Holocaust Remembrance Day / Profile : The Goalkeeper of Theresienstadt

Jirka Taussig's fame as a soccer star played in his favor in the concentration camps

In 1938, Jirka Taussig received his first blows from the Nazis when locals in the town of Vanrsdorf, Czechoslovakia, threw stones at him during a soccer match. Taussig, born in 1919 in Prague, first showed off his talents as a goalkeeper when he was just 6.

"They told me I was like a strip of flypaper," he recalls in a Czech-language book by Frantisek Steiner called "Fotbal Pod Zlutou Hvezdou" ("Soccer Under the Yellow Star"). He was a standout for Czechoslovakia's youth team, but after the Nazi conquest he was forbidden from taking part in league matches. To play he wandered to a small village one hour south of Prague, where he was a goalkeeper in both soccer and ice hockey.

"The people fled Prague and came to live there on weekends so they could dream about American freedom. They built cabins that they learned about from reading books about the American West. In the evenings they lit campfires, played guitar and sang. I don't know how or what they learned about me, but they embraced me with open arms and played quality soccer there."

Taussig was sent on a transport in June 1943 to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto. "You must understand that it didn't all happen immediately," he says in a telephone interview from his home in San Francisco. "People often ask me why I didn't object. When we were in Czechoslovakia in 1938 I remember they asked my father, 'Why don't you leave?' He said, 'Why should we leave? We're Czechoslovak citizens and nothing can happen to us.'"

The cycle of suffering developed slowly, says Taussig, 91. "At first the Germans came, then they didn't let us go to school anymore, and after that we were forbidden from entering parks," he recalls. "You didn't have a revolutionary feeling that you had to do something against it. In practice, each time the situation got worse, we thought the worst was behind us."

Players in Terezin's soccer league knew about Taussig by the time he arrived in the ghetto. "When I got there, various soccer teams offered me to join them like in a tender; they really fought over me," he says. "I decided to join the 'used clothes warehouse' team. I got a bed to sleep on and a job, and that's how I survived the ghetto in good shape."

The Terezin soccer league was one of the few venues of entertainment the Nazis allowed the Jews. "It was a typical league, but the difference is that on the pitch there were only seven players on each side - a goalkeeper, two defenders, a back midfielder and three strikers," says Taussig.

One of the league's most loyal spectators was Binyamin Davidovitch, the father of Haifa goalkeeper and Israel national team member Nir Davidovitch. The older Davidovitch was a child of 12 and a fan of Taussig in particular. "Even then we was bigger than the rest," says Binyamin Davidovitch, who lived in the ghetto's orphanage and waited breathlessly for the weekly games on Sundays. "It wasn't a soccer pitch, rather a courtyard without grass, and we were thrilled just that we could get in."

Taussig was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. When the Germans learned he was an accomplished soccer goalie, they transferred him to a section where prisoners played under the watch of the SS. His job was to unload cargo.

"My name was well known then, and when they needed a good goalie they found me in the camp," says Taussig. "Transports arrived from Hungary, bringing several soccer players. They organized two or three teams to play against each other. No snow was falling. It was almost like a regular game with grass and goalposts."

The weekly games in Auschwitz lasted only one week until Taussig was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin, after which he was transferred to the Kaufering concentration camp in Bavaria. By this time he was no longer allowed to play goalie, but after being caught smuggling bread, he got another chance to demonstrate his athletic ability.

"I received the punishment of running on all fours up and down a hill - back and forth on my hands and knees," he says. "I was in such good shape, I did it well. My fingers were bleeding, but I didn't give in. Everyone was impressed by the way I carried out the punishment. Even the Nazis watching me got so excited they decided to stop me."

Taussig explains that he was always in good shape, physically and mentally. He says he kept as clean as possible, one time killing fleas he found in his shirt with his fingernails. "I always had work in the camp, and I didn't need to go out," he says. "And I always kept a piece of very hard bread in my pocket for the day I would be really hungry."

The young Czech survived a death march and was liberated by the Americans. He returned to Czechoslovakia and wanted to change his name, which was based on the German town from which his ancestors came, to erase any connection to the Nazis. Under the name Tesar, he once again became a leading goalkeeper in the Czechoslovak soccer league and one of the top hockey goalies as well.

"I didn't consider moving to Israel after the war because to tell the truth I wasn't a Zionist but rather a Czechoslovak," he explains. "My national identity was stronger than my Jewish identity. While training on a hockey rink in Czechoslovakia in 1947, he noticed a woman skating on the ice behind the goal. "There she stood," he recalls of the first moment he laid eyes on his wife-to-be, Alice Havelova. "That's the sweetest memory I have."

In 1948, just as he reached the peak of his athletic career and was a candidate for the Olympic hockey team, the Communists took over the country. The pair of lovers defected to Paris and lived there eight months until they received visas to the United States. The move to America ended the athletic career of Jirka, who changed his first name to George. He got into the dime-store business and raised a family, which now numbers three children and nine grandchildren. "They all play hockey, lacrosse or tennis really well," he says.

Davidovitch, who also survived Auschwitz, became Maccabi Haifa's goalkeeper in the 1950s and never forgot the star of Terezin. "Taussig made a huge impression on me, with his stops and calm demeanor," he says. "I thought about him when I stood in the goal and tried to imitate him." The attraction of goalkeeping, which started somewhere in the ghetto, has led to a brilliant career by his son, Nir.

Nearing 61 years of marriage, George Tesar weighs 72 kilos - exactly as he did in his 20s when he was a leading athlete. "My parents assimilated, and I married a non-Jew, so my Hebrew is limited," he says. "I know how to say todah rabah, and that's about it. I can say thank you in 24 languages, and every day I thank God for letting me meet my wife, and that I'm healthy enough. When you're 91, all you can expect in life is serenity."