Times Past

A Jewish soccer player's Holocaust survival story

Special to The TribuneJanuary 5, 2013 

It all began with a soccer match that ended badly.

Outside the United States the game is called football. It has long been one of the world’s most popular sport. Athletically inclined boys and many girls want to “bend it like Beckham.”

But there are still parts of the world where the sport becomes dangerous. This was especially true in the town of Bánovce nad Bebravou in western Slovakia in 1939.

Since 1919, Slovakia had been part of Czechoslovakia. In 1938, the British and French concessions to Hitler in the Munich Pact insured the destruction of that democratic republic. The following March, Slovakia became an independent state under the leadership of a pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic Catholic priest, Msgr. Jozef Tiso. Tiso soon closely aligned his government with the internal policies of Nazi Germany. Slovakia had a Jewish population of 135,000 in 1938. That population would soon be subject to Hitler’s ambition to make Germany and Europe “Jewish free.”

Martin Friedmann-Petrasek was a talented soccer player. He was scouted by major teams in Central Europe. Martin was also one of the nine children of his hometown’s Jewish poultry buyer.

When the Bánovce soccer club banned Jews from playing on mixed teams, Martin organized a Jewish team.

When his team won a match, they were attacked by a stone-throwing mob.

At Martin’s bar mitzvah, the last gathering of the Friedmann family, his father extracted a promise from his family. They would all gather in Bánovce in a year’s time.

This is the title theme of Broken Promise (Nedodrzeny slib), the award-winning 2009 Czech/Slovak film. Holocaust survivor, Martin Friedmann-Petrasek will be in attendance when it is shown as part of the Jewish Film Festival at the Palm Theater on Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1:30 p.m.

The Friedmann family was aware of the dangers that they faced by remaining in Bánovce. Martin’s older brother pleaded with his father to emigrate to Palestine. Mr. Friedmann feared sailing on an overcrowded ship and life in the Middle Eastern desert.

“What’s the very worst thing that can happen to us here? That they make us work? The Germans are all in the army and they need other people to work for them! And so what, I’m not afraid of working . . . ”

He soon came to regret his decision. President Tiso authorized the deportation of Jews from Slovakia. The transports East began. Martin’s siblings were forced to board a freight train to Poland. Martin, appalled by the paralysis of his parents, decided to join an old soccer teammate at the Sered Labor Camp.

As he got off the train in Sered, Martin recognized his mistake. He was now a slave laborer.

Martin worked twelve-hour days in a carpentry shop, slowly starving to death on the minimal food rations. He was forced into brutal soccer matches against the camp guards.

Fortunately, he survived the last “selektion” for Auschwitz thanks to the camp kommandant who happened to be a rabid soccer fan. The unhealthy conditions lead to Martin’s contracting double pneumonia.

His older brother, Vilo, had been passing as an “Arayan” in the Slovak Army. He got permission to visit the hospital to say a final good-bye to Martin when all hope seems lost: “Go in peace, brother, this is our fate,” he said in parting.

Miraculously, Martin recovered. The news of his recuperation made the camp hospital look good. The kommandant sent him to a tubercular sanatorium in the High Tatras Mountains to recover.

His Jewish identity was momentarily lost in the shuffle, but he lived in constant fear of exposure.

To be continued.  

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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