In 2021, the German second division club FC Nürnberg made the kind of discovery that historians and archivists dream about at night. In a forgotten cellar, their janitor discovered a pile of boxes containing all the club's handwritten membership cards covering the period 1928-1955. The thousands of cards included those of the 142 Jewish members that the club expelled at the end of April 1933, shortly after the Nazi party had seized power in Germany.
The German phrase "howling with the wolves" translates metaphorically as "running with the pack." Although it was no secret that Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party was a violently anti-Semitic gang of fascist thugs, they had not yet passed legislation requiring sports clubs to exclude its Jewish members. FC Nürnberg, Germany's most storied soccer club at the time, decided to ingratiate itself in advance with its new totalitarian masters by 'Aryanizing' its ranks without even the limp excuse of political legislation.
A year earlier, FC Nürnberg (nicknamed 'The Club,' reflecting its No. 1 status) had already lost its popular and successful Jewish-Hungarian soccer coach Jenö Konrád, when the Nazi propaganda rag Der Stürmer had urged the club to "wake up and buy your coach a one-way ticket to Jerusalem." Konrád resigned and fled the country for Vienna. Just seven years earlier, on The Club's 25th anniversary, its former chairman Leopold Neuburger — a Jewish lawyer and World War I veteran — had written a piece titled 'Sports and Politics,' in which he proclaimed, "Our Club, and the federations it belongs to, stands on a politically and religiously neutral foundation."
This book not only documents The Club's shameful capitulation in 1933 and its long postwar path to dealing with its moral crash (it took until the 1990s), it tells the individual biographies of each and every one of the 142 expelled members. Students, school-kids, salesmen, doctors, lawyers, housewives, industrial entrepreneurs, hops dealers and even the odd artist, they were all members of The Club in order to socialize and to play sports, belonging to one or several of the offshoots for soccer, tennis, field hockey, swimming, handball or track & field. Many had served for their country in World War I. Several family testimonies confirm that they considered themselves every bit as German as their non-Jewish tennis partners on the other side of the net.
Each biography begins with a photograph (where available) and a factual resumé of when the individual joined the club, what sport they played, and up until when they had paid their membership fees. It's this last detail that's especially poignant. Some were lapsed, possibly sensing that they would soon be forced to move on. Others were fully paid up, even until the end of 1933. It conveys the treacherous sense of pre-Nazi normality — what could be more mundane than paying a club membership fee? And then, with a cold rubber stamp, they are suddenly excluded and thrown out thanks to the warped doctrine of vicious, murderous gangsters masquerading as saviors of the nation.
The fates that follow are both heart-rending and, to some extent, life-affirming. Those who saw the writing on the wall made moves to emigrate. It's with relief that you read about many of their subsequent long lives, often in far-flung corners of the United States. Tennis player Franz Krakenberger, for example, sailed on the ship 'Columbus' from Bremen to New York in 1936, married an American in 1942 with whom he had three sons, and died in North Carolina as Frank Baldwin Craig in 2002, age 84.
A large number of Jewish immigrants to the United States joined up to serve in World War II. Several who arrived in the United Kingdom found themselves in an internment camp on the Isle of Wight when that war broke out, classified as enemy aliens due to their German backgrounds. Others made it to Palestine or South America, often moved on from France, Belgium or the Netherlands as the Nazis advanced westwards. A handful left it too late and were murdered in the death camps, an iniquitous fate that also befell numerous stay-behind relatives of former Club members who'd already escaped Germany.
The absurdity of race-based ideology is laid bare in the biography of Walter Rothschild, the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who belonged to the tennis and track & field clubs. "We really, really like you but unfortunately you have to leave," the traveling textiles salesman was told by Club officials in April 1933. He later served in the Wehrmacht (German army) during World War II, having become father to a son with a Christian partner he was not allowed to marry. Then he was arrested in 1944 for being half-Jewish and interred in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Rothschild survived the camp, returned to Nürnberg and married his partner, and later became father to two daughters. "He didn't say much about Buchenwald," his daughter Yvonne recalls, "but he never lost his sense of humor. After setbacks he always got back up again, and his motto was: I have no fear, but I can also run fast." He remained a loyal fan of FC Nürnberg and went to home games almost every weekend. "If they won, he always came home completely hoarse," says Yvonne. Her father died in 1978.
This beautiful and humane book is sadly only available in German, but its existence is a minor miracle nonetheless. Among German soccer clubs, only Hertha Berlin has similar documentation of its expelled Jewish members. It gently portrays the importance of inclusion in sport, and the obvious truth that every human being deserves the right to join in and the right to play. That's what it means to be part of a club. You're in it to be a member of the team, win or lose. If your club's exclusive, it's not only doing something wrong, it's not really a club at all.