A Daughter's Love for Jewish Dad — and Soccer — Spans Generations

How Holocaust Failed To Kill Family's Tie to Beautiful Game

Soccer and the Shoah: Jill Klein’s father is second from left with his team members in a displaced person’s camp in Austria, wearing a sweater as his goalkeeper’s jersey.
Courtesy of Jill Klein
Soccer and the Shoah: Jill Klein’s father is second from left with his team members in a displaced person’s camp in Austria, wearing a sweater as his goalkeeper’s jersey.

By Jill Klein

Published June 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

My father and I will watch every game that the United States plays in the World Cup that starts this weekend. We live on opposite sides of the world – he is in Florida and I am in Australia—but today’s video technology will allow us to cheer the team on together.

My father’s love for soccer goes back more than 80 years. On Sundays, starting from when he was only five, he used to ride on his father’s bike to the soccer stadium at the edge of their town in Czechoslovakia. He sat in a small seat on top of the handlebars, his legs dangling in front of him. The bike swayed from one side to the other as my grandfather Herman pedaled through the town square, and my young father felt every bump of the cobblestones.

The two of them shared a passion for soccer that drove my grandmother to tears. For years they supported their local team, rejoicing in occasional victories against their rivals from a larger, nearby town. My father played every day after school, and when he was a teenager, he joined the town’s Jewish youth team. Herman would watch my father—the shortest kid on the team—play in goal, producing diving saves that made Herman proud.

I have a prized photograph of my father, taken just before a game in 1946. He is standing in a line of men from his team in a displaced person’s camp in Austria, wearing a sweater as his goalkeeper’s jersey. His father Herman was not there to watch him play.

Two years previously, on the selection ramp in Auschwitz, Herman had been sent to the left and my father to the right. In the chaos, and believing the guards when they assured the prisoners that everyone would be back together again in the evening, my father and his father did not even say goodbye. My father became a prisoner in Auschwitz; Herman died in a gas chamber.

My father instilled a love of soccer in me when I was young. I grew up watching soccer matches with him, and at 17 I was the only girl playing in the boys’ under-19 league in Miami. I was the smallest person on the team, but I wanted to be a goalkeeper like my dad.

During my first game, my father stood behind the goal and gave instructions. The opponents were very strong and I was constantly in action. Whenever a forward on the other team broke through the defense I would start to run toward him to cut down the angle, but my father would say “don’t go out, stay on the goal line.” Only after several goals had been scored on me did I realize that he was more concerned about my safety than he was about my performance. Over the years, he eventually got used to seeing his daughter dive at the feet of giants to preempt their shots.

My daughter is a goalkeeper, and yes, she is the shortest girl on her team. I’m her coach and now—as I watch her throw herself into danger— I understand the fear my father once felt. But—just as my grandfather saw when watching my father, and as my father saw when watching me—I witness her joy after making a great save and I feel proud. I admire her commitment and composure as she plays this most exciting and demanding of positions.

She is also a survivor. My daughter is adopted from Thailand, where she lived through the 2004 tsunami. Her first mother died serving breakfast at a hotel when the tsunami struck. The same wave also killed the Thai national women’s goalkeeper, who was playing beach soccer with hotel guests just a few meters away. A few years ago, my daughter’s school had a sports hero day, and my daughter dressed as the Thai goalkeeper who had perished with her mother. Maybe this strange, world-circling ribbon of soccer legacy will one day lead to my own daughter standing in goal for her country.

I am thankful to my father for making soccer a part of our family, and for having the courage and resilience to have so much happiness and love in his life, after having suffered so much. On this day 70 years ago, my father was a prisoner in a slave labor camp. He was forced to carry long metal rails with two other prisoners, a heavy load that caused his thin shoulders to bruise and bleed, while his starving body negotiated the next step, and the step after that. At the end of each grueling day, he marched with his fellow inmates back to the prison camp where they were served a watery bowl of soup.

If I could go back to him on that long march, slip invisibly into his row of five and whisper a few words in his ear, what would I tell him? What would give him the most hope that he would survive and go on to live a good life? Perhaps it is this: “Your granddaughter will keep goal, and she will be amazing.”

Jill Gabrielle Klein is the author of We Got the Water: Tracing My Family’s Path Through Auschwitz.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.