ToI tale about soccer hero saving German Jew will be studied by Premier League youth

UK’s Holocaust Education Trust will integrate into its program Football Remembers the Holocaust the story of Tottenham player Bert Sproston saving Ralph Freeman from the Nazis

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)

The UK’s Holocaust Education Trust will integrate the story of how a Tottenham Hotspur soccer player saved the life of this writer’s father-in-law into its Football Remembers the Holocaust program for under-14s in the elite Premier League.

As reported in the Times of Israel last month, Rolf Friedland went to watch England beat Germany 6-3 in Berlin in May 1938.

Just shy of the age of 18, he was desperate to leave Nazi Germany after the departure of his parents (to the UK) and his younger brother (to the US).

He hung around after the match for the England players to come out 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.

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

That invitation led to the issue of a visa and Friedland, who later changed his name to Ralph Freeman, arrived at the port of Harwich on England’s east coast in time for that game.

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

Ralph Freeman, pictured in 2005. (Courtesy)

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), said, “Ralph Freeman’s story is incredible. He was saved by the kindness of a stranger. Bert Sproston made a choice to stand up and be counted, and to save the life of a 17-year-old Jewish boy.”

“Through our work with Premier League academies, we share the dark history of the Holocaust and the choices that ordinary people like Bert made across Europe. We hope these young players take stories like Ralph’s and Bert’s to heart and remember them for many years to come,” said Pollock.

The trust has been working with under-14s from the UK’s top soccer league for the past five years, reaching around 250 promising young players from around 12 of the 20 clubs, including Tottenham. The Premier League publicizes the course and teams sign up.

The year-long program, which kicks off each September, has five stages.

It opens with a look at the vibrancy of pre-war Jewish life, during which, among other things, Jewish soccer teams played in the top divisions of Lithuania, Austria, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, and Poland. It then introduces the Holocaust in general.

The youngsters mark Holocaust Memorial Day by remembering a footballer who perished, such as Eddy Hamel, the first Jewish player for Ajax, who was murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau on April 30, 1943.

The next step is to listen to the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, and then to research either a footballer who saved others during that period, or Britain’s relationship to the Holocaust in terms of choices made in the 1930s and 1940s, its legacy today, and the fact that anti-Semitism still exists in the UK.

Ralph Freeman’s story will be included here.

The teens are encouraged to present the results of their research to the class.

The course winds up with an end-of-year event, which might include a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp or another site in Europe.

The other footballers who saved lives, and are presented as possible subjects for research, are René Dumonteil, then the vice president of the AJR, the young football team in Rochechouart, in France, who helped to protect two Jewish brothers; Danielius Žilevičius and Ona and Adolfina Žilevičienė, who saved a Jewish child by disguising her as their daughter. Danielius was a footballer for the Lithuanian national team; Martin Uher, a Czechoslovak national football player, who hid several Jews; and Tadeusz Gebethner, the first president of the Polish Polonia sports club and the first captain of its football team. He helped three members of the Abrahamer family to survive the Holocaust, first by hiding them, and then by helping them to move to Hungary.

All four have been recognized by Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center as Righteous Among the Nations.

The course materials, developed by HET, include dilemmas for participants to discuss. One concerns the decision to send Britain’s Olympic team to the 1936 games in Berlin, despite knowing about the German government’s anti-Jewish policies.

Eddy Hamel. (YouTube screenshot)

A second presents the decision of an Allied military commander not to try to stop the transports of Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau after receiving proof about these transports.

A third relates to the British Home Secretary’s restrictions on the immigration of Jewish refugees.

The youngsters are asked to think of examples of people doing what they thought was right and why it is sometimes hard to know the right thing to do. They are challenged to consider how one should stand up to antisemitism, racism or hatred.

The HET has also worked with adult soccer players, notably from Chelsea FC when it was owned by the now-sanctioned Russian-Israeli Jewish oligarch, Roman Abramovich. The activities included taking supporters and fans to Auschwitz.

And Holocaust survivors have shared their stories with under-17 players at the Manchester United and Manchester City clubs.

HET is exploring expanding its course to the English Football League, which comprises 92 professional clubs that train some 10,000 youth at different ages and levels.

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