The World Cup, Auschwitz and the future
My father and I will watch every game that the United States plays in the World Cup, starting this past Monday when the American team defeated Ghana. 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.
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. Sadly, his soccer-loving father, Herman, was not there to watch him play.
Two years prior, on the selection ramp in Auschwitz, Herman had been sent to the left and my father to the right. 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 was a goalkeeper just like my dad.
During my first game, my father stood behind the goal and gave instructions. 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 pre-empt their shots.
My daughter is a goalkeeper, and yes, she is the shortest girl on her team. I watch her throw herself into danger, and I now understand the fear my father once felt. But just 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.
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. 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.
If I could go back to my father on those long slave-labor marches at Auschwitz 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 Klein is the author of “We Got the Water: Tracing My Family’s Path Through Auschwitz.”