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Ajax is asked this question by Kuper not only because it is the largest and most successful of the Dutch teams, but also because its fans refer to themselves as “Jews” and shake Stars of David at matches. Supporters of opposition teams, most notably Feyenoord from Rotterdam, perform anti-Ajax songs, often with an anti-Semitic bent: Most chillingly, Feyenoord fans hiss to mimic the gas coming into the death chambers. But Ajax, situated near the now largely de-Judaized Jewish quarter, remains officially silent about its current and historical Jewish connections and its actions during the occupation.
What Kuper finds in his investigation is a mixture of shame and officially encouraged ignorance of both the club’s Jewishness and its acquiescence to the Nazification of Dutch society during the occupation. Although Kuper doesn’t limit his scope to Ajax or even the Netherlands, it is that country’s particular form of social arrangement that fascinates him. Seemingly, belonging to a club — often a soccer club — was a primary form of affiliation. Though it could reflect other loyalties (religion, class, location), club membership could also supersede them. This made the German edicts precluding Jewish membership so invidious, and the clubs’ reaction to those rules the most telling.
As the war in Europe raged on, soccer continued. On June 22, 1941, the day Germany invaded the Soviet Union, a self-evidently crucial moment in the war, 90,000 people watched the German league final in Berlin. Kuper asks with exasperation, “What were they thinking of?” In a fascinating trawl through as many official minutes of wartime club meetings as he could find (Ajax did not give him access), Kuper is able to show how the laws of the occupation were refracted through club bylaws.
Sparta Rotterdam does not seem to have thrown away a scrap of paper, and Kuper shows us how “collaborators, Jews, and everyday folk muddling along — add up to a microcosm of the Dutch war.” Kuper travels to the backwater of Gorcum, where he discovers that the club Unitas ended up resisting the Nazis because they were in contravention of club bylaws. And he shows how the numerous Jewish players, supporters and officials, as well as their Jewish survivor physiotherapist, Salo Muller, are all sidelined from the official history because it’s easier to pretend that the Jewish involvement with Ajax is a myth and that the club’s actions in the war were goed than to tell the complex story of a conflict.
Overseas the power of a simple narrative is apparent. The Jewish involvement in Ajax is known in Israel: The sister of Ajax’s greatest player, Johann Cruijff, married a Jewish man, and Cruijff visited Israel with great fanfare and mutual love.