Contending European football teams traveled to Poland this week for the UEFA Euro 2012 opening games, re-tracing the routes traversed by millions of Jews and minority groups bound for the Nazi concentration camps.

As the national teams from Germany, Italy, England and Holland somberly crossed the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets One Free) gate into the former Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, players and coaches paid tribute to the victims, while warning against prejudice and violence on today’s field.

“It is our obligation and responsibility to stay alert and educate the many young players in our clubs, time and again, that anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance have no place in our society,” German Football Association President Wolfgang Niersbach said last Friday during the visit.

What these teams might not have known, however, is that football was played in the Holocaust, functioning as one of the many paradoxes of ghetto culture.

Joyful, leisurely, gloriously melodramatic: Not words generally associated with a concentration camp, yet they are the emotions apparent on the faces of a thoroughly enthralled crowd at a Theresienstadt football game in September, 1944, played on a field within walking distance to a crematorium at its apogee of productivity (up to 190 corpses per day).

In response to increasing international suspicion of mass exterminations, the Nazi propaganda film “Theresienstadt: A Jewish Community” pointed to the camp’s large population of intellectual and cultural Jewish figures from Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria, as evidence of a merry, vigorous Jewish colony.

Promised to be saved by SS officer Hans Gunther, the popular Jewish German actor/director Kurt Gerron directed the film and gave an on-screen appearance testifying to the camp’s humane conditions.  After shooting was completed, Gerron, and the Theresientadt jazz band “Ghetto Swingers,” were transported to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

The film’s football scene was intentionally elongated, as “the SS realized (the game) was so well liked around the world, and so would make the acceptance of the film easier,” says Nazi propaganda analyst Karl Margry.

Within weeks of shooting, most of those in the film were dead.

The uncle of Israeli filmmaker Oded Breda, Pavel Breda, was one of the players featured in the film’s gripping game scene. Four weeks after the film’s shooting, he was sent to Auschwitz, where he died of Typhus before the war’s end.

The quest to unravel both his own family’s history, and that of the sport, have become the subject of Breda’s documentary, Liga Theresienstadt.

Breda came across the image of his uncle by chance, when in 1961 he saw him in a newspaper clipping of a Theresienstadt football game. Today, he is the director of Beit Theresienstadt, an Israeli NGO aiming to preserve and document the stories of the Holocaust.

Ironically, the Nazi obsession with self-documentation as a means of concreting their eternal legacy as masters of efficiency and production, has played an invaluable role in post-war attempts to reconstruct the stories of human loss. With attestations like this footage, both survivors and descendants of the victims have found closure and catharsis.

Today the film brings on a flood of intense memory for many of the 4,000 Theresienstadt survivors, like Honza Burka, one of the team’s all-star players at left back position, who says playing football was the only time he was “living” during the dark years in the camp. This visual evidence, he says, validates a seemingly surreal past, which he has been unable to translate into post-Holocaust life.

“We didn’t try to explain, because nobody would understand us,” he recalls. “I’m very lucky that in this this film, I see myself playing football. (This means) that everything was true, not a story I was telling to somebody.”

“Football was a matter of pleasure. We needed some pleasure in our desperate times, our desperate lives,” says Toman Brod, today a historian, who was in his teenage years a die-hard Liga Terezin enthusiast. “Many things were crazy, but they were reality, and so it was very important not to lose our sense of human dignity.”

For the first time since his return from Theresienstadt 70 years ago, to what is now the Czech Republic, Brod attends a Sparta-Liverpool football match at the Sparta Prague Stadium.

Among the crowds of frenzied fans, Brod stands warily, grabbing often at his Sparta scarf for balance.

“I am afraid,” he says.

In the stadium parking lot, the walls are grafittied with “Jude Slavie,” the name of the rival team,“Jude,” says Brod, because in this area it is still synonymous with “evil.”

Breda says as long as racism and violence have existed, they have also been present on the football field, in such countries as the Netherlands, which is less tolerant than is commonly assumed.

Race against a ticking clock

A Holocaust survivor at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

A Holocaust survivor at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Of the approximately 200,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel today, most are over the age of 75. According to a recent study, 35 Holocaust survivors die every day, meaning that in the next 16 years, the entire generation will have disappeared.

As the years pass, and the generation gaps increase, Breda notes, the youth seems progressively indifferent to the past.

Employing the medium of football can change that, he says. Breda recalls that in educational workshops at the Beit Theresienstadt Museum, teenagers immediately perked up once they heard of the football phenomenon in the camps.

“I think the new generation, in Israel and throughout the world, can not really relate to, or are not interested in, the stories of death,” he says. “At the end of the day, yes, most were sent to be killed, but I think what happened before that, the culture and experience of Jews in the ghetto, is much more interesting.”