten percent before the Holocaust. Before the Second World War, Jewish soccer players belonged predominantly to lower league clubs which had many other Jews as members. At Ajax, a first league club whose members came predominantly from the middle class, Jews were seen mainly on the tribunes. One notable exception was the Jewish national team player Eddie Hamel, who died in a concentration camp.
In recent years the mythical image of the Dutch people as rescuers of the Jews in the Second World War has been deconstructed, even if many Israelis still believe in it. The diary of Anne Frank in hiding remains a major icon of the Netherlands. It is often conveniently forgotten how she was betrayed, arrested, transported, and guarded in a transit camp by Dutchmen before she was sent to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen where she died. Kuper’s book further undermines the Dutch war mythology.
In the post-war period Ajax became identified with Jews in a number of ways. There were few Jewish players, but two of them, the “half-Jews” Bennie Muller and Sjaak Swart, were prominent members of the Dutch national team. After his family’s bitter war experiences, Swart (who had a Jewish father) refused to speak explicitly about his identity. When Kuper asked him where his father had played soccer he mentioned a long-forgotten lower league club which was predominantly Jewish. Kuper saw it as a sign that Swart meant to tell him implicitly, “you and I are Jewish and we both know it.”
After the war, a group of Jewish supporters met on the stadium’s tribunes, most of them unaffiliated with the organized Jewish community. They had lost many relatives during the Holocaust, and Ajax became a meeting point for them to be in Jewish company and create a substitute family feeling. Several also frequented a Jewish-owned non-kosher sandwich shop in the center of Amsterdam, in part for the same purpose. Jaap van Praag, the chairman during the glorious period of the 70s, had a Jewish father who had been in hiding during the war. In April 2008 the Jewish insurance executive Uri Coronel became the club’s chairman.
Ajax gained high “Jewish” visibility mainly due to a group of fanatic non-Jewish supporters who started to call themselves “Jews.” They also brought Israeli flags to the games. During games against Ajax, the supporters of the main Rotterdam team, Feijenoord, started to sing anti-Semitic songs, a habit which was later taken over by many other Dutch clubs. The best known texts are “Jews you have to kill” and “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” There were also hissing sounds symbolizing the gas in the gas chambers.
The Ajax supporters in turn sung “Bomb Rotterdam,” as a reminder of the lethal German bombardment of the town, which led to the Netherlands’ rapid surrender to the invading German army in May 1940. At a championship celebration at the end of the 1990s, one Feijenoord player even shouted an anti-Semitic slogan several times into the microphone.
Even in the present, these and many other hate songs are a major problem of Dutch soccer, along with fights between supporters. Because the clubs’ umbrella body, the Royal Netherlands Football Association, and the Dutch authorities for many years did nothing to stop the extreme hate songs, they have gradually spread into wider Dutch society. These hate songs in the public domain are the one area in which the Netherlands is an anti-Semitic world leader.
I experienced this on a visit to Amsterdam a few years ago. Whilst travelling on an Amsterdam electric tramway four dark skinned teenagers, probably Dutch Moroccans, entered the tram. A few minutes later one of them started to sing “Jews you must kill, but that is forbidden” as part of his repertoire. It was not meant against me, because he was sitting way behind; at best he could see my back, and I was not wearing a kippa. There were more than a hundred people in the tram. Nobody said a word, either because they did not care, or because they were afraid of the youngsters.
Binyomin Jacobs, the chief rabbi of part of the Netherlands, is easily recognizable as a Jew because of the way he dresses. He told this author that he once entered a train, together with a non-Jew, aboard which were many Feijenoord supporters. When they saw them they sang “Jews to the gas.” Jacobs says that “you can treat such an incident as hooliganism, but if one of these idiots had attacked us, many others would probably have followed.”
The negligent attitude toward such realities is part of a broader structural flaw in the mentality of many Dutchmen, which Kuper exposes throughout his book. People are largely indifferent toward a great variety of manifestations of intolerance in Dutch society, as well as the many extreme expressions of minority racism among predominantly Muslim immigrants. For a long time it has been politically correct to claim that such indifference is a sign of tolerance.
There are recent signs of change. A majority of Dutchmen now think that the admission of large groups of immigrants was the greatest mistake ever made in the more than four hundred years of the country’s history. The Dutch government has openly labelled many Moroccan and Antillean immigrants as belonging to problematic communities. A substantial percentage of the younger generation is suspected of criminal attitudes. It is due to the many years of indifference to such problems, as well as those caused by autochthonous Dutch, that this situation developed. The hate songs against the Jews were early signs of these problems, signs which the Dutch authorities preferred to ignore and which have now come home to roost.