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Arpad Weisz, from the Championship to Auschwitz


Matteo Marani’s book cover

Enzo Biagi, one of the most important Italian journalists, in 2002 asked himself something like: “what happened to Arpad Weisz? He was very talented, but also Jewish, who knows how he ended up”. In 1938 Arpad Weisz won his third Italian football championship, the second one with Bologna, becoming the first coach to succeed with two different teams (Inter and Bologna).

Matteo Marani, fellow citizen of Biagi and journalist like him, receives his question and starts to investigate around one of the greatest figures of 20’s and 30’s football. News about Arpad Weisz stop in 1938, when Mussolini promulgated the racial laws. Jewish foreigners living in Italy after 1919 are forced to leave the country. At that moment, Weisz is at the top of his career.

Marani starts with looking for Arpad’s son, Roberto, in school registers. He finds out that the family name had been “Italianized” into Veisz, as letter “W” is not in the alphabet and fascism doesn’t tolerate any xenophilia. Marani is able to contact Giovanni Savini, former classmate of Roberto, since then he can add more and more pieces to the puzzle.

Arpad Weisz

But let’s start with the well known facts. Arpad Weisz is born in Solt, Hungary, in 1896. The British invented football and they initially exported it where they had more commercial interests, along the Rio de la Plata (not by chance Uruguay is the first World Cup champion, after the final against Argentina) and the Danube.

If the South Americans are more talented, the Magyars are able to absorb and perfect most of the tactics taught by the British. The best example is Bela Guttmann, who, in the 50’s, will introduce Brazil to the revolutionary 4-2-4 (very common nowadays), giving them the necessary organization to make them finally win something.

A central role is played by the Jewish community of Budapest, one of the first that earned freedom of cult and the possibility to own real estate between 1781 and 1785, thanks to the edicts promulgated by Joseph II of Austria. They also have a team of reverence, MTK Budapest, opposed to Ferencvaros, the team of conservative bourgeoisie.

But there was also another team that, between 1910’s and 1920’s, competed with MTK and Ferencvaros: it was Törekvés, literally meaning “ambition” but also “daydream”. Weisz and many other talents play for Törekvés.

The Hungarian national team is based on Jewish players. They are favorites to win the 1924 Olympics in Paris, but they shockingly lose 3-0 with Egypt. It’s actually some kind of protest, because in Hungary Jewish aren’t facing good times. The president, Miklós Horthy, is strongly anti-Semite and puts his men to manage football, basically to do mobbing. For example, they organize the retreat for the national team in a hotel with more mice than people.

After all that, no player can afford to come back to Hungary – without consequences, at least. Arpad Weisz go to Italy. He already have been there, but as a prisoner during World War I. After one year in Padova, he’s noticed by Inter Milan, Ambrosiana during fascism because the real name“Internazionale” (International), doesn’t fit in a nationalist regime.

Bela Guttman and Arpad Weisz, good players and revolutionary trainers

He spends a year in Uruguay, the elite of football at that time, where he studies as a coach. Then he’s back in Milan, at the age of 30 he becomes the manager of the team. He scouts a young Giuseppe Meazza (after whom the stadium is now named). He wins his first championship at age 34, then he goes to Bari, where he saves the team from relegation, and Bologna. In the meantime, he got married and had two kids, Roberto and Clara, he even baptize them. He’s totally placed in the local context.

Arpad Weisz interrupts Juventus series of 5 championships in a row. Bologna triumphs in 1936 and 1937, in the same year they win the Paris Expo tournament, a sort of the current Champions League. In the final match, they beat Chelsea 4-1, Arpad Weisz and the whole town are living a törekvés.

But that doesn’t last. Racial laws are at the gates and Weisz has to leave the country with his whole family, kids (born in Italy and baptized) included. There aren’t many close places left to go, surely not Germany nor Spain (where Franco recently took power). So they move to France, Paris, where Arpad just won the cup and intentionally lost the Olympics more than 10 years earlier.

The best coach in Europe has to settle for a deal in Dordrecht, in the Netherlands, where he leads a team of students up to the 5th place.

In hindsight, the choice is awful. Nazi Germany is just upon Holland and without natural barriers. In fact, in 1940 they invade the Netherlands in less than a week. The yellow six pointed star doesn’t allow any public possibility, the “J” (for Juden, Jewish) on the passport doesn’t permit to run away. The Nazis begin raids and roundups, also thanks to Dutch informers. For a famous personality like Arpad Weisz there’s not even need of that, everybody knows him and where he lives. The family is taken to the concentration camp of Westerbrok, where also many Ajax players – the football team of the Jewish ghetto of Amsterdam – are gathered.

There’s a difference between concentration camps and extermination camps, but in the meantime the final solution had began. Trains filled with prisoners constantly leave Westerbrok to reach Auschwitz, Poland. October the 2nd 1942 it’s the Weisz’ turn. On October the 7th Arpad’s wife, Ilona, and the kids Roberto and Clara are taken to the gas chambers of Birchenau. Arpad will live a little more than a year, after a period in the “labor camps” in Upper Silesia. He will die in Auschwitz on January the 31st 1944.

Bologna wins the Paris Expo tournament, basically the modern day Champions League, in 1937

The törekvés, though, was long gone.

According to what came to light after the Nuremberg process, 5.7 million of European Jews were killed, 3 out of 4. The total of killings perpetrated by the Nazis in their camps rises up to almost 10 million people, counting all the “categories” that had to disappear: dissidents, common criminals, prisoners of war, Slavic, Polish, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, prostitutes, homeless, disabled, masons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals.

Thanks to Marani’s work, this personal history had been re-discovered and Arpad Weisz, at least, came out of an oblivion to which he and his family had been forced by the aberrations of the History (with the capital H) of the first half of the twentieth century.


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