Hakoah: Return of Strength

The Legendary Jewish Sports Club Reopens in Vienna’s Prater After 70 Years

Leading Hokoah swimmer Hedy Bienenfeld in 1931 | Photo: Kitty Hoffman

Hokoah’s 1921 soccer team was the first continental team to beat England | Photo: Courtesy of Hakoah

Chancellor Gusenbauer at the opening ceremony | Photo: Courtesy of Hakoah

Swimmer Hedy Bienenfeld

Leading Hokoah swimmer Hedy Bienenfeld in 1931 | Photo: Kitty Hoffman

It’s not often that you see the ‘Star of David’ nowadays in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt – once the centre of one of Europe’s most vibrant Jewish communities. But now it’s flying high again on a flag outside the Hakoah sports centre deep in the Prater. Hakoah is a club steeped in tradition that, this spring, has finally moved back home 70 years after the Nazis brutally closed it down when Austria was annexed to the Third Reich.

So Tuesday, Mar. 11, was an emotional day for the new manager of the Jewish sports club, Roland Gelbard. He stood on the platform with Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl, both taking the opportunity to readdress the relationship between the Austrian authorities and a club that played a defining role in this country’s nascent sporting scene of the early years of the 20th century.

“It was really impressive,” said Gelbard. “Such moving speeches! It sent such a strong message of support; not just for this club, but for the whole Jewish community.”

Relations weren’t always so harmonious. Efforts from the post-war Jewish community to reacquire the confiscated land and receive some sort of restitution to enable the reconstruction of the expensive sporting facilities dragged on fruitlessly for decades. For many in the Jewish community, it was a signal that Austria, described in its own constitution as a victim of Nazism, was unprepared to face up to its role in the crimes that followed the Anschluss in 1938.

So Roland Gelbard looked very pleased when I met him in the club’s café, looking out over a state of the art gymnastics hall – huge and airy and lined with rows of blue seats for spectators. Gelbard is a small, bird-like man with dark, wavy hair, who seems to exude energy. He smiled as I peered down admiringly at the inviting green playing surface and suggested he organize an indoor soccer tournament.

But it was a tired smile. That energy had clearly been tested by a frantic week of last-minute preparations and press engagements linked to the reopening. Still he leant forward, eager to talk about what Hakoah had meant to pre-war Vienna.

Founded in 1908, with over 4,000 members at its peak, Hakoah – which means “strength” in Hebrew – was the biggest athletics club in the world at the time. It was born out of the concept of ‘Muscular Judaism,’ Gelbard explained, an important doctrine of early 20th century Jewish culture. Austria’s Jewish community had played a central role in the cultural and artist life of the country for centuries, but many Jews no longer wanted to be typecast only as intellectuals or aesthetes.

“The image of Jews at the time was of scholarly devout figures,” Gelbard said. “It was seen as important to break out of this narrow stereotype, that Jewish people got involved in athletic pursuits and were also successful in those sports.”

Successful they certainly were. Hakoah athletes distinguished themselves in fencing, tennis, swimming and water polo. Hakoah wrestler Niki Jirschl won medals for Austria at the 1932 Olympic Games.

But it was in soccer that Hakoah athletes wrote themselves into the annals of legend. On a tour in 1921 Hakoah became the first continental club to defeat an English team on their home pitch, when they thrashed current Premier League team West Ham 5-1.

Hokoah’s 1921 soccer team

Hokoah’s 1921 soccer team was the first continental team to beat England | Photo: Courtesy of Hakoah

And in 1925 the Jewish ball-artists produced a truly Hollywood finale to the season, when the team’s Hungarian born goalkeeper Alexander Fabian broke his arm. The rules at the time didn’t allow substitutions, so Fabian put his arm in a sling and switched positions with a forward, and seven minutes later, scored the goal that clinched Hakoah’s first and only league title.

The glory days ended abruptly with the arrival of the Nazis in 1938. The club was disbanded, the grounds and stadium appropriated and the players persecuted. Many were able to use their international contacts to escape to safety abroad, but many more – all part of a golden era in Austrian sport – perished in the death camps of the Third Reich.

It has been a long and at times bitter road home. Hakoah had not died altogether; it had only ceased to exist in the eyes of the Nazis, who even tried to erase the club’s achievements from the official record books.  In the hearts of those who had loved it, however, Hakoah lived on, and surviving Jews officially reestablished it as soon as the war was over. But that proved just the easy part. The claims filed for restitution got hopelessly bogged down in bureaucracy as the Austrian state stalled for almost 60 years.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the money finally came through: a package worth $200 million that allowed the modern Jewish community to build the impressive multi-million euro complex close to the Danube. It was a long overdue triumph.

Chancellor Gusenbauer

Chancellor Gusenbauer at the opening ceremony | Photo: Courtesy of Hakoah

The journey is not over yet, however. As behind us members pedaled away in the fitness rooms, I peered out of the clear glass windows to the vast building-site outside. Modern Hakoah is still a dusty work in progress; a swimming pool and tennis courts are under construction. At the moment all you can see is a jumble of portakabins, cement mixers and orange netting.

Partly, it’s a problem of scale: Membership today is counted by the dozens, rather than by the thousands. Indeed it seems unlikely Hakoah will ever reclaim anything but a shadow of its former place in Austrian sporting life, as there are only around 10,000 Jews living in the whole of Austria today, compared to 200,000 before the war.So while the kitchen is kosher, and the club is an official Jewish association, membership is open to all faiths and includes about a third non-Jewish members, which pleases Gelbard.

Best of all, the club is back, at home in the Prater. And that, says Gelbard is what counts.

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