Ajax, de Joden, Nederland
To Ajax by Steam Tram
"The opponents' supporters used to arrive at Weesperpoort Station, an area in which a lot of Jewish street-hawkers were working. That's why people started saying, 'We're going to the Jews.' But the club itself did not have a Jewish culture at all before the Second World War."
- Ajax historian Evert Vermeer
in Het Parool, October 23, 1999
You'll find this Evert Vermeer theory in almost every article about the Jewish culture of Ajax, although usually uttered by a different person. Former player Joop Stoffelen, for example. The message, however, is always the same: it's a misconception - Ajax did not have a Jewish culture.
Vermeer is right by saying that the way to Ajax led straight through Jewish Amsterdam. Former Ajax striker and Holland national coach Rinus Michels used to walk from Amsterdam-South to Ajax with his dad. "Then you would pass by the Jewies!" he says. If we would have to believe Vermeer, the Jews were gazing at the football fans passing by on such pre-war Sundays, as if they were thinking: weird guys, those Christians - as if playing football was a gojse habit, just like horse-riding or eating Christ's body.
The Dutch Jews did exercise, though. Some of them even considered it their ideological duty. "Do not just exercise your mind, but exercise your muscles as well", said Theodor Herzl, the first modern Zionist. And Max Nordau encouraged the 1898 Zionistic World Congress to form a 'muscular Judaism'. He said: "We, Jews, have a special gift for physical activity. This may sound like a paradox, as we're used to watch ourselves through the mirror that our enemies have been holding before us for many generations, in which we discover numerous physical imperfections. It is true that our muscles are weakened, and that our opinions and attitudes do not always satisfy people. But when Jews play games, their defects vanish, their bearing improves, their muscles strengthen and their health gets better."
The persecuted Jews should be assigned a country of their own and defend it. When the next pogrom would come, they would strike back. And so, Hakoah, the Jewish football club of Vienna, became a European top team before the war. In the 1920s a sort of Jewish Olympics were organized. Albert Einstein wrote about these Maccabi Games that they 'deserved the support of all Jews, even of those who are far away from interest in sports.'
At the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, three out of eight Dutch gymnasts and two out of three fancy-divers were Jewish, among more. Nevertheless, Jewish weekly De Vrijdagavond ('The Friday Night') thought the number of 'Jewish delegates was not particularly big'.
The main sport of the 'muscular Judaism' was boxing. A group of Jewish boxers beat W.A.-man Koot to death in February 1941, which was the motive for a German razzia on the Amsterdam square called Jonas Daniël Meijerplein. The public fury about that razzia, in its turn, gave rise to the violently suppressed Amsterdam February Strike. The most famous Jewish boxer of that time was Ben Bril, who won the Dutch boxing title before the war with a Star of David embroidered on the right leg of his shorts. Bril, who would later refuse to beat up a fellow Jew in the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork, also was a - terribly bad - goalkeeper at UJS, the Jewish Sportsclub of Utrecht. Yes, the Jews played football, too.
Jewish kids would kick some ball in the Jewish quarter, on a square in front of the Portugese-Jewish synagogue. Down south, at Smaragdplein, Lou de Jong (who would later become a famous Dutch historian) was heading balls with his twin brother. There were at least five Jewish football clubs in pre-war Amsterdam, beautifully described by Evert de Vos in his doctoral essay Verlies Den Moed Toch Niet ('Do Not Lose Faith').
In 1965 the Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad ('New Israelitish Weekly') published an article about a final in 1939 between Jewish club AED and APGS, the club of the Amsterdam police department. Thousands of people from the Jewish quarter had come to the ground. AED, the club of the father of 1960s and 1970s Ajax player Sjaak Swart, won the game. "People who attended this game and the homage, later on in the club's café at Waterlooplein, have witnessed the largest Jewish national event in Dutch history", according to the NIW. Only three years later, APGS players would put AED players on deportation trains to Westerbork. AED has long been forgotten. The only remainder of the Jewish clubs in Amsterdam, is WV-HEDW, a fusion of three Jewish clubs, for which hardly any Jews are playing, nowadays.
If Jews wanted to see top level football, AED was insufficient. Before the war, every district of Amsterdam had its own football club. People from North supported De Volewijckers or DWS. Blauw-Wit ('Blue-White') was the team of South and the club of the Jewish quarter and the very Jewish area of Amsterdam-East was Ajax.
The club played at the so-called 'wooden stadium' on Middenweg until 1934, and after that at De Meer stadium, further down the road. There must have been a lot of Jews on the stands. Rebbe Meyer de Hond, an artist from a poor Jewish quarter family, whose portrait was on the walls of many Jewish households before he died in Sobibor in 1943, complained in his Kiekjes ('Snapshots') of 1926 that the Jews cared too much about Ajax - and too little about the synagogue.
Of all the tens of thousands of people in the Jewish quarter, probably only a handful were members of the club. The Jews were even poorer than the poor Amsterdam proletariat, whereas Ajax was a club of administrators, shop-keepers and employees of the Nederlandsche Bank ('Dutch National Bank'). In the first years of the 20th century a certain Mr. J. Cohen complained in Het Groene Sportblad ('The Green Sports Magazine'): 'A Third Division club like Ajax apparently considers it a necessity to demand a poll-tax of ƒ4.50, which comes, of course, on top of the contribution, to the amount of ƒ3.50.'
Besides: a lot of children from the Jewish quarter did not even have the time to play football on Sundays, because they had to work in the market-stalls or shops of their fathers. Playing football was expensive. Melhado's, a large shop on Jodenbreestraat, often displayed a pair of football shoes right outside the front door, which sometimes were imported all the way from England. The children would pass by and fantasize: if I could ever be a football player... In the 1920s, however, it was unlikely for them to play. Even for a Jewish club. Playing for Ajax was prohibitive: they required you to have your own jersey and football suit-case. You had to wash your jersey on Sunday night, right after the game, as you were not allowed to play for Ajax with a stain on your shorts.
The Jews who could afford to become members of Ajax, were the ones who'd made it higher up in society and moved to wealthy parts of town, such as Watergraafsmeer and South. They were Jews like Mozes van Praag, a diamond-worker who later opened a piano store at the downtown square of Spui. Every Sunday, he and his son Jaap would walk from Pretoriusstraat to Ajax, amidst throngs of Jews. Van Praag was a donor of the club since 1912, although Jaap later claimed he was one of Ajax' first donors after the club was founded in 1900.
Ajax itself bathed in Jewish culture. A championship party would take place in the theatre of Abraham Tuschinski, with music by Max Tak. Club parties were usually held at Café d'Ysbreeker ('The Ice-Breaker') on Weesperzijde, a meeting point of Jewish socialists. The club-revue Ajax - Blauw Wit ('Ajax vs. Blue-White'), which was presented for the first time on 1 January, 1918, at the Central Theatre on Amstelstraat, was written by Leo Lauer, a Jewish journalist for the mainly Jewish Sunday-paper Cetem. Most of its vendors at the Ajax stadium were Jews. And the old wooden stadium was eventually demolished by the contractors company of the De Hond brothers; Jews, without a doubt. Their advert ('Beautiful timber, suitable for garden-houses, hen- and dog-houses. Installation of hot water, including conduit-pipes') is just one of many examples of the Jewish environment within the club. You'll find it in Evert Vermeer's book 95 Jaar Ajax ('95 Years Ajax').
'Ajax did not have any Jewish culture at all', said an article in newspaper Het Parool on 21 October 1999, repeating Vermeer's words. 'Ajax hardly has a Jewish background', wrote newspaper NRC Handelsblad the day after. But in pre-war Amsterdam-East the only organizations without a Jewish culture were the Dutch nazi party NSB and the churches. Egon Erwin Kirsch, a Prague based journalist, wrote at the time: 'Amsterdam is the city of Jews and bicycles.'
Before the war, Ajax' opponents occasionally came to 'nag the jewies'. During a gathering of the Ajax Bordjesclub ('Club Of Plates') in the early 1990s, Johnny Roeg (who played for Ajax-1 from 1934 to 1936) told how Feyenoord captain Puck van Heel called him a 'filthy Jew'. According to Roeg, the referee interfered.
It's impossible to find out exactly how many of the 726 Ajax members in the 1940-1941 season were Jewish. Luc Sacksioni, a half-breed Jew who subscribed in 1942, is sure about Appie Heyman, Jopie de Haan, 'the guy from the Walvisch ('Whale') bar', Loetje Lap and Johnny Roeg ('a great player'). Today's club officials keep saying the percentage of Jews was not higher than with any other Amsterdam club. The city, back then, was Jewish for at least 10%. If you would ask them what makes them so sure about that, they would reply that there weren't that many 'typical Jewish names' on the list of members.
In a village somewhere in the province of North-Holland, I visit Rob van Zoest, an Ajax member since the 1960s and the editor of Ajax' centennial book (published 2000). Van Zoest, who starts our conversation by saying that the percentage of Jews was not higher than with any other Amsterdam club, shows me a complete list of members. Alright, there are only three people called Polak on it. But if you take a closer look, you start wondering. Meyer? Was he Jewish? And what about Meijer? Alves Almeida?
You shouldn't count people. But if Ajax denies the Jewish part of its history, it is mainly denying the existence of people that got killed. Therefore, we'll try and reconstruct one of those pre-war Ajax games.
* * *
Nowadays, the Jewish quarter is sort of an open-air museum, packed with traffic. Most of the slum dwellings where people lived, were literally excavated in the 'hunger winter' of 1944-1945, by Amsterdammers looking for fire-wood. Thousands of Jews lived exactly on the spot where the integrated city hall and opera building is, nowadays. We should feel lucky there's still some remainders of the old Jewish quarter anyway, as the city council wanted to demolish the entire area after the war and construct a highway in its place.
But there are no more Jews living in the Jewish quarter. In order to find the few surviving Jewish Ajax supporters, you need to go to Israel, or you should bike down southward from the Concert Hall in Old-South. If you bike southward from Beethovenstraat, through the district of Buitenveldert, towards Amstelveen, you'll see the remainders of Jewish Holland: an occasional menorah on a window-sill, a shop with a Jewish name, and sometimes even a passer-by with an olive-tinted skin and black, curling hair. Sixty years ago, the whole of The Netherlands had an obvious Jewish side to it - even the smallest villages in rural provinces such as Gelderland or Friesland.
In his appartment, a few blocks away from the Concert Hall, 87-year-old Hans Reiss shows me into his small office. There's a computer in there, and a collection of video tapes, including one about Ajax. A little Harvard University banner hangs from the wall, as a trophy of pride. Reiss has done well for a man from a bad year: born in 1912 on Sint Antoniesbreestraat, where his father owned one of the numerous textile stores. The Hess, Van Thijn, Horn, Bloch, Leeser and Reiss families were 'ready-made clothing Jews'.
Their shops were open on Sundays, so Christians from other parts of town would come to the Jewish quarter. The Jewish shop-keepers would hire pretty girls to entice the people passing by into their stores. The merchandise was displayed on the street, like at a bazaar. "Jodenbreestraat was as busy as an ant-hill on those Sundays; it really was the Kalverstraat of that time", recalls Reiss. "Those were top-days. So my father wanted to close the shop as late as possible. He knew exactly when the tram to Ajax would pass by. He already went to Ajax as a kid. We were real football fans. But: passively. That generation did not play the game itself."
In 1921, as Reiss was nine years old, his father took him along for the first time. "The stadium was incredibly far away. It was outside of town, in those days. But there was an excellent connection from the Jewish quarter. The Jews would walk to Weesperplein, or they would take tram 8, a rather measly little tram, with no extra cars, that would cruise through the entire Jewish quarter. A ticket was five cents: an enormous amount in those days." Money was expensive, back then, and the first automobiles in the Jewish quarter would not appear until the late 1920s.
Reiss and his dad would board the tram to Weesperplein (nick-named the 'Jewie line' by the Amsterdammers) at 1:15pm. You could easily walk or bike the same stretch nowadays. But back then, it was a significant distance - mentally, and besides: people were not fit.
Tram 8 would not take you further than Weesperplein. It was still a few kilometres to the 'wooden stadium' from there. Reiss perceptibly revels in revealing his secret to me. He asks: "Ever heard of the 'Gooische Moordenaar' ('Killer of Het Gooi')?"
"Do you mean Wim Anderiesen?" I ask, referring to Ajax' centre-half from the 1920s and 30s. He was from the area west of Amsterdam, called Het Gooi.
"No, no, no", Reiss says, "I can now give you the missing link. You see, Weesperplein was a terminal station. But next to the station was this little railway yard, where you could hop onto a little steam tram, called the Gooische Moordenaar. It took you straight to Ajax."
The thing was officially called the Gooische Stoomtram ('Steam Tram of Het Gooi'), but anyway: father and son Reiss would board at 1:30pm. "There was one service every 30 minutes, so people would storm the thing. People were hanging out of the tram from all sides. Really dangerous. Almost all of them were Jews."
"I can't believe you can still remember all this", I say.
Reiss: "Well, it was my childhood, wasn't it? I lived right in the middle of it all. Until 1931. The tram would puff all the way to Watergraafsmeer, on its way to Muiden. Right after entering Watergraafsmeer, the tram would make a short stop, to refill the water tank. The tram caused a lot of accidents. That's why people nick-named it 'The Killer of Het Gooi'. I guess there are hardly any people left to tell you this."
At 1:55pm Reiss and his father would enter the wooden stadium on Middenweg, on the location where you'll now find the ugly shopping mall at Christiaan Huygensplein. They sat at the small, covered stand at the long end. On old photographs the stadium looks like one of today's first division stadiums: if sold-out, there were 10 to 15 thousand people there. The ditches surrounding the stadium were covered with nets, to catch balls shot over the stands.
Reiss says: "Why the Jews loved Ajax so much? Well, that's very simple. Very simple indeed. It was strictly geographical."
© Simon Kuper; all rights reserved. Reproduction, redistribution or re-use of any kind prohibited without written permission by the author.