Photo by Tania Castellví
This summer, Berlin’s Olympiapark hosted the 14th European Maccabi Games. For the first time ever, the continent’s largest Jewish sporting event was held in Germany. Over 2000 participants from 38 countries took part, competing in swimming, badminton and even 10-pin bowling. The fact it took place in the Nazi-built complex that hosted the notorious 1936 Summer Olympics was a highly symbolic milestone in the games' history.
A stone’s throw from Olympiapark in leafy Grunewald, resides a football entity that shares both the Maccabi Games' name and its message. In the shadow of the NSA’s decaying listening post atop Teufelsberg, the soccer-playing contingent of the capital’s sole Jewish sports club, TuS Makkabi Berlin, plies its trade amongst the city’s semi-professional leagues every weekend. In stark contrast to the brief but poignant days when the Maccabi Games came to town, Makkabi has been battling on, somewhat under the radar, since it was founded in 1970 by a group of Jews looking to restore a slice of normality to their lives 35 years after the end of the WWII. The club also lays claim to a tumultuous heritage that extends back to the tail end of the 19th century, when the German Empire’s first Jewish sports organisation, Bar Kochba, was inaugurated in Berlin.
The man at the helm of football at Makkabi is Claudio Offenberg. His Jewish parents escaped Nazi Germany for Buenos Aires, where Offenberg was born 58 years ago. After some years in Israel, the family returned to Germany in 1967. The former Hertha BSC player and coach has clearly committed a large part of his life to the ‘beautiful game’. Speaking before a Thursday training session in a dimly lit conference room at the club’s ground, Offenberg is proud but slightly cagey about the significance of Makkabi’s ancestry. After being established in 1898, Bar Kochba’s membership steadily grew until it peaked at around 40,000 in 1930. With the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s, the club was ruthlessly shut out from mainstream society up until 1938, when it was outlawed entirely. For Offenberg, this is a chapter that must never be wiped from Makkabi’s identity: “It’s crucial to uphold our history and traditions. We have to remember where we’ve come from.” Yet, today, of Makkabi's 500 members surprisingly few are Jewish.
Where are the Jews?
In fact, only one Jew plays on the men's first football squad: Alec Privalov, whose family moved to Germany from Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A Makkabi member since 2009, Privalov maintains the reason he’s the only Jew in the team is purely a matter of success. Halfway through Makkabi’s rainy but convincing 8-0 rout over Stieglitz GB, the defender suggests that “if we had enough Jewish players available who were good enough for the league, then it wouldn’t be an issue to have more on the squad. The first focus is to have quality players on the team and to do well in the league. It doesn’t matter if they’re Jewish, German or Turkish.” One of Privalov’s teammates with Turkish lineage is Charlie Halici, who says: “Makkabi's religious affiliation is not a problem - neither for me nor for my family. In this team, it’s all about the football.”
In order to seek out Makkabi’s Jewish footballers, you have to look elsewhere. Roughly a third of the men's second team are Jews, almost three quarters of the third squad and approximately half of the club’s senior line-up. A number of Makkabi’s youth teams are fully Jewish as many of their players attend the local Jewish school, Heinz Galinski Schule. Like Privalov, a large number of these players have ties to ex-Soviet countries, whilst the remainder are either German Jews or Israelis.
Why have so many non-Jewish footballers chosen to join Makkabi? Bertram Pflüger, coach of the women’s team (with only two Jewish players), hints that it might have something to do with the atmosphere. “When I started here I got a very warm welcome from the club. The teams receive a lot of support and there’s a great spirit,” says Pflüger. “I don’t really put too much thought into Makkabi’s roots.”
Echoing her trainer’s sentiments, Elisabeth Küller reveals that she joined Makkabi after visiting the women’s team. “I met my prospective teammates and really liked them,” she remembers, “You can see that football matters at Makkabi, we don’t care about anything else, we just want to play sport.” Yet Offenberg is quick to point out that preserving Makkabi’s traditions involves ensuring the club’s non-Jewish players are taught about the different aspects of Judaism and Jewish life: “We have to tell our players where they are and which club they’re playing for. In a few days for example, the Jewish New Year will begin. We don’t train or play any matches during this period, so the players need to know why.”
When quizzed as to why there seems to be a dearth of Jewish players featuring for Makkabi, Offenberg cuts in with a strikingly direct reply: “I get asked this question almost once a week, and I always give the same answer. It’s about the Nazis. Before the war there were plenty of Jews living here and Jewish sports were flourishing. We would have no problem putting together three, four or even five teams of Jews today if it weren't for the Holocaust!” Like the club’s own pedigree, the legacy of anti-Semitism plays heavily on the Makkabi manager’s outlook. And, unfortunately, this is something that Makkabi still has to contend with.
Anti-Semitism on the pitch...
On the last Sunday of August, Makkabi’s third team was embroiled in an incident that rapidly cascaded into a melee of anti-Semitic abuse. Pitched against BFC Meteor, a team largely composed of Turkish and Arabic footballers, the Makkabi players were subjected to a tirade of discriminatory slogans. According to various media outlets, there was a two-way exchange of insults which also included Islamophobic threats.
Fabian Weißbarth, a new recruit at Makkabi who also works for the Berlin branch of the American Jewish Committee, mentions that things began to turn nasty during the first half. This then escalated to a point that prompted the Makkabi players to leave the pitch and seek refuge in the changing rooms. Weißbarth quoted one of Meteor’s players shouting “things like Drecksjude, Scheiß Jude,” and “you dirty Jewish swines”.
This wasn't the first time. In October 2006 the club made national news after a game they played against Treptow’s VSG Altglienicke was mired by Nazi-style chanting. “Two years ago we also had a problem with BSV Hürtürkel, another team with Turkish heritage,” Weißbarth adds, matter-of-factly. “Things got pretty ugly.”
Makkabi’s officials, reiterates Offenberg, are confident that the German Football Association will continue to handle on-pitch incidents “in the correct way they have to be dealt with. We have rules from FIFA which must be followed when it comes to anti-Semitism and racism, and it’s a priority that these are upheld.” At Makkabi’s match against SC Gatow, Fußball Woche’s self-proclaimed ‘hobby journalist’ Henrik Donseifer utters that he’s heard from reporter friends that “Makkabi’s games are watched by people from the Football Association, just to be there in case anything untoward happens.”
Perhaps more troubling than the overt anti-Semitism Makkabi has faced over the years is the routine discrimination that simmers away below the surface. Weißbarth states, “When opponents come to the grounds and are asked to pay a small entrance fee, many make comments along the lines of ‘No, we won't give you any money, you already have enough, you’re Jews.’” Whereas, in reality, the club has been struggling with financial difficulties over its 35-year history (the most severe of which forced them to merge with FV Wannsee in the years between 1987 and 1997).
Similarly, when in 2005 Makkabi applied to rename their ground after Julius Hirsch, a famous German-Jewish footballer from Achern who was murdered at Auschwitz, the proposal was met with antipathy. “Because we’re not the only club that uses this location, a few of the other teams weren’t happy,” recollects Offenberg. “They said things like, “We have nothing to do with this man, he’s not a Berliner, why should we change the name?” So they opposed it. Eventually, the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf Bezirksamt decided to go ahead with the proposition.” And they renamed the complex formerly known as Eichkamp.
Anti-Semitism isn’t something that Privalov worries about excessively. “You have to ask what it is that you’re looking for,” he says. “If you want to see anti-Semitism you can find it everywhere, in sports, personal life, nightclubs and bars. Whatever you’re searching for, you can find it if you look hard enough.” After a pensive pause and with a wry smile on his face, he quips, “Maybe I just don’t hear it.”
In any case, one of the most endearing things about this little club is its determination to stay true to its origins. Sitting beside the field watching the first team work through a series of delicately choreographed exercises, Offenberg parts from his usual cynicism: “Berlin is a great city. It has many difficulties, but it’s also full of great opportunities and many positive things. I think that Makkabi has a very important role to play here.” Pushed to reveal what that role might be, Offenberg retorts, “The fact that we’re here, that Berlin has a Makkabi club. Like it or not, we’re the only Jewish club in Berlin. And that's a great thing.”