Silence endured long after Holocaust survivor Shaul Paul Ladany had finished speaking to some of the most talented young soccer players in Europe.
The 86-year-old Ladany hadn’t even mentioned that he completed a half-marathon 10 days before. There was too much else to tell the under-17 players from Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Maccabi Tel Aviv and other top-level clubs.
Eight teams representing five countries attended the Walther Bensemann Memorial Tournament in Nuremberg at the weekend. Chelsea beat Italian side Bologna 3-1 in Sunday’s final, but more importantly, all players gained fresh perspectives on tolerance, equality and reconciliation by taking part in the competition.
Ladany is a two-time Olympian and was a member of the Israeli team targeted at the 1972 Munich Olympics by the Palestinian group Black September. Eleven Israelis were killed in the massacre.
Ladany had set the existing world record in the 50-mile walk earlier that year. He’s an engineer, a lecturer, a professor. He was 8 years old when he was brought to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He survived.
“Any questions?” he asked the room full of players after speaking to them about his life for 90 minutes on Saturday.
There were none. Birds chirped happily outside, but there wasn’t a peep from the attentive players.
“If I was able, with my talks about what I went through and what I succeeded (in doing), to penetrate their brains, then I then I believe I was successful,” Ladany told The Associated Press. “Then I have really succeeded in doing what I should have done.”
Ladany also spoke to the players on Friday, when they gathered on the cobbled stone road outside Nuremberg Castle to be organized into groups for workshops, talks or excursions to learn more about the horrors perpetrated under the Nazi regime. Some were brought to see the infamous Nazi rally grounds nearby.
“It’s very important to remember what happened and to say it loud, so it will not happen again,” Maccabi Tel Aviv team manager Leon Asraf told the AP. “Never. For us, for you, for everyone, all over the world.”
German clubs Eintracht Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Karlsruher SC, and Cracovia from Kraków in Poland, completed the lineup at the competition organized by Nie Wieder (Never Again) and Makkabi Germany with the backing of European soccer’s governing body UEFA. Players backed it, too.
“I’m enjoying learning different stories. For example, yesterday, learning about antisemitism, about World War Two, about how the Jews went through discrimination and genocide,” Chelsea winger Chinonso Chibueze said. “I’m learning from that to make sure that that never happens again, that we learn from our mistakes and treat everybody equally.”
Teammate Somto Boniface agreed. “It’s been very beneficial to learn more about what happened in the past to prevent it from happening again,” the 16-year-old left-back said.
The tournament is named in honor of soccer pioneer Walther Bensemann, who founded clubs including the predecessors to Frankfurt and Karlsruhe. He also founded the soccer magazine Kicker which remains popular today. Bensemann was forced to resign from the magazine and flee Germany due to his Jewish roots in 1933 when the Nazis seized power.
Bensemann had criticized the German soccer federation’s increasingly nationalist tones and saw sports as a means of building respect and tolerance between nations. The tournament championed those ideals in his name.
“Sports are of great importance to our society and in Europe, namely to connect and reconcile. And, as the saying goes, to enjoy the game of football,” Eberhard Schulz of Nie Wieder said. “That’s why we’re doing it, and that’s why we’re convinced, like Walther Bensemann, that we’re doing the right thing.”
Ladany was one of six Holocaust survivors to talk to the players over the weekend.
Eva Szepesi recounted how she was brought as a child to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
“That’s my duty, my life purpose, to tell what happened in the Shoah, the Holocaust, those innocent people, my mother, my little brother, my father, and many, many million innocent people were silenced. They can’t tell anymore. And that’s why I’m telling this,” Szepesi said before she drew the teams’ names from a bowl for the competition draw on Thursday.
Ernst Grube detailed the terror wrought on Jewish people by Germans under the Nazi regime. Grube himself survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Zvi Cohen, who learned to play the harmonica at home alone while his parents worked in Nazi labor camps, explained how it saved his life when he was discovered by the SS. Cohen had learned from the radio, so he only knew music played by the Nazis.
Walter Frankenstein, who had grown up in Berlin like Cohen, spoke to the players via an online call from Sweden, but he wore a Hertha Berlin scarf to show his allegiances hadn’t changed despite all he was put through.
“Democracy has to be fought for every day, especially at the present time,” he told the players.
Now 98, Frankenstein survived the holocaust by going into hiding in 1943 when the Nazis were deporting thousands of Jews from Berlin to Auschwitz.
Tamar Dreifuss only survived thanks to a daring escape made by her quick-thinking mother.
Ladany said “it’s not true” that you needed luck to survive the Holocaust – luck alone wasn’t enough.
“In order to survive the Holocaust, you needed a series of lucky events. I’m happy that I was among those that had that series of lucky events,” Ladany told the players. “The real atrocities, I’m unable to tell. The real atrocities were suffered by those who were victims of the Holocaust.”
But Ladany didn’t just speak of the past. He had advice for the players, too.
“Don’t look for monetary success,” Ladany said. “You should enjoy your sports and make your sports a way of life. Even then, after you reach your peak, stay in sports, for fun! ... Make it something that you love to do.”