BERLIN – Makkabi Berlin’s first game ever ended in a 15-1 loss in the city’s humblest soccer league. The result of that 1971 match was secondary, though, as merely playing was an achievement for the team founded by Holocaust survivors.
“We wanted to show that we’re still here — that we’re accepted, that we weren’t ended in 1933,” co-founder Marian Wajselfisz told The Associated Press. He still laughs about the result.
On Sunday, Makkabi will be the first Jewish club to play in the German Cup, a season-long tournament for 64 of the country’s best professional and amateur sides.
When the annual competition was started under the Nazis in 1935, Jews weren’t allowed to take part. So when fifth-tier Makkabi squares off against top-tier Wolfsburg, it will be carrying the weight of history onto the field.
“I’ve been there from the first day. I never imagined that we — as a Jewish team — would ever be playing a cup game against a Bundesliga team. So for us, and for me personally, it’s a huge joy,” said Wajselfisz, whose family survived the Nazis with the help of a Polish couple who hid them in their cellar for nearly two years.
Makkabi is the successor to Bar Kochba Berlin, a club founded in 1898 to promote Jewish participation in sports. It had more than 40,000 members at its peak. But when the Nazis came to power, they forced Jewish athletes to take part in separate competitions and then banned Jewish organizations outright in 1938.
Formed in 1970, Makkabi Berlin is one of many Jewish sports and social clubs around the world — there are also Makkabi clubs in Munich, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf. With 550 members, the Berlin club fields teams in a variety of sports, including basketball and volleyball.
Although Makkabi Berlin’s Jewish identity and mission are still central to its identity — the amateur team’s crest features the Star of David — membership in the club is open to all. That’s especially evident with its soccer team, which features players from 15 countries and various religions, including Jews, Muslims and Christians.
“This is something we’re extremely proud of,” board member Michael Koblenz said. “We’re here, and whoever is ready to play for us, and is also open to playing for a club with Jewish origins and some sort of Jewish culture, we’re absolutely happy to integrate people into our teams.”
Among the non-Jewish players on the club is 36-year-old Senegalese defender Papa Alpha Diop, who joined Makkabi Berlin in 2017 and is Muslim. In addition to his first-team duties, Diop oversees the club’s youth setup and coaches its under-10 team. Kids as young as 5 can join.
“Sometimes I feel tired, but when I see the kids, I forget about the tiredness, I’m happy,” Diop said. “It doesn’t matter about religion, or what you are. It’s not important. The only important thing is that you like to come and play football.”
Knocking off Wolfsburg would be a tall order: The team won the German Cup in 2015 and competes in the Bundesliga against the likes of Bayern Munich.
Makkabi, which earned promotion to the fifth tier by winning the Berlin league last season, qualified for this year’s German Cup by winning the Berlin Cup in June for the first time.
Wolfburg’s visit means Sunday’s game will be played in a bigger venue in Berlin. Makkabi’s usual sportsground is named for former national team player Julius Hirsch, whose grandson has been invited to the match. Hirsch fought for Germany in World War I, won club championships with Karlsruher FV and Fürth, and played for Germany at the 1912 Olympics. But he was murdered at Auschwitz for being Jewish.
Unlike Makkabi’s typical matches, Sunday’s match will be televised. It has stoked interest far beyond Berlin, with the World Jewish Congress saying it was “delighted and proud” to see how Makkabi’s sporting achievements were being celebrated by the Jewish community abroad.
“The popularity, visibility and success of Jewish sports clubs symbolizes the growth of established Jewish life in Germany and the world,” the congress said.
Adding to the historical intrigue of the match is that Wolfsburg is owned by Volkswagen, which made use of forced labor during the war. But Wajselfisz said such matters belong in the past.
“I have many German friends, Christian friends. I never speak about it. Perhaps his father or grandfather was in the SS, for me everything is open,” he said. “It was 80 years ago. It’s past. Now, we try to be accepted as Jews.”
Makkabi captain Doron Bruck, who is Jewish, said the team’s success is changing how the club is perceived — less as the victim of antisemitism and more like other clubs that are judged only on their sporting merit.
“If anyone has any problem with us or has any antisemitic background, we’re open to discuss, we’re open to inform,” Bruck said. “But we don’t want to hide and just be in the victim’s role. We want to be active. And I think that’s also a huge part of the success.”
For more AP soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer