Sunday, September 1, 2002

The Warm Back of Eddy Hamel

Ajax, de Joden, Nederland

An Ajacied in Auschwitz

What do we know about Eddy Hamel? Not too much. We know the Amsterdammers called him 'Belhamel,' the Dutch word for 'ringleader' or 'rascal.'

We know he was born in New York City in 1902, and that he moved to The Netherlands at some point. He was Ajax' right winger from 1922 to 1930. We know he scored eight goals in 125 league games.

There's a picture of Hamel in Evert Vermeer's book 95 Jaren Ajax ('95 Years of Ajax'): a man with dark, stylish hair and deep brown eyes.

Next to it is an anecdote about his years at the 'Amsterdamsche Football Club' AFC, for which he played as a teenager.
'The AFC ground was next to the Ajax ground in those days. Sometimes the AFC players would "accidentally" aim for the panes of the Ajax dressing-rooms. After one of those well-aimed shots, Eddy Hamel did not run fast enough and had the pleasure of getting acquainted with the hard fists of the Ajax groundsman. An immersion in the ditch surrounding the ground taught Hamel his lesson.'
Eddy Hamel was a good player, according to the people who remember him. In the book Voetbalherinneringen ('Football Memories'), published in 1944, retired Ajax center-half Wim Anderiesen describes the strongest Ajax line-up he ever played in. Goalkeeper De Boer, Van Kol and Diepenbeek in defense, Schetters, Anderiesen and Martens at midfield, and forwards Mulders, Strijbos, Van Reenen, Volkers and Hamel. After his football career, Anderiesen became an Amsterdam policeman.

According to a 1965 issue of Nieuw Israƫlitisch Weekblad ('New Israelite Weekly') a certain 'Eddie Hassel' almost made it into the Dutch national team in the 1930s. The rules regarding playing for national teams weren't too strict in those days. Deetje van Minden, an 84 year-old Jewish Ajax fan, recalls Hamel as "a tremendously likeable, popular player."

Rob van Zoest, editor of Ajax' centennial book (issued in 2000), thinks Hamel died before the Second World War. The only thing he's got to remember Hamel by is a little green booklet with blue pages. One day he found it at Ajax' old stadium De Meer. The chairman of that time, Koolhaas, administered the members in it. And indeed, there he is:
Name: Hamel
First name: E
Residence: Amstelkade 69
Joined: September 1st, 1922
Working member
The street where Hamel lived, Amstelkade, is not in the central-eastern Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, but in the wealthy areas of Amsterdam-South. Hamel was probably the first occupant of the house at number 69, as the vaulting bricks, curved cast-iron balcony and coloured glass over the front door are characteristics of the architectural 'Amsterdam School' of the early 1920s.

The interior of number 69 is now under construction, but it looks as if the exterior has hardly changed. In front of the window now stands a doll's house.

Eddy Hamel must have been a man of considerable standing. The club for which he played, AFC, was of high standing as well. That's all we know. There's nothing more to be found about Hamel in Amsterdam. In order to discover more, we need to go to London.

* * *

Every Sunday, Leon Greenman sits behind a little desk in the Jewish Museum in North London, next to the entrance of an exhibition about his life. He wrote 'You ask - I tell' on a piece of paper. But in the three hours I spend talking to him, nobody passes by.

Greenman is 89 years old and about five foot tall. He looks even shorter, because he walks with his back bent. "It's warm here, but I'm very cold", he says, pronouncing the last two words as "ferry colt". Greenman speaks English with a Dutch accent. At his request, I brought him two Dutch pancakes from Amsterdam.

He was born in London, in 1910, but he was only a few months old when his grandfather, a Dutch Jew, decided to move back to Rotterdam. The Greenmans crossed the English Channel and moved into a house at Helmersstraat, an almost entirely Jewish street close to Rotterdam Central Station. "It's gone now. Bombed. It's over", Greenman says.

If you're staying in the Rotterdam Hilton Hotel, nowadays, you sort of walk around in Greenman's old front room. When Greenman walks through present-day Rotterdam, he reminisces about a city that no longer exists.

Greenman is willing to tell me everything. His style of speech is almost stenographic, speaking in official language, without any emotion, as if he's told it hundreds of times before. It's his duty, that's all. Greenman is no participant in life anymore - he's just a witness. Sometimes he closes his eyes, so he can think better.

Yes, he had a nice childhood in Rotterdam. He used to play football at Beukelsdijk sometimes, but personally he preferred boxing, in which he almost became a pro. And singing.

At a choral night of the Jewish Circle Of Friends he met Esther van Dam, a Jewish girl from England, who was in Holland for a short holiday. Esther, or Els, told him: "When I heard you sing, I knew you were going to be my husband."

And so it happened. They got married in London in 1935, went to Rotterdam on their honeymoon and were asked to stay there so that they could keep an eye on Els's grandmother. The couple decided to do so. Greenman started working in his father-in-law's bookshop and regularly traveled to England and back.

In 1938, as he stepped outside from a London auction-room, he saw people digging trenches and lining up for gas-masks. Greenman hurried back to Holland, to pick up Els: if a war would break out, they'd be much safer in England. Back in Holland, he heard British prime minister Neville Chamberlain speaking on the radio: "People, there will be no war between England and Germany."

Greenman: "So I figured there was no hurry going back to England. In those days, you just believed what the prime minister said: no war, no war." Just to feel safe, he visited the British consulate in Rotterdam. Esther and he had British passports, and even their son Barney, born in Rotterdam on March 17, 1940, was registered at the consulate. The consul promised to warn them early if the time would come for them to leave.

"A few months later, the Germans invaded Holland. I think you weren't born then yet, were you?"

"No, I wasn't," I reply.

Greenman feared the Germans would discover their passports, from an enemy country, and deposited them at a friend's house. He asked them to keep his money (758 English pounds) for him as well.

As Greenman's talking, I suddenly notice he's omitted the Rotterdam bombardment of May 14, 1940. I ask him whether he can remember it. He summarizes the bombardment as if it were a minor event: "I ran from one side of the street to the other, in order not to get hit. Then I went home. Everyone was O.K. They were frightened, of course, and cried."

Then he continues his story: the next time he went to the British consulate, the gate was locked and the building deserted. Shortly after that, the Germans started their deportations of Jews. Greenman was told that the Germans would not arrest British citizens, as they could be exchanged for German POWs. Knowing that, Greenman decided to get their passports back from his friend.

Apparently, the friend who was holding them had burned them, as he was frightened to be dicovered in possession of the documents. Greenman tried to convince the head of the Rotterdam foreigner's office that he, Esther and little Barney were British. The officer did not believe him. "You people are Dutch," he hissed.

Greenman: "That man could have saved me. Why didn't he say: 'You've got English parents, so you've got to be English'? Instead, he said something like: 'I'm not gonna break my neck for you,' or 'I am not gonna get shot for you.'" Greenman concludes: "So there were good and there were Dutch. I mean: there were good and there were bad."

Two Dutch police officers knocked on the door late at night at the Greenman residence at Harddraversstraat, on October 8th. One of them argued with Greenman, while the other picked up some books from the family collection. They drove the Greenmans to Pilot 24 in the Rotterdam harbour, which was used to bring Jews together for deportation. After the war, Greenman went there once. "But no-one I talked to seemed to know what had happened there. They did, of course, but they just didn't want to talk about it."

From Rotterdam, they were transported to Westerbork transit camp, near the Dutch/German border. In the hut, Greenman bumped into a man who introduced himself as Eddy Hamel. He was an American citizen, but was arrested for not having a passport. People often just didn't have one, in those days. The two men hardly talked. Greenman was still busy trying to prove he was British.

In the morning of January 18th, 1943, the evidence finally arrived. Kurt Schlesinger, the German Jew responsible for the camp administration, found the documents in his mail after breakfast. He summoned the Greenmans right away. They had permission to go home.

But it was too late. Just a few hours earlier, the Greenmans, the Hamels and about 700 other Dutch people were 'put on transport' to Birkenau concentration camp, near Auschwitz.

Greenman asks: "Have you ever been to Birkenau? You should go there. It's interesting. All the required evidence is there. When I went there two years ago, it was there." Greenman himself is evidence also. He rolls up his sleeve and shows me the little green number 98288 tattooed on his wrist. He wants me to rub his wrist and feel it.

About fifty men and four or five women were chosen from the 700 people on the train, for labour. During the following weeks, the selected men would repeatedly ask their fellow prisoners where their wives and children were. The fellow prisoners would point to the sky for an answer.

Greenman: "We could not believe healthy women and children were gassed to death. It was so absurd you just didn't believe it. It's weird how things turned out. It could have been everybody, but Eddy Hamel and I ended up sharing the top berth, three pair high. There was more fresh air up there, and if the camp guards passed by, you were out of their range of vision."

In Dutch, with an additional English word every now and then, the former Ajax player explained to Greenman that he was American. His wife and kids had still been with him on the train.

If he had been a better right winger, Hamel said, or if he'd played for Ajax more recently, maybe he would have had a chance of getting sent to Theresienstadt instead of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Theresienstadt was known as the 'luxury camp' for rich, famous or protected Jews.

Greenman: "In the beginning there were eight of us, sleeping on the shelves of the upper berth. But more and more people were selected and taken away. At a certain point, there were three of us left. Lying there together made it hard to get some sleep. Eddy and I used to rub or backs against one another. His body was very warm, you see? The others were very, very cold."

I ask Greenman if he and Hamel did not get selected for such a long time, because they - being athletes - had more strength than the others. "No", he says, "I think it was just luck."

After a month or three in Birkenau, the day of the Great Selection arrived. "From early in the morning 'til late in the evening, all they did was inspect your body. We were forced to undress and line up. Eddy Hamel was right behind me, because his name started with H and mine with G. He said to me: 'Leon, what will happen to me? I've got an abscess in my mouth.' I took a look. It looked swollen, indeed."

Greenman smashes his hand on the table. "We were forced to walk past two desks. At every desk sat an SS officer. If you were declared fit, they directed you to the right. If you weren't, you went left. I walked past those tables. They pointed to the right." He fiercely points to the right as he tells it. "Eddy followed, I looked around and saw them sending him to the left." He points again.

"The unfortunate moment. I thought they'd send him to hospital, but I never saw him again. It took me several months before I realized they were actually gassing people. It's not much, what I know about Eddy. It was very cold in that camp. All we had was one jacket and one sweater. And Eddy's back. His back was warm, you see?"

* * *

In Memoriam, the official list of the 104,000 Dutch Jews who were killed during the war, says:
Hamel, Edward.
21-10-1902 New York.
30-04-1943 Auschwitz.
There are 40 Hamels on the list. They were all killed between the fall of 1942 and the summer of 1943, in Sobibor or Auschwitz.

Leon Greenman survived, despite being used as a human laboratory rabbit in the medical labs of the Nazi's. He was deported to the concentration camp of Buchenwald, which was liberated by U.S. troops on April 11th, 1945. After his liberation, he told BBC radio his story. They decided not to broadcast the interview. It was deemed too horrible.

Greenman went back to Rotterdam, but did not find anyone. Els and Barney were both gassed. Els was 22, the little boy two years old. "It didn't make sense to stay in Rotterdam", says Greenman. On November 22nd, 1945, he took the ferry to Gravesend, England, where he was picked up by his brothers Charlie and Morry. Fifteen days later, Morry died unexpectedly.

The English government provided him benefits for a while, which Greenman voluntarily forfeited later on. He worked as a market-vendor in London for over 40 years, and sang in both Holland and England, using his pseudonym Leon MaurƩ. He never re-married.

The name of Eddy Hamel did not cross his mind until a few years ago. Greenman was talking to an Amsterdam tailor, who saved his life once in Auschwitz by dragging him into the sick-bay. Greenman told the tailor he'd met the Ajax player Eddy Hamel in the camp. The tailor, a devoted Ajax supporter, said: "You should tell Ajax about that."

"They're probably not interested", Greenman replied.

Nevertheless, he decided to write Ajax a letter about Hamel, which is now exhibited in Greenman's museum. It says: 'My apologies for concealing this information. Not everyone is interested in what once was. But I hope to have done something good by revealing this, out of respect for Eddie Hamel and your mighty football club.'

The letter reached Wim Schoevaart, Ajax' keeper of records, who sent Greenman an old Ajax presentation guide and some team pictures from the 1920s.

Greenman replied: 'I first read your postcard, then page 44 of the guide and then I instantly looked at Eddy Hamel's picture, the face I can't forget, the man of calm friendliness and body warmth. Eddy had a good circulation and really was warm.' In October 1998 Ajax Magazine published Greenman's letters in an article about Hamel.

"So it was important to them," Greenman concludes. "Eddy Hamel was gassed because of the abscess in his mouth. That's been on my mind since 1943. Hamel was a gentleman, he had a quiet voice. I am sorry for not having told this earlier."

The telling of stories such as this one becomes more and more important for Leon Greenman. From the 700 people deported to Westerbork on January 18th, 1943, only Greenman and his friend Leon Borstrock survived the war. Borstrock passed away five years ago, in South-Africa. Greenman is now the only man left to tell the story of those 700 people. I think that's his reason for still being alive. So he can testify for Els, for Barney, for Eddy Hamel and for all the others.

© Simon Kuper; all rights reserved. Reproduction, redistribution or re-use of any kind prohibited without written permission by the author.

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