Remembering the Holocaust Survivor Who Changed World Soccer as We Know It

A British journalist has sparked a revival of the memory of Erno Erbstein, a trailblazing Hungarian soccer player and coach, seven decades after his death in a plane crash

Shaul Adar
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The new BAK (Budapesti Atletikai Klub)
The new BAK (Budapesti Atletikai Klub)Credit: Tamás Polónyi
Shaul Adar

There were years, back somewhere between the world wars, when the most fascinating place in the soccer world was between Vienna and Budapest. People there were thinking in the cafes and on the playing fields of Europe about tactical innovations, new game strategies, cutting-edge coaching techniques and even game philosophy. Jews had an enormous impact on that important stream of café revolutionaries, one that has reverberated until today. People like Bela Guttman and Erno Egri Erbstein exported their innovations around the world, to places from Italy and Portugal to Brazil, making a significant contribution to world soccer.

Until World War II, these two, Guttman and Erbstein, were respected citizens who had served in the army and were admired athletes. However, they became second-class or even lesser citizens at a certain point. Both men were sent to a work camp toward the end of the war, when the Hungarians started persecuting the Jews, but they managed to escape it in December 1944.

Hungarian footballer and coach Bela Guttmann
Hungarian footballer and coach Bela GuttmannCredit: AP Photo / Brown

Guttman played for the Hungarian national team before the war and he was a renowned coach, while Erbstein had served as an officer in the Hungarian army during World War I and was a mediocre soccer player and promising coach in Italy.

Toward the end of 1944, they were no more than two Jews whose contribution to their homeland had been forgotten. Their lives at that point depended on the caprices of the Nazis and their allies. The two survived the Holocaust but lost their siblings and other close relatives. One of the two, Guttman, became one of the best-known coaches in the history of European soccer, while Erbstein was almost forgotten despite a splendid career as a coach in Italy. At the peak of that career, Erbstein molded the great Torino club of the 1940s. On May 4, 1949, Torino was on a flight back from Lisbon, where it had played Benfica, when the plane carrying the team hit a basilica and crashed into a mountainside near Torino. Eighteen people were killed in the accident, among them Erbstein the Holocaust survivor.

About 10 years ago, an English journalist, Dominic Bliss, was struck when he came upon a brief mention of Erbstein in a book about the history of Italian soccer. He commenced a thorough investigation into the life of the Jewish coach who was killed in the great soccer tragedy. The result was the 2014 biography “Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer.” The book was critically acclaimed, and two years ago was translated into Hungarian. Interest in the strange and emotional journey of Erbstein’s story gained momentum.

When Bertalan Molnar, a resident of Budapest, read the book, he was motivated to follow through on his dream to found an amateur soccer club. Molnar revived BAK (Budapesti Atletikai Klub), the team Erbstein had played for from 1916 to 1924. “Through Dominic’s book, I encountered the most famous person in the club’s history and it provided great inspiration,” he told Haaretz. “I believe in life’s small coincidences, and it was important for me that the story and the book found me. Therefore, I decided that this was my goal – to reestablish the club.”

Molnar continues: “Everybody knows Ferenc Puskas and the national team of 1954, but very few know about what preceded Puskas and his generation, very few know of Erbstein. The Communist regime hid the pre-war history of Hungarian soccer, so no one knows about the Hungarian team that lost the World Cup final in 1938.

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BAK, according to Molnar, was founded in 1900 in Budapest because the heads of MTK, which was basically a Jewish club, didn’t want to start a soccer team. MTK would later change its policy and eventually became one of the Hungarian soccer’s most important teams. Some members didn’t wait for this change, however, and they founded BAK.

The club reached the cup final, finished in third place in its best season, and won several titles in other sports, but it ran into hard times in the 1930s when Hungarian soccer professionalized. In 1947, the authorities rejected a petition to reopen the club. Most of the players, managers and fans had perished in the Holocaust, and the Communist regime wasn’t excited about clubs that were not affiliated with the state. Hence, the club didn’t exist for a period of 70 years, until Molnar decided to resuscitate the club, replete with its blue and black colors and the logo with the ram (“bak” in Hungarian).

“In our request to found the club, we declared that we want to infuse the club with Erbstein’s legacy, his importance to the sport and to life in Hungary. His personality and his successes as a coach, especially in Italy, are wonderful.”

A joint flag of Corinthian-Casuals and the BAK (Budapesti Atletikai Klub)
A joint flag of Corinthian-Casuals and the BAK (Budapesti Atletikai Klub)Credit: John Forrest

The revived club started out in the sixth tier of the Hungarian league, playing in a tiny stadium with wooden seats and a few dozen fans. The goal, however, is to become the largest amateur club in Hungary “and to return to the spirit of Erbstein,” says Molnar. He and his friends didn’t forget the person from London who made his own important contribution to the story: They gave Dominic Bliss a jersey with the number 22 on it and appointed him club ambassador.

Bliss says his biography, which began as an article and evolved into a book, was a project done out of love, not for financial gain. He says he had hoped for good reviews, and a reasonable number of copies, and perhaps to discover new stories while working on the book, but he never dared hope that the book would resonate so well and that Erbstein’s story would find new life in the most important place. Bliss volunteers for his local club, Corinthian-Casuals – which is itself a blend of two of the most important amateur clubs in the history of British soccer. One of them even helped inspire one of the biggest clubs in Brazilian soccer. Corinthians went to Hungary about a century ago for a round of games there, and donated to the host a big cup called the “Corinthians Cup.”

The original BAK played in the first cup tournament. Molnar, a man with a developed sense of history, decided to renew the tradition, with the tournament now called the Erno Erbstein Cup. The summer, BAK, Corinthian-Casuals and two other teams will play in the cup. The organizers hope that Maccabi Vienna and an Italian team with a connection to Erbstein will also take part in the renewed format.

Bliss’ book will also be published in Italy in the coming year, and the memory of Erbstein will gain new life throughout the country where he worked and created. The great Jewish soccer culture of Budapest and Vienna was destroyed by the Germans, like the great communities of central Europe, but now we have proof that it has not been forgotten.

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