Living with the ghost of my grandfather, a German Jewish football icon

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Living with the ghost of my grandfather, a German Jewish football icon

The grandson of the first Jewish footballer to play for Germany, killed by the Nazis, visits Chelsea FC, where a giant mural honouring his iconic relative is on display.

Jack Mendel is the former Online Editor at the Jewish News.

Andreas Hirsch Visits Stamford Bridge and see the Holocaust Memorial Mural by Soloman Souza, featuring his grandfather Julius. (Photo by Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC)
Andreas Hirsch Visits Stamford Bridge and see the Holocaust Memorial Mural by Soloman Souza, featuring his grandfather Julius. (Photo by Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC)

Footballer Julius Hirsch was capped by the German international team seven times, scoring four goals. Prior to the Second World War he won two national championships and became a national hero, a striker extraordinaire in the Harry Kane mould, cheered from the terraces by adoring fans for his attacking style and clinical finish.

Julius’ iconic status should have assured him a place in German sporting folklore alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Jürgen Klinsmann. Instead, he was murdered in Auschwitz for being a Jew.

Earlier this month, his grandson Andreas was guest of honour at Chelsea Football Club to see first-hand a 12-metre mural paying tribute to Julius and two other footballers who were sent to Auschwitz.

Gazing up at the 12-metre high artwork, by acclaimed Israel graffiti artist Solomon Souza, depicting Julius alongside British prisoner of war Ron Jones and Hungarian Arpad Weisz, Andreas says his grandfather’s legacy constantly hangs over him. Indeed, his wife Martina says it’s like he’s “living with ghosts”.

Julius makes the header, in the KFV Stadium, Karlsruhe around 1912 (Credit: Andreas Hirsch)

This burden has led him to speak in schools and universities to educate the next generation about the Shoah. Yet seeing the site of Julius’ murder first hand is simply too much.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” he says. “We have been to Dachau but not Auschwitz-Birkenau. My weak soul will not stand it. So I stay away.

“It’s too hard for me. Perhaps it will change as I get older. I don’t know, but until now, I don’t have to be there to feel everything I feel.”

Andreas first learned about Julius, who played for his country aged 19, from his father Heinold.  His told him about his grandfather’s “football merits as a young boy”.

KFV-Old stars around 1930. Julius is staying third from the right (Credit: Andreas Hirsch)

It was only after the American TV series Holocaust was broadcast in 1978 in Germany, that he and his brother were informed of their family’s tragic past.

He continues: “That TV series changed something in our society because nobody could say they knew nothing about it.”

Andreas says families of Shoah victims did not “speak about anything they suffered. That was the problem of their generation. I’m the next generation. I can speak. I have the distance. And I can and want to speak about it. I want to ask questions and want to answer the questions.”

His grandfather’s legacy informs his worldview when it comes to tackling modern racism, while the German Football Association runs an annual ‘Julius-Hirsch-Preis’, recognising those who battle intolerance.

KFV-team, German champions 1910. Julius is sitting in the middle (Credit: Andreas Hirsch).

As Andreas shows me books which have old black-and-white pictures of Julius, and others which show the award-ceremony, he says the prize is “wonderful”, but “it doesn’t change society”.

He warns about “the revisionism and the renascence of fascism is strident in Europe”, with a focus on the resurgent right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany), which is the third largest party in parliament.

Germany has “a short memory”, citing right wing politician Björn Höcke who he says claimed the country needs a “100 degrees turnaround of history” on its dark past.

Andreas Hirsch Visits Stamford Bridge and see the Holocaust Memorial Mural by Soloman Souza on 6 March, 2020. (Photo by Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC)

In wake of terror attacks in Hanau and Halle, he says Germany has been “blind in the right eye for decades”, and warns about the rise of extremism, saying: “You have more than 12,000, violent right-wing or neo-Nazis groups and they are weaponised. Many have guns.”

Andreas hails Chelsea’s Say No To Antisemitsm initiative, launched in 2018 with the personal backing of Roman Abramovich, “wonderful”, as it urges people to “say something and speak out. Don’t be quiet. That’s the most important duty we must speak out against to stand up.”

He concludes: “If you are an influencer, if you have a football club, if you are a member of a club, you have an audience and can spread a positive message. You have the power to amplify your message. That’s very important.”

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