For Jewish soccer club on the verge of reaching German Cup again, there is fear as well as pride

BERLIN — When Makkabi Berlin became the first Jewish club to ever play in the German Cup last year, it was a moment of pure joy and pride for a team founded by Holocaust survivors.

A year later, Makkabi is on the verge of the same achievement again, but the emotions are vastly different this time in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

If Makkabi wins a local cup final for Berlin-based teams on Saturday, the fifth-division club once again gets a ticket to the prestigious tournament that includes the likes of Bayern Munich and other top sides. The excitement, however, has been tempered by fear and concerns that players and club members may be targeted for the Star of David on the team’s shirt.

Antisemitic incidents have increased drastically in Berlin since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing conflict in Gaza.

Makkabi, which drew global headlines for its accomplishment last year, is keeping a low profile this time around to avoid unwelcome attention. Club members were reluctant to speak on the record, and social media posts have been kept to a minimum.

“I’m often being asked what is Jewish about our club or our team and what are our values. And sadly, this is one of them, that we often cannot play or live how we want,” Makkabi captain Doron Bruck told The Associated Press.

Makkabi is the successor to Bar Kochba Berlin, a club founded in 1898 to promote Jewish participation in sports but that was banned after the Nazis came to power.

Makkabi Berlin was formed in 1970 and while its Jewish identity and mission are still central to its identity, it is open to players of all faiths. So many of the non-Jewish players have been getting an insider perspective on what it means to be Jewish in Germany.

Makkabi stopped playing immediately after Oct. 7 and only resumed under police protection. Training also takes place under police protection.

“For me, as a Jew living in Germany, unfortunately, it was nothing that I didn’t know. From school on, I was under police protection, and every Jewish institution is,” Bruck said. “More so for the non-Jewish players … who needed to play under police protection, it was new. And they asked me what’s going on and if they needed to worry, or how serious this situation is. So, I think all in all, it affected the team. It impacted the whole season.”

Some players even considered leaving the club.

“There are players who feared that their families back in Iran or in other countries are being persecuted or endangered because of the fact that their family member is playing in Germany for a Jewish club,” Bruck said. “Muslim players who are influenced by their society (are) being told that they shouldn’t play for a Jewish club.”

Senegalese defender Papa Alpha Diop, who joined the club in 2017, is one of them.

“I played in this team for like six years. I have many Makkabi shirts like this,” Diop said, pointing to the Star of David on his chest. “Sometimes I take it outside to go to the gym or for training. People look at me. They know I’m Muslim. They say, ‘Are you crazy?’”

It was different last year when Makkabi won the Berlin Cup for the first time to earn its place in the first round of the German Cup, a competition founded under the Nazis in 1935.

“If these people from before, the Nazis, if they knew, they’d all be turning in their graves,” Makkabi co-founder Marian Wajselfisz said with a laugh. “Jews in the cup and so on. So, we’re very, very proud.”

The 86-year-old Wajselfisz, who is Jewish, only survived the Holocaust thanks to a Polish couple who hid his family in their cellar for nearly two years.

Makkabi played Volkswagen-backed Bundesliga team Wolfsburg in the first round last August, losing the match 6-0, but amplifying the club’s central message of openness and tolerance.

Volkswagen had made use of forced labor during the war. But Wajselfisz said at the time of the match that such matters belong in the past.

It’s the present that’s causing issues now.

“We have the same training, we have nearly the same team, but the luck that we had last year, this year we have no fortune,” Makkabi coach Wolfgang Sandhowe said. “Dear God has sometimes forgotten us. I hope he will be there at the weekend.”

On Saturday, Makkabi will be playing against Viktoria Berlin, a team that finished third in the fourth tier of German soccer. Makkabi beat Viktoria in the semifinals of the competition last year on its run to the German Cup, but will be underdogs against a team that plays in the division above.

“Viktoria is favorite,” Sandhowe said. “But first they’ll have to beat us.”


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