“Every time I put on the uniform of the German team, I think of my grandfather,” ice hockey star Evan Kaufmann says with emotion. “I imagine that maybe he sees me from up there. When I had doubts about joining the team, I tried to think what Grandfather Kurt would have said about it. I’m sure that he’d be proud and pleased with my choice.”
When people talk about the expression “rising up from the ashes,” they are describing the Jewish people, who survived the greatest tragedy of the 20th century and succeeded in establishing a state. But the story of the Kaufmann family is a tiny, distilled, chilling, heartrending and inspiring illustration of that expression. Their story sheds new light on that saying.
Evan Kaufmann’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother were German Jews who lived uneventful lives in the town of Wittlich. When Hitler came to power, everything changed. After the war began, they were sent to the Riga Ghetto, from which they were sent to the Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia. It is believed that after they were transported to various camps, they were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In addition to the couple, several of Kaufmann's uncles and other relatives perished in the Holocaust. Kurt Kaufmann, Evan’s grandfather, managed to survive the war with his sister, Ilse. Immediately after the war, both of them immigrated to the United States to get as far away from the atrocities as possible and started new lives in far-off Minnesota.
In 1990, when Evan was 5 years old, his grandfather died at the age of 68. All he left behind was a videotape that he made sure to record shortly before his death. Kurt sat in front of the camera and recounted his life story and that of his parents, and what they had gone through during the Holocaust. He intended for the story to pass from generation to generation and never be forgotten by the family. Among other stories, he recounted how he saved a Torah scroll by hiding it in the attic of his father’s upholstery factory in Wittlich. Years after World War II ended, the Torah scroll was found in a fragile state in the family home. It was repaired and returned to the synagogue, which was renovated and transformed into a museum. Incidentally, Kurt and Ilse were the only young Jews from Wittlich who survived the Holocaust.
“I have very few memories of my grandfather because I was little when he died,” Evan said in a telephone conversation with Israel Hayom from his home in Düsseldorf. “I remember that my grandfather smiled a lot and pampered us. He loved to take me to McDonald’s and it was always fun to go to his house. I didn’t really get to know him, and all I have left of him is that videotape. I’m glad he recorded it and shared his story and his parents’ story with us for the sake of the future generations of the family.”
Evan, who was born in Plymouth, Minn., attended the University of Minnesota after high school and played on its ice hockey team. He is a forward. Although he is quick and a high scorer, his physique – which is relatively modest for the sport – prevented him from being chosen for the National Hockey League (NHL) draft. However, in the summer of 2008, Kaufmann received a proposal from the Metro Stars DEG team from Dusseldorf, which plays in the Bundesliga, the highest-ranking hockey league in Germany.
Kaufmann accepted the offer and landed in Dusseldorf, located approximately 190 kilometers from the town of Wittlich on the Moselle River, where his grandfather’s family lived until they were transported to the concentration camp. Because of his roots, Kaufmann succeeded in obtaining German citizenship. He acclimated to his new surroundings quickly. From the moment he joined the team, he became its star and one of the top scorers in the Bundesliga. He is also one of the best-paid players in the league – earning approximately 200,000 euros per season.
A surprising encounter on the street
Three months ago, the 27-year-old Kaufmann received a complicated proposal that presented him with a dilemma. The telephone in his Dusseldorf apartment rang. The trainer of the German team was on the line, and offered him the opportunity to don the national uniform and thus – absurdly, chillingly – represent the country that tried to kill his family.
Kaufmann says he knew that such an offer would arrive. “Even so, after the phone conversation I weighed it for a long time. I had mixed feelings because of my family history and what the Jewish people suffered on German soil. But I remembered that my grandfather wanted to return to Germany before he died. He always moved forward on the personal level and managed to overcome the terrible past he had endured. That’s something that guided me as well.”
After a great deal of hesitation, Kaufmann decided to accept the team’s offer and wear the black jersey with the yellow eagle on it. “Today, it’s a great honor for me to represent Germany and compete for it,” he says. “Still, hearing the German national anthem before games is chilling for me. I get goose bumps, and I start thinking about what my family went through and everything I went through. It’s almost surreal.”
Weren’t you afraid that Jews would criticize you?
“I’ll never forget the Holocaust. Still, most of the Germans alive today weren’t alive at the time of the Holocaust, and they shouldn’t be held responsible for the Nazis’ crimes. The support I got surprised me. I got hundreds of emails from Jews who expressed pride in me and supported my decision to play on the German team. It was clear to me that my decision would be important to many Jews throughout the world, but I never expected such warm responses. I’m glad I have been given the opportunity to be a symbol of the progress made in relations between Germany and the Jews.”
On the way to Nuremberg
Kaufmann is married to Danielle, an American Jewish woman whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Israel. (They met in a synagogue in Minnesota.) The Kaufmanns are expecting their first child, who is due in just over a month. Kaufmann says he doesn't completely feel like a German citizen. “I feel much more American. In any case, I’ve only been in Germany for four years,” he says. “But with every year that passes, I absorb more of German culture and its way of life, and I enjoy it. So my wife and I have decided to stay here.”
Kaufmann also didn't speak German when he arrived in the country, and even today, he says that his teammates speak with him in English. The fact that he is Jewish is irrelevant to his professional life, but he remembers how when he arrived in Germany, an older man stopped him on a street in Dusseldorf and asked, “You’re Jewish, right?” Kaufmann was surprised by the question and hesitated to answer for fear that the man was an anti-Semite, but answered "yes." The man said to him with a smile, “Great! I’m Jewish, too.” Kaufmann says he has never encountered an anti-Semitic incident throughout his four years in Germany.
Kaufmann’s debut on the team took place last Feb. 10 as part of the Belarus Cup games in Minsk. He went onto the ice with his teammates, and a circle was closed. Two weeks ago, he and his team played in a tournament and he also played in recent games against Russia and the Czech Republic, appearing before crowds in the German cities of Freiburg and Ravensburg for the first time. He says he received a great deal of encouragement and prolonged applause. Yet all these tournaments are only warm-up games ahead of the real thing: the World Ice Hockey Championship, scheduled to take place next month.
Kaufmann recalls that his parents were understanding about his decision to join the team and supported him. “Every few months they come from Minnesota to visit me and watch me play. Once, they took advantage of the opportunity to make a brief visit to Wittlich and visit the building that was the family home until the Shoah,” he says. In the town, whose synagogue was used to house prisoners during the war, there is a cultural center and Jewish research institute, beside an ancient cemetery.
Professionally, Kaufmann has no problems. Jorg Lobreich, the hockey reporter for the popular Bild newspaper, says, “Kaufmann is a talented player and a brilliant forward, the king of goals for his team and one of its most important players. He is short but technical, unlike the majority, who are big and tough but awkward. Toward the end of the regular season, he had an amazing game, with three goals and three nets, which assured the team a ticket to the playoffs. Off the rink he is a quiet young man, modest and well-liked by his teammates.”
However, although he integrated well, the Dusseldorf team is in financial difficulty and it cannot offer Kaufmann a sufficient contract for next year. At the end of the current season, he will be going to play in Nuremberg, another emotionally charged place in terms of Jewish history.
“It is exciting to come to Israel”
Since World War II, few Jews have represented Germany on sports teams or at events. The first woman to do so was Sarah Poewe, a South African swimmer whose mother is Jewish and who represented Germany at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Swimmer Herbert Klein won a silver medal for Germany in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, but there is debate as to whether he was Jewish.
After the legendary trainer, Ralph Klein – a Holocaust survivor who trained the West German soccer team during the 1980s, Kaufmann is the only Jewish athlete, whose relatives were murdered during the Holocaust, who has chosen to represent Germany on a sports team. Because of this, he has attracted a great deal of attention in worldwide media in recent months. And while he says he considers himself “one of the gang,” Kaufmann admits that “the rest of the players on his team don’t know what being a Jew means.”
He has visited Israel only three times, but says, “When I step foot in Israel, it’s an exciting feeling. I’m sure that Danielle and I will come to visit in the future.” He himself is not religiously observant, but he has received permission from his team not to play on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), and on Yom Kippur. On Hanukkah, he says, “Danielle made sufganiyot [jelly donuts] for the players on the team.”
And where did you celebrate the Seder?
“Unfortunately, I missed the last Seder because I was with the team in a tournament in the Czech Republic. It was hard to be without my family on Passover. For me, the timing of the holiday wasn’t perfect this year – I didn’t even have matzah. But still, I marked Seder night via Skype with my wife and my family. Even though I wasn’t there, it was fun to watch them celebrate.”