Tuesday, October 1, 2002

A Sunday Before the War, Part Two

Ajax, de Joden, Nederland

To Ajax by Steam Tram, continued...

On a beautiful winter day, in a small town just outside Tel Aviv, Israel, I'm meeting another Ajax supporter, who's still in possession of a season ticket. Abraham Roet is in his seventies, has been living in Israel since 1946, but his house is unmistakable the residence of a Dutch emigrant. There are Jozef Israels reproductions on the wall and in the window-frame are miniature 'Delft blue' ceramic houses. "You are from the country, you leave the country, but there'll always be some sort of bond", Roet explains.
His father made it from the Jewish quarter to wealthy Amsterdam-South. A lot of Jews from South went to Blauw-Wit games, the club that played in the colours of the Israeli flag, but father Roet was an Ajax fan. He attended every home game played on Sunday. On Saturdays, the sabbath, he did not watch any sports. He would usually show his kids around the Jewish quarter instead.

The sons of the Roet family attended the Jewish School on Sunday mornings. And if they were lucky, they could join their father to Middenweg in the afternoon, if Ajax played at home. Wearing a jacket, a tie and a beret, they would first take tram 24 and change to tram 9, known as 'the Ajax line' until 1996. Since the 1920s, there were iron plates inside the tram-cars on route 9, saying: 'Football match - this Sunday - 2 o'clock - Ajax ground'. Roest: "It was a feast if we could go. And if you were given a glass of lemonade, it would be the ultimate feast."

Wim Schoevaart, who is in his eighties now, is Ajax' keeper of the records. His father, Frans, and his Uncle Jan were Ajax members shortly after 1900 and played in the first team for many years. Two generations of one family, covering almost the entire club history - the game of football isn't that old.

Schoevaart Jr. has provided the large part of the things that are now exhibited in the Ajax Museum in the ArenA. He is a cordial man with a special love for club-ties. He assures me that Ajax was not a Jewish club and that my book was gonna be really thin. Then he starts telling me about the 'Jew-people' who used to come to the stadium every Sunday. "They loved the good things in life, and they didn't mind travelling for it", he explains.

Bennie Muller, half-breed Jewish midfielder from the 1960s, would tell me something similar later on: "You know what the deal is? Jewish people like entertainment. They went to theatres, casinos, they gambled - and football was entertainment, too." Former player Joop Stoffelen seems to be ashamed of the club's Jewish background, but journalists regard him as the unofficial historian of the Jewish quarter. He once said: "If people would start calling Ajax a Jewish club again, I had my answer prepared. I'd tell them: you know why Jews like Ajax? Because Jews know what's good and tasty."

As soon as you hear that explanation, you feel like rejecting it. Are Jews the only people to love 'good and tasty' things? Do non-Jews prefer bad and unsavoury? But we should keep the joyless Calvinism in mind, which throttled Holland in those days. Going to the footy in Amsterdam - especially on Sundays - was something for Catholics, lapsed Calvinists and Jews.

* * *

Ajax would kick-off around 2pm, playing in a a line-up consisting of ten Christians and one Jewish guy from New York. "Eddy Hamel", recalls Reiss. "Tall guy, black hair, combed backwards. He lived on Amstelkade. Not a guy from the Jewish quarter. He was a real star, you know? Eddy Hamel - I can still picture him. He was fast; had a good cross. A bit like David Beckham, nowadays. But well, everything was different back then. Eddy Hamel's speed would now be a jog-trot."

Hamel played his last game in Ajax-1 in 1930. Therefore, Abraham Roet can never have seen him play. Nevertheless, I ask him whether the name rings a bell. "I haven't heard that name in over fifty years! But the moment you pronounced it, I instantly remembered who he was. What happened to him in the war? Back then I didn't even know he was Jewish."

After the final whistle, the Roet family would go home right away. "We did not read any newspapers. Sometimes we listened to the radio, but it was not really part of our life. Going to Ajax was a very, very special event for us." Reiss and his father would take the Gooische Moordenaar back to the Jewish quarter. Reiss: "You'd think we could go home then, right? Well - no. On Oude Hoogstraat there was this cigar store called Swaap's. He would hang a black-board outside his shop on Sundays, on which he wrote all final scores in chalk. Usually, we would be there around 4:30pm. The first results would not arrive until five o'clock.

Every time he found out about the next result, Mr Swaap would step outside with his piece of chalk and add it to the table on the black-board. It was packed with people over there. And of course, if you went inside to buy a cigar, you would find out about the results sooner than the others, outside. You see, Mr Swaap was a smart business man." There still is a post-card of the Ajax team that won the Dutch championship of 1919, containing the inscription: 'Presented to you by Swaap's Cigar Store, N. Hoogstraat 36, Amsterdam. Phone: 9510 North.'

"At night", says Reiss, "the first and only football newspaper on Sunday would arrive: Cetem. 'Read Cetem!' the vendor would shout. I can still hear him shouting it: 'Read Cetem!' People would fight over a copy. It contained a short report of every match. If you could get yourself a copy, you'd take it home and the entire family would read it." I remind Reiss that Cetem contained regular news as well. "Could be", says Reiss, "but we were pretty narrow-minded, see?"

Being a Sunday-newspaper, Cetem was mainly written and sold by Jews. The vendors flocked to the rest of the city from the Jewish quarter. "Read Cetem! All the results!"

In a little tray in Amsterdam's city archives, there are five old copies of Cetem. Of some of them there's only one page left, but they do tell the story of 'the only paper on Sunday night'. It was founded in 1923, by Simon Weyl. The editorial office was on Herengracht 435-437. You'll find an office of Scheltema Booksellers there now, right next to their actual bookstore. Boys like Reiss bought their copy for a dime in the 1920s.

In Cetem's edition of 20 January 1924 I find a report of - yes, really - Feyenoord vs. Ajax:

Feyenoord - Ajax 1-3
Feyenoord starts agressively and advances on the guests' goal immediately, without being succesful. Then the guests start attacking and the pressure on Feyenoord's goal gets enormous. After a skirmish in front of the goal, Ajax scores its first, 0-1. Shortly afterwards, Rutten makes it 0-2. In the second half Feyenoord pulls one back from a penalty kick, 1-2. After this, the Rotterdammers keep roaming in front of Ajax' goal, without achieving the desired. Shortly before the end, Ajax lifts the score to 1-3 from a counter-attack. That's it. Exactly 138 words in Dutch, that even fail to name the scorers of three of the goals! Did people fight over this? But indeed: all the results were there. Underneath the Feyenoord - Ajax report are similar reports of all the other games (ZFC - RCH 2-2, Het Gooi - HVV 4-2, and so on). Next to it is a news announcement from Berlin. It's about the dispute France and Belgium had with Germany, about the repair-payments after the First World War: 20 Jan. Stresemann has hosted representatives of the foreign press yesterday night. He has, on this occasion, provided them his answer to Poincaré's latest speech. The issue of 25 November 1928 is completely intact. There's news on the front page ('The Fall Of Stresemann') and a lot of sports inside. Holland has defeated Switzerland 4-1, and Cetem provides a photograph of the Swiss in suits: 'Yesterday night we snapped the Swiss Team as they arrived at Amsterdam's Central Station.' Followed by the wonderully superfluous addition: 'One will find the final score above'.
Cetem was more than footballl results only. though. The paper reveals, on 17 March 1929: 'For Women:
The Perfect Man: Whom a Real Woman stands in awe of. Should not be an Adonis'

There are no Cetems from the 1930s left. The very last issue of the paper, of 19 March 1944, is still there, though. The price has gone up to 11 cents, and the paper has shrunk to tabloid format. Simon Weyl is not on the front page anymore, nor is Stresemann, and reporter Leo Lauer is gone, too. The cover story is 'straight from the Führer's head quarters' and says: 'Soviets thrown back at several locations'. There's still some sports news (Amsterdam - Rotterdam 3-3) and a praising article about the famous clown Guus Brox. In the Jewish quarter, however, people did not fight over the paper anymore.

Cetem continued as the Zondagavondblad ('Sunday Night Paper') and eventually disappeared in - most likely - 1950. Almost all the journalists, vendors and the large part of the readers were dead. Reiss was lucky. The boy from the Jewish quarter left for Harvard University in January of 1939. Harvard, the University of Roosevelt and Kennedy, admitted a set number of Jews each year.

Reiss was aware that things were going wrong in Europe. Fled German Jews had come to live in the neighborhood south of the Concert Hall, and they were telling gruesome stories. Reiss studied economics at Harvard, joined the U.S. Army and returned to Amsterdam after the war, taking over his brother's shop. His brother was killed.

Reiss: "Ajax never was a Jewish club. But does a club get typified by its supporters? Yes, it does. That's why SC Heerenveen is a Frisian club, for example. Not because of its players. Ajax never was a Jewish club. But it's always been a club with a large Jewish fanbase. Because of that tradition, sons of Jews have always been Ajax supporters."

As a boy, Abraham Roet never regarded Ajax as a Jewish club either. "You see, that just was no issue. Being Jewish was never a problem in Holland. You never felt different. Our family had been in Holland for hundreds of years. So I don't think they felt different than any other Ajax supporters. This equality was one of the reasons why Dutch Jews just did not believe what was about to happen to them."

Perhaps, says Roet, Ajax was in fact the opposite of a Jewish club. It was a club where Jews and non-Jews met one another, and got together. Yes, that's it. That was Ajax. On the stands of the old wooden stadium on Middenweg, you'd bump into poor Jews, middle-class Jews, wealthy Jews and Christians. A Jew who was part of Ajax, was part of Amsterdam. This helps you to understand the famous February Strike of 1941: after the German razzia on Jonas Daniël Meijerplein, Christian Amsterdammers revolted, because they knew the Jews. They knew them from school, the market - from the Ajax stands.

Not a Jewish club, but a melting pot. Maybe that's why father Roet took his sons to Ajax. Roet: "I think it was part of his upbringing. We were part of the Dutch community."

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

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