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3 Jewish football greats and their Second World War stories

BY Jo Araf

30th May 2023 Sport

3 Jewish football greats and their Second World War stories

In his new book, The Forgotten Cup, Jo Araf tells the colourful story of the Mitropa Cup, the inter-war equivalent of today's Champions League

In the years following the breakout of Second World War, some of the Mitropa’s main protagonists, especially those who were of Jewish descent, found themselves trapped in a living hell. This chapter tells some little-known stories of players, coaches, charime and journalists who were either murdered or miracolously escaped the Nazi fury. This extract features three of them. 

The Konrad brothers, the cream of Hungarian football

The Racial Laws were the reason why Jenő Konrád, the coach who won the Mitropa in 1936 with Austria Vienna, left Italy: in 1937 he had started working for Triestina and then, forced to pack his bags, had moved to France. He found a job with the now defunct Olympique Lillois team and, once arrived in Paris, he managed to get a residence permit for his wife Grete and daughter Evelyn.

Konrád had started his French adventure on the right foot but then, for the usual reasons, he and his family had to leave Lille. They moved to Portugal where the Hungarian, whose fame as a great coach was well known, was signed by Sporting Lisbon, but only a couple of months later the family decided to leave Europe for good in favour of a really safe harbour: New York. Here, Konrád said goodbye to the world of football. He was hired by Singer, a sewing machine company, and later became an entrepreneur in the textile industry.  

"Konrád said goodbye to the world of football…and later became an entrepreneur in the textile industry"

Kálmán, his brother, went through similar hardships: on 30 September 1938, when Germany had invaded the Sudetenland, the former player was in Brno as the coach of Židenice. Peter Brie, a Czechoslovakian journalist who had moved to Sweden and with whom Konrád was in contact, decided to help him by granting him a place in the Örebro team.

Kálmán managed to save himself, and his family joined him in Scandinavia after an exhausting bureaucratic process to obtain visas. But some of their possessions—including Kálmán’s priceless stamp collection—did not survive the journey: his wife Gertrud discovered this as soon as she started to unpack. The Nazis had got rid of them. At least Sweden was a lifeline and a place where the coach could continue his career for another 17 years.

Árpád Weisz, a football innovator

Árpád Weisz and his family came to Holland via France, a favourite destination for a number of Jewish football players fleeing neighbouring countries. In Holland, the coach signed a contract with Dordrecht, the club where Jimmy Hogan had taken his first steps in continental Europe some 30 years earlier.

Arpad Weisz

Árpád Weisz

He made his debut in what was no more than an amateur league on 2 October 1939 and led Dordrecht to fifth place in the table, a record for the club, before the Nazi ogre began to loom over the Netherlands. Despite the fact that some of the harassment of Jews was immediately apparent, Weisz was able to continue coaching for some time and again the team finished fifth. But the political clouds began to thicken and on 29 September 1941 the coach had to leave: a missive had arrived at the headquarters of Dordrecht, ordering the top management of the club to dispose of the coach’s services and not to employ him in any other task.

It was the beginning of the end: bans and restrictions became more and more stringent and on 2 August 1942 the Weisz family was taken from their home in Bethlehemplein 10 to be deported to Auschwitz via Westerbork, a transit camp about 200km (125 miles) from Dordrecht. From there, exactly two months later, his wife Ilona and children Roberto and Clara were sent directly to the gas chambers. Weisz was sent to the camp of Cosel, then on to Auschwitz, where 16 months later, on 31 January 1944, he died of hunger and cold. 

Erberto Levi: Leaving football for good

A few months after being expelled from the Register of Journalists of Milan, Erberto Levi, after a brief stay in London, took refuge in the United States, specifically in New York. When he arrived in the New Continent, he decided to change not only his life but also his identity: he took the name Erberto Landi and said goodbye to football reporting.

In part, we can assume, this was a forced choice: his English would certainly not have allowed him to write for an American newspaper. But there was also a second reason, namely the unattractiveness of football in America. After the boom of the early 1920s and 1930s, an era defined as the golden age of the sport in the USA, it had ceased to arouse interest.

"After the boom of the early 1920s and 1930s, football had ceased to arouse interest"

So, Levi decided to take a new path and after a few years working for Pettinella Advertising, an advertising agency that promoted Italian products in the United States, he reinvented himself as a radio host. He had been contracted by several Italian broadcasters based in New York, including WCNW, WBNX, WHOM and WOV, and during the war years he also collaborated with the Bureau of War Information, founded by Roosevelt.  

His activity did not go unnoticed especially when his past as a member of the National Fascist Party emerged. An investigation took place but it did not lead to any consequences and Levi was able to resume his duties normally. He also began to host a radio programme with his friend and former colleague Giuliano Gerbi, who had arrived in New York via Paris and Bogota. Then, starting from the 1950s, Levi recycled himself again: he became a successful entrepreneur in the field of music and cinema and imported the Sanremo Festival to New York in 1960, introducing several Italian artists to the American public, including a young Domenico Modugno.  

He died in New York on 10 October 1971 at the age of 63, and although he was one of the most important sports writers of the years between the wars, he is now almost completely forgotten.

The Forgotten Cup by Jo Araf

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