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Auschwitz and the perversion of football

28 january 2010 | eastern europe,

history, interview, language

For Holocaust Remembrance Day 2010, on the sixty-fifth anniver-

sary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I published a 2008 interview
with William Heyen. A Brooklyn-born child of German immi-
grants, Heyen has authored numerous collections of poetry and
essays about the Holocaust. In his poem Parity, Heyen addresses
the collusion that Nazis at Auschwitz forced on special squads, or
Sonderkommando, by giving the primarily Jewish units the job of
running the crematorium. At least once in 1944, the ss also staged
a football match between representatives of the two groups, held in
a crematorium courtyard.
Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved uses the phrase
gray zone to describe the camps network of complicity in which
perpetrator and victim were bound institutionally to the job of
extermination. The warped reality is captured in the soccer game.
In Heyens poem, the ss in this match envisions the conjoining of
spirit / for mutual health & benefit.
They put the ball into play. Sonorous laughter filled the
courtyard, writes Jewish doctor and Josef Mengele assistant Miklos
Nyiszli in his eyewitness account of camp life. He continues:


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The spectators became excited and shouted encouragement

at the players, as if this were the playing field of some peace-
ful town. Stupefied, I made that mental note as well. Without
waiting for the end of the match, I returned to my room. After
supper I swallowed two sleeping tablets of ten centigrams
each and fell asleep. A badly needed sleep, for I felt my nerves
stretched to the breaking point. In such cases, sleeping tablets
were the best remedy. (5758)

Interview with William Heyen

gg: Say some of your connection with soccer. I know its long-standing and
that youve played the game. What are some of your first recollections?I
imagine it was a while before there was organized soccer for you to play.

wh: As a kid I played lots of kickball games and that kind of thing at the
playground. When I went to high school, and this was at Smithtown in
Long Island, I think I was a sophomore when I began playing soccer and
felt part of a team. Thats when I began playing. And then because my high
school coach had gone to [suny] Brockport here in western New York,
I ended up at this place. I played more than three years on the varsity. I
was allNew York State for a few years, and then I was all-American for
two years, including first-team in my senior year. Just a few months ago
for the first time I was vain enough for the first time to have one of my
all-American certificates framed.
In those days there were no divisions in college soccer. Even lit-
tle Brockport. We had just eight hundred or nine hundred students. We
played the University of Pittsburgh and ccny [City College of New York]
and Army and Navy and other good schools. Brockport was conational
champions with Penn State in 1955. After that the centers of soccer moved
out to the Midwest and to the West. But in those days we were at the hub
of things.


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The Global Game Collection

I played what we called center-half back in those days. I dont know

how much Im in touch with the game anymore. I did follow the [2006]
World Cup, and Ive watched big matches in the past. Im sort of an Amer-
ican now who has fallen under the spell of football and basketball. But
soccer is maybe my hearts sport.

gg: Growing up and learning the game of soccer, did you recall many other
players outside the university context? Was there a network of amateur
teams, ethnic-based teamsPortuguese, Italian, and so on? Did that make
an impact on you, to the extent that you were aware of them?

wh: I didnt follow any of the leagues, but I did during summers for a cou-
ple of yearscollege summersI played for a Brauhaus team on Long Is-
land. This was an all-German team. We did play other ethnic teams. We
played a couple of games at Jones Beach I remember. I got to know some-
thing about the foreign players and how the game was played.
In college, because I did handle the ball a little bit better than most
of the American players, a couple of times I was asked what country I was
from. But I was born in Brooklyn. My old man, who was born in Germany,
had been a goalie as a young man, and I kicked the ball to him a little bit
against the garage once in a while. But no, I wasnt aware of leagues and
things like that....

gg: Thom Satterlee, who was coeditor of [The Global Game: Writers on
Soccer] and was a student of yours, seems to think you had a trial with a
professional side. It might have been the New York Generals ...

wh: I had an invitation when I was a senior to show up and try out for a
team in New York. I even forgot who they were. But I thought better of it
and went to graduate school. I did when I taught at [suny] Cortland help
out as an unofficial assistant coach.... When I was in graduate school at


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Ohio University in Athens again I helped out. That year I remember the
team won the Mid-American Championship.
I remember hearing when I was in graduate school that they were
having tryouts for the Olympics up in Cleveland. I thought I maybe could
make it, who knows? But by then I had a child and had a car that didnt
work very well. I fell into another kind of life. I got to be more interested in
literature and reading and writing than in seeing what I could do in soccer.

gg: Your poem titled Parity appears in [The Global Game: Writers on
Soccer]. Its ironic for it to be there in a way. It takes place in a setting in
which sport seems very illogical and seems like the antithesis of sport, the
antithesis of soccer, the match thats described there. Is that how you re-
acted when you first read about this occurrence?

wh: I think what happened, and this is in Primo Levis terms, what hap-
pened there at Auschwitz with this soccer game was a perversion of sport
in which the ss who were running the camp, Levi says, suggested that these
special commando, Jews and others, were on their level and that is the rea-
son they would play with them. Its as though they dragged down another
segment of humanity, and this game was a manifestation of that....
I guess when I write a poem its successfuland this one is somewhat
successful anywaywhen I can keep reading it and keep hearing things in
it. And this one continues to give of itself for me. Im listening to its sounds,
spirit and benefit, and then those long as at the end, Come, said the
ss, today / we must play ... It seems to me to be a very sardonic poem. I
dont get anything in there per se of the working of the game, and Ive read
an awful lot of Holocuast literatureand I havent read about this soccer
game anywhere else, so thats all I know about it.
Levi got it from a book by a Hungarian physician [Nyiszli] who
worked with Mengele who talked about this soccer game. But there arent
any details about it. Again, the point being that when the ss who ran the
camp had reduced the special commando to people like themselves, then


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a kind of parity was created. Its as though they destroyed another races
morality; therefore, they could, so-called, play.
I wish I did know more about soccer matches at Auschwitz....

gg: Youve done a lot of Holocaust literature, a few books of poems and
essays, and assimilated what seems like an extraordinary amount of source
material, survivors literature and other sources. How has the process gone
for you, turning that language and that source material into poetic form
like in this poem Parity, for instance? How does that transformation

wh: Im not sure, and Im not sure if this answers your question. But I have
a new book coming out this fall [2008]. Its called A Poetics of Hiroshima.
Most of it, three-quarters of the books poems, are Holocaust poems, and
then there are some Hiroshima and bomb pieces. And what my theme
is this time, and I face it fully maybe for the first time, is that art truly has
to do with this collision between beauty and atrocity. So even writing a
poem like Parity Im trying to create something on the page that I care
for, something of rhythmical intensity, something of imagistic interest and
even beauty. And at the same time, lurking in the background, there is
this idea of the absolute horror thats going on, so that it can seem almost
obscene to be pursuing art.
Raul Hilberg, the famous scholar who wrote The Destruction of the
European Jewsthree big volumesalso has a newer book called The Poli-
tics of Memory. He talks about writing The Destruction of the European Jews
and drafting it when he was a graduate student at Columbia and he was
working in his parents apartment. While he was constructing that book,
which is kind of a ground zero for Holocaust history, he was listening to
classical music, for example, Beethoven symphonies. And he was trying to
construct his book, his study, as though it were a symphony.
So he very early on faced the idea that, yes, this is what we do, even
while we are responding to the darkest history of the human race. I say in


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one poem, Here is where Gods darkness grew darkest. Even while were
responding to that, we have this other urge to create something meaning-
ful and something beautiful, even if its darkly beautiful. And we know of
course from the camps that people too were trying to make paintings and
make poems. Theres a lot of literature that comes out of that.
... I have a German family background. My father got here in 1934. I
think it was 1934 and [he] met my mother here as they were both born in
Germany. But his two brothers died on the German side. My wifes father
was a student at Tbingen. When he was given credit for getting rid of Jew-
ish professors there he drew the attention of Dr. [Joseph] Goebbels, who
called him up to Berlin. He was one of fifty regular participants at Goeb-
belss news conferences for years. So there is that German background in
me that drew me toward it.
But its that history. Still I read book after book, and I find myself
just shaking my head saying, Could this have happened? How could this
have happened, that so-called civilized people of my blood did to others
what they did? Susan Sontag says that the Holocaust is opaque. We cant
see into it, we cant finally see through it. And for me this is a good thing
to keep in mind so that I dont freeze myself into any positions about how
this kind of aberrant behavior, this sickness, this psychotic behavior could
have occurred.

gg: You said you had been to one of the camps, Bergen-Belsen. One of
your volumes is titled Erika, which is the type of heather or vegetation that
now covers the ground. I wonder how much of that atmosphere, seeing a
camp environment, was important in your creative work. Was it necessary
physically to see one of the camps at some point?

wh: I dont know if it was necessary, because I seem to throw my mind

although really this is impossibleinto these other scenes as I read these
books. I still remember being at Bergen-Belsen that day. And what I really
remember, and I dont think Ive talked about this before, is that night at


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home I drafted an essay about the visit to Bergen-Belsen. It became the

essay Erika. But in early drafts I said its important for me not to change
a word. But then as time went by I did improve its various redundancies
and clumsinesses and I inserted other things, so I could not resist trying to
make the essay into a work of art.
To stand there in that very ground where so much had happened.
Its unforgettable. In general the Holocaust has cast a shadow in my life.
The city of Rochester has adopted Cynthia Ozicks The Shawl as a book
that the whole city will read, and Ill be doing two or three talks in relation
to the book over the next month or two. And one of the things Im going
to emphasize is this idea that in order to understand such a book or any
Holocaust fiction, say, or poetry we have to understand that the term Ho-
locaust survivor is an oxymoron. Someone like Charlotte Delbo just says
over and over and over again, Im dead, dont you realize it? Im dead.
So there is that. Ive got a poem The Legacy in which I mention
thatbasically the poem says that the more alive we are, the deader the
past is and the deader the dead are. The more we empathize with and bring
them up and recall them and bring them back into our memory, then the
deader we are. So this is finally the legacy of this terrible history.

gg: We mention in the introductory note to the poem Parity that you
had a couple of uncles who fought on the German side in the Second
World War, and I believe perished in it, and you dedicated some poems
to them. How much do you know of their background, and did you ever
know them personally?

wh: I didnt know them at all. I think I remember, when I was a boy, my
father receiving the news of the deaths of his brothers. And all I heard was
that one of them was a rabid Nazi, an idealist as they called them in those
days, so he was glad to be doing what he did. This was Hermann Heyen,
and he was shot down over Russia finally. The other one, my father said,


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Willy, Wilhelm, after whom I was named, was just a foot soldier who was
one of the not many Germans who were killed at the beginning in Holland.
No, I never knew them or had any contact with them. My father was
quiet about things regarding World Warii.

gg: You had a volume earlier called The Swastika Poems. One of your ear-
liest memoriesyou were born in 1940and you still recalled swastikas,
because you were from a German family, being paintedwas it on your
house or near the house?

wh: On the steps and on the side of the house. There was a tremendous
amount of tension. I didnt know what the swastika represented, but I knew
that it sort of vibrated within the house and made everybody nervous. At
that time my father was working against the Axis for Bethlehem Steel.
By the time I got to high school, I dont think any high schools were
offering German courses or anything like that.

gg: How is your connection with the sport of soccer now? You see the
World Cup and occasionally a college game, the college team you played

wh: In fact theres an alumni weekend coming up here, and Ill be there
and bullshit with the old ballplayers. Maybe I could tie together soccer and
poetry in one thing thats been on my mind. What has really bothered me
for a long time is how, to me, dirty the sport has become when I watch it
on tv or even in the college ranks. I remember being bothered many years
ago watching great players like Maradona chopped down from behind and
then the yellow card coming out very reluctantly, and then maybe the red
card. I saw in this recent World Cup in so many matchesI cant stand see-
ing some of the elbowing and some of the spikes flashing and especially the
uniform pulling. It disrupts the whole finesse and the beauty of the game.
So Ive done some thinking about this lately. The most brilliant thing


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anybody ever said about poetry to my mind was in Emersons Journal,

when he says, Form always stands in dread of power. What the devil will
he do next? So theres always this equilibrium between form, shape, or-
derliness, control and, on the other hand, power or wildness or force. And
in the real poem those things achieve a kind of balance, a sort of blending.
And you know it when youve hit it, when youve got a forward velocity
mixed in with a stasis. Its just a feeling you can get.
I think all this dirty play in soccer which gets out of handyouve
only got one guy on the field staying in control of things really. Even in pro
basketball youve got three refs on the court. All of that disrupts the beauty,
the poetry of the game, the rhythm of it, the skill of it. So thats been one
thing that bothers me. I watch a game on television once in a while, and
I have to look away and I become irritated with it. I know well enough as
an athleteI still play basketball at sixty-seven, Ive been an athlete of one
kind or another all my lifeI know that in soccer you can fend off other
players with forearms and keep your balance and everything else. But this
deliberate dirty play of people being pulled down by their uniforms and all
of that, that has put me off and, as I said, disrupted the possible poetry of
the game and the great skills of these players now.

gg: Related to your own history as a soccer player, when you were playing
the game did you think of it as a poetic form, as a sport that was capable of
that kind of expression?

wh: I went to college as a phys ed major, and I was a phys ed major for two
and a half years. If someone had told me back then that Id be interested
in literature or poetry someday, Id have felt sort of insulted. No, I didnt.
But I felt the rhythms of the game. When a play snaps into place in soccer
or basketball or anything else you just have that feeling. Its like the proper
swing of a golf club or whatever. But no, I wasnt thinking of the poetry of
the game. I was thinking of trying to get a win and to get around the guy
in front of me.


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Im six-[foot-]five, so I was, again, center-halfback. I played mainly

defense, but I was always in there on corner kicks, and so I did my share of
damage to the other teams.

Heyens poem Parity appears in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer, ed. John
Turnbull, Thom Satterlee, and Alon Raab (Lincoln and London: University of Ne-
braska Press, 2008).

Tadeusz Borowski, The People Who Walked On, in This Way for the Gas, Ladies
and Gentlemen, trans. Barbara Vedder, Writers from the Other Europe (1959; Har-
mondsworth, England: Penguin, 1976); William Heyen, Sunlight, The American
Poetry Review (March/April 2007): 5556; Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctors
Eyewitness Account, trans. Tibere Kremer and Richard Seaver (Greenwich ct:
Fawcett Crest, 1960); Stanislao G. Pugliese, review of The Grey Zone, The American
Historical Review 108 (June 2003); Debarati Sanyal, A Soccer Match in Auschwitz:
Passing Culpability in Holocaust Criticism, Representations 79 (summer 2002):


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