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The World Cup, Auschwitz, and the future

Jill Klein's father, Gene, is pictured here second from left with his soccer teammates in a displaced person’s camp in Austria, wearing a sweater as his goalkeeper’s jersey. Photo provided.
Jill Klein's father, Gene, is pictured here second from left with his soccer teammates in a displaced person’s camp in Austria, wearing a sweater as his goalkeeper’s jersey. Photo provided.

By Jill Klein/

My father and I will watch every game that the United States plays in the World Cup, starting June 16 when the American team faces Ghana. We live on opposite sides of the world—he is in Florida and I am in Australia—but today’s video technology will allow us to cheer the team on together.

My father’s love for soccer goes back more than 80 years. On Sundays, starting from when he was only 5, he used to ride on his father’s bike to the soccer stadium at the edge of their town in Czechoslovakia. He sat in a small seat on top of the handlebars, his legs dangling in front of him. The bike swayed from one side to the other as my grandfather Herman pedaled through the town square, and my young father felt every bump of the cobblestones.

The two of them shared a passion for soccer that drove my grandmother to tears. For years they supported their local team, rejoicing in occasional victories against their rivals from a larger, nearby town. My father, Gene, played every day after school, and when he was a teenager, he joined the town’s Jewish youth team. Herman would watch my father—the shortest kid on the team—play in goal, producing diving saves that made Herman proud.

I have a prized photograph of my father, taken just before a game in 1946. He is standing in a line of men from his team in a displaced person’s camp in Austria, wearing a sweater as his goalkeeper’s jersey. His father, Herman, was not there to watch him play.

Two years prior, on the selection ramp in Auschwitz, Herman had been sent to the left and my father to the right. In the chaos, and believing the guards when they assured the prisoners that everyone would be back together again in the evening, my father and his father did not even say goodbye. My father became a prisoner in Auschwitz; Herman died in a gas chamber.

My father instilled a love of soccer in me when I was young. I grew up watching soccer matches with him, and at 17 I was the only girl playing in the boys’ under-19 league in Miami. I was the smallest person on the team, but I wanted to be a goalkeeper like my dad.

During my first game, my father stood behind the goal and gave instructions. The opponents were very strong and I was constantly in action. Whenever a forward on the other team broke through the defense I would start to run toward him to cut down the angle, but my father would say “don’t go out, stay on the goal line.” Only after several goals had been scored on me did I realize that he was more concerned about my safety than he was about my performance. Over the years, he eventually got used to seeing his daughter dive at the feet of giants to preempt their shots.

My daughter is a goalkeeper, and yes, she is the shortest girl on her team. I’m her coach and now, as I watch her throw herself into danger, I understand the fear my father once felt. But just as my grandfather saw when watching my father, and as my father saw when watching me, I witness her joy after making a great save and I feel proud. I admire her commitment and composure as she plays this most exciting and demanding of positions.

She is also a survivor. My daughter is adopted from Thailand, where she lived through the 2004 tsunami. Her first mother died serving breakfast at a hotel when the tsunami struck. The same wave also killed the Thai national women’s goalkeeper, who was playing beach soccer with hotel guests just a few meters away. A few years ago, my daughter’s school had a sports hero day, and my daughter dressed as the Thai goalkeeper who had perished with her mother. Maybe this strange, world-circling ribbon of soccer legacy will one day lead to my own daughter standing in goal for her country.

I am thankful to my father for making soccer a part of our family, and for having the courage and resilience to have so much happiness and love in his life, after having suffered so much. Seventy years ago, my father was a prisoner in a slave labor camp. He was forced to carry long metal rails with two other prisoners, a heavy load that caused his thin shoulders to bruise and bleed, while his starving body negotiated the next step, and the step after that. At the end of each grueling day, he marched with his fellow inmates back to the prison camp where they were served a watery bowl of soup.

If I could go back to him on that long march, slip invisibly into his row of five and whisper a few words in his ear, what would I tell him? What would give him the most hope that he would survive and go on to live a good life? Perhaps it is this: “Your granddaughter will keep goal, and she will be amazing.”

Jill Gabrielle Klein is the author of “We Got the Water: Tracing My Family’s Path Through Auschwitz.”

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