First personBert Sproston: 'Yon 'Itler feller is an evil little twat'

How a Tottenham Hotspur soccer player saved my father-in-law’s life

And why, in tribute to defender Bert Sproston’s simple, world-changing act of humanity 84 years ago, 7 members of our family will go to see London team play Roma in Haifa on Sat.

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

An undated photograph of Rolf Friedland, later Ralph Freeman (top row, third from left), with his football team in Berlin. (Courtesy)
An undated photograph of Rolf Friedland, later Ralph Freeman (top row, third from left), with his football team in Berlin. (Courtesy)

Israeli immigrants from the UK will likely turn out in force on Saturday night to see English soccer club Tottenham Hotspur play a pre-season exhibition match against A.S. Roma at the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa in northern Israel.

The north London club has long been associated with its Jewish supporters, as the Jewish Chronicle has detailed, to the extent that its fans — both Jewish and non-Jewish — eventually adopted the insulting epithet Yid thrown at them by rivals, and became known as “the Yids” and the “Yid Army.”

But for our family, Tottenham has a special significance. One of its players saved my father-in-law’s life.

Ralph Freeman (then Rolf Friedland) was born in Berlin in 1920 and was an ardent soccer player and fan from an early age.

By the late 1930s, stranded and alone, he was desperate to leave Germany.

His younger brother had been sent to the US in 1936 with a relief organization.

His parents had obtained visas and gone to England, presumably to try, without success, to arrange for Rolf to follow.

The Kindertransport — the rescue effort to get children under 17 out of Nazi-controlled territory to Britain — had not yet begun and Rolf would have been too old to qualify, anyway.

On May 4, 1938, just before his 18th birthday, he went to watch England beat Germany 6-3 in Berlin.

The match, attended by the likes of Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and Joseph Goebbels, is remembered less for England’s victory than for the sight of the England team giving the Nazi salute before play began.

Hours before kickoff, the secretary of the Football Association and later FIFA president Stanley Rous told the England lineup that it would be expected to give the Nazi salute as a mark of respect to the German hosts.

The players were furious, and Nevile Henderson, Britain’s ambassador to Berlin, had to intervene and explain that the salute was a gesture of protocol and not an endorsement of the Nazi regime.

Captain Eddie Hapgood — who is said to have compared Hitler to his ex-girlfriend, saying she had a fuller mustache — reportedly said they could “stick the Nazi salute in a place where the sun doesn’t shine.”

At the end of the match, Rolf Friedland hung around until the England players came out of the stadium, and approached the English left back, Bert Sproston, imploring him for an invitation to England.

Sproston, then a player for Tottenham Hotspur, was no fan of the Germans, having reportedly said (with a northwest English accent), “I’m just a working lad from Leeds. I know nowt about politics and the like. All I knows is football. But t’way I see it, yon ‘Itler feller is an evil little twat (idiot).”

Upon his return home, Sproston, with the help of Tottenham, immediately went to the Football Association to ask permission to invite Rolf to visit England for an England v Rest of the World match at Highbury, in North London, on October 26 of that year.

The British visa that allowed Rolf Friedland to visit England for two weeks in 1938. (Courtesy)

The necessary paperwork was authorized and provided, and on October 22, 1938, Friedland left Germany, arriving at the port of Harwich on England’s east coast four days later.

At Tottenham’s invitation, the bewildered young man spent his first three nights in the club’s dressing rooms at White Hart Lane.

His next challenge was to extend his two-week visa beyond the looming  November 9 deadline, which would have condemned him to return to Germany. He went to Woburn House, just off Euston Road, to an office set up to help refugees. There, he managed to get his visa extended until the end of the year, and, later, for longer, after he was given a job in market gardening on a family estate in Hertfordshire.

A new life

In June 1941, Rolf joined the British Royal Pioneer Corps, which accepted recruits from enemy nations, among them many Austrian and German Jews.

In 1943, he changed his name to the more English Ralph Freeman, so that he wouldn’t be so readily identified as a Jew if he were captured as a prisoner of war.

Ralph Freeman, pictured in 2005. (Courtesy)

In June 1943, while on a Welsh beach close to his base, Ralph saved the life of a drowning boy, later receiving an honorary testimonial from the Royal Humane Society, signed by the Duke of Gloucester.

He shared a barracks with the Czech-born late publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, then known as Ján Hoch, whom he despised.

He was later injured during the battle for the Falaise Gap in France in 1944.

Unsurprisingly, my father-in-law became a lifelong Tottenham supporter and remained in touch with the Sprostons for many years. Bert Sproston died in 2002.

Ralph’s grandmother perished at Theresienstadt, a camp ghetto in Czechoslovakia. One of his uncles was aboard the ill-fated SS St Louis, which left Germany in May 1939 en route to Cuba, from where the 900 passengers hoped to reach the US. But Havana refused to let them dock, as did the US when the ship tried to drop anchor off of Florida. The ship had to return to Europe, and the uncle was one of 254 passengers killed as the Nazis spread their net across Western Europe.

Thanks to Sproston’s singular act of humanity, though, Ralph was saved. He went on to marry Eva Gusdorf — herself a Berliner, who had lost both parents to the Nazis. The couple had one son, my husband, who immigrated to Israel in 1974 and now has five children and six grandchildren, all living in and around Jerusalem.

Ralph and Eva, who established a successful business in London and set up a trust to help special needs children, immigrated to Israel in 2005. Ralph died at the age of 89 in 2010, followed by Eva, aged 95, in 2013.

Seven Israel-based members of our family will be at Sammy Ofer on Saturday. Because, in our household, Ralph’s passion for British soccer has an abiding and very personal dimension.

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