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Jewish Sport in Vienna 1918–1945: The Case of the Hakoah Sports Club

Founded in Vienna in 1909, the “Hakoah Sports Club” (Hakoah in Hebrew means strength) was the largest and best-known Jewish all-round sports club of the interwar period.
January 26, 2018

Hakoah invitation 1936

Hakoah invitation 1936
Poster for Hakoah ball in Vienna in 1936

Jewish Sport in Vienna 1918–1945:The case of the Hakoah Sports Club [1]
By Susanne Helene Betz
Historian at the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism, Vienna, Austria

Featured in the Fall 2017 issue of the Austrian Studies Newsletter

Founded in Vienna in 1909, the “Hakoah Sports Club” (Hakoah in Hebrew means strength) was the largest and best-known Jewish all-round sports club of the interwar period. Its foundation signalled the rise of a growing national Jewish assertiveness, a Zionist politicization of sporting activities, and a reaction to the socially accepted antisemitism of the early 20th century. In its heyday after the First World War, Hakoah had several thousand members and the original range of sports—the founding statutes initially mentioned the “physical elevation of the Jewish people [...] through the pursuit of football, track and field as well as heavy athletics, and winter and water sports”—was broadened significantly during that period; tourism, skiing, handball, chess, a Hakoah orchestra, and a dancing section were added. The latter was looked after by Béla Guttmann,[2] the son of Hungarian dance instructors and a famous football player, who won the Austrian champion’s title with the Hakoah football team in 1924-25 and continued his career partly in the U.S. In other sporting disciplines Hakoah also provided top athletes and established many records. The club emerged as an expression and representation of Jewish identity in interwar Vienna and furthermore became a social hub for many Viennese Jews, which was emulated worldwide. It was a place that stood for Jewish solidarity, pride, and self- confidence. In 1944, the well-known Austrian writer and Hakoah water polo player Friedrich Torberg wrote from California to former club president Ignaz Körner, who had fled to Palestine: “[I]t  was  Hakoah that taught me the first concepts of Jewish sports, of Jewish attitude, and perhaps of ‘Jewishness’ itself [...] all the problems  that  beset  us—and not only since Hitler—look entirely different when you have grown up with the awareness and the experience that Jews can also be winners.”[3]

From 1922, Hakoah operated a sports field on a leased property in the Vienna Prater. The facilities comprised a running track, a wooden stand, a football and handball field with room for 25,000 spectators, tennis courts, a jumping pit, a hockey field, showers, dining area, cloak rooms and groundkeeper’s accommodation. To simplify Hakoah’s financial operations and to settle debts, the tourism and skiing section, the swimming section and the football section (the latter a professional club since 1924) separated from the Hakoah All-round Sports Club in 1927 and 1928 and established legally independent, identically  named  clubs so that the name of Hakoah now represented an association of clubs.[4]

The statutes of the clubs clearly determined that only Jews could be members and that the club had a Zionist orientation: “Only Jews (men and women) who embrace Zionism can become club members.”[5] Due to a lack of comprehensive members’ registers, there is—apart from occasional biographical studies on better-known achievers—only little information on the social structure of Hakoah members. That said, 183 sports officials of the four Hakoah clubs have been identified for the interwar period within the context of a research project currently undertaken in Vienna.[6] Among them were numerous members of the medical profession, lawyers, merchants or businesspeople as well as civil servants—thus predominantly those professions in which Vienna’s Jewish population (a total of 180,000 to 200,000 people of Jewish faith lived in interwar Vienna)[7] most commonly worked. These people mainly lived in Leopoldstadt— therefore in the traditional Jewish quarter of Vienna, in which Hakoah’s sports field was also located. Those Hakoah members who did not live in Leopoldstadt mostly resided in the neighbouring districts of Innere Stadt and Landstraße. These findings indicate that, with respect to their occupations and residential locations, Hakoah members can be viewed as typical representatives of Viennese Jewry. Regarding the gender ratio, around one third of members were women, the swimming section having most female members (45%).[8] Among sports officials, however, they were a clear minority: only 8% of Hakoah officials were female.[9] As with the active swimmers, nearly all female Hakoah officials hitherto researched were found in the women-oriented sport of swimming. The Hakoah Swimming Club—an exception outside female-only sports clubs—was founded by the three sisters Irma Fuchs, Hilde Dukes, and Rosa Kaempf, née Braunfeld, when it legally split from the All-round Hakoah Club in 1928. The youngest, Irma, was also president during the first year of the club and was supported by famous swimming record holder Fritzi Löwy.

During the period of the 1920s  and  1930s, the successful sports club was affected by numerous anti-Semitic attacks. Over those two decades, the excrescence of National Socialist ideology afflicted Hakoah athletes to an ever-increasing extent. A spate of terrorist acts perpetrated by Austrian National Socialists in 1933, for example, included an arson attack at the Hakoah sports field.[10] But antisemitic attacks were also perpetrated in the streets, as, for instance, on the occasion of the Olympic torch relay en route to Berlin in 1936. Antisemitic sentiment in Austria was perceived differently by individual athletes. The spectrum ranged from what was largely a negation of the “Jewish question” to an outlook  on  life  that  was  determined  by  it.  In a 2008 interview, later Hakoah president Erich Sinai retrospectively stated: “There were plenty of signs. [...] [But] what we believed was: [...] nothing will happen to us. And it is not going to be so bad. [...] I cannot understand now that people would not believe then that that was going to happen. [...] But people did not see it, or did not want to see it.”[11]

After March 13, 1938, the takeover by the National Socialists and the subsequent gradual expansion of National Socialist laws in Austria spelled the temporary end for the Hakoah Sports Club and the loss of the Hakoah sports facility in the Prater. Jews were driven from public life and persecuted, Hakoah sports officials arrested. Hakoah club activities came to a complete standstill. Jewish athletes were excluded from sporting events and records held by Hakoah athletes were deleted from lists of results.

As early as three days after the Anschluss, the shared club home of the Hakoah Sports Club, the Hakoah Tourism and Ski Club and the Hakoah Swimming Club at the Viennese cafe Atlashof was shut down at the instruction of the state police. Hakoah’s club assets were seized. In their documentation, the Gestapo recorded the dissolution by police of the Hakoah Sports Club with the closure of the clubhouse as of March 15, 1938 and the confiscation of assets. “Hakoah dissolved” was also the title of the sports page in the March 17, 1938 issue of the Jewish weekly magazine Selbstwehr. With the taking away of the sports facilities and the club’s premises, the once vibrant club life of Hakoah also came to an abrupt standstill. “Hakoah club activities ended with the Anschluss,” Erich Sinai  recounts,  “they  were gone. [...] I haven’t spoken to anyone since the German invasion.”[12] Social contact between club members was interrupted, and athletes had to focus on coping with day-to-day life in National Socialist Vienna and on the complex preparations for their possible emigration. The number of potential meeting places was greatly reduced after the seizure of the club’s premises and the limitations put on the freedom of movement of Jews in public spaces. In spite of  these restrictions, Erich Sinai was able to make use of his contact to Hakoah members and flee to Latvia. Other Hakoah members also used the club’s social network for their escape or helped former club mates in their emigration efforts. Ignaz Körner worked towards those goals in the Jewish Community of Vienna before he escaped to Palestine; Valentin Rosenfeld, long-standing president of the Hakoah Swimming Club, was also able to assist many Hakoah  members  and even won Sigmund Freud as a testimonial for his rescue mission.[13] Some Hakoah members continued to be active in the new “Makkabi Vienna” club which had been established by the National Socialist authority governing associations (Stillhaltekommissar) and the Gestapo and was the only Jewish sports club still allowed to operate under the National Socialist regime. Their attempt at reclaiming the seized club home failed, however, because the owner no longer wanted to hire the rooms to Jewish athletes.

Following the closure of the Hakoah clubs by the police, the National Socialist authorities proceeded to pursue their legal dissolution. In November 1938, they made an application to the Vienna Office of Association Affairs to have the Hakoah All-round Sports Club dissolved and deleted from the associations register. Around two weeks after  that,  the  order  of dissolution  was  sent  accordingly, addressed for the attention  of the  last  chairman  who, in the meantime,  had also escaped to Palestine. In  a few short words, the club was stripped of its legal status and its continuation made  a  punishable  offence: “Upon request of the [...] Stillhaltekommissar for Clubs, Organisations  and Associations, the Hakoah Sports Club[...] is officially dissolved according to section 3 of the ‘Law relating to the Transition and Incorporation of Clubs [...]’ of 17 May 1938, Austrian Law Gazette no. 136/38. The continuation of organisational links between members of the club, which is dissolved herewith, is not permitted [...].”[14]

Hakoah’s sister associations, the Hakoah Football Club, the Hakoah Swimming Club and the Hakoah Tourism and Skiing Club were also dissolved. The Hakoah sports clubs were a  matter legally brought to a close with this decision. During that and the following year, all other Jewish organisations, including “Makkabi Vienna,” were dissolved by the National Socialist authorities.

Immediately after the Anschluss, the sports field in the Prater had also become a pawn in National Socialist redistribution strategies. The Gestapo had seized the buildings of the sporting facility, which had stood as property of the Hakoah All-round Sports Club on leased ground, as well as other club assets by police order in the spring of 1938 and confiscated them for the German Reich. As early as at the beginning of May 1938, the Municipality of Vienna passed the sporting facility to the Sturmabteilung (SA), which had been illegal before the Anschluss, as the new leaseholder. The journal of the municipal office for “administrative property matters” mentions on May 4, 1938: “Hakoah sports field. Handing over of the field to SA Brigade 2.”[15]  Although the SA verifiably utilised the field and the seized Hakoah clubhouses for sporting purposes, it is unlikely it carried out any repairs on the buildings. The club’s buildings had not been transferred into public building administration by the state authorities and were in a state of continuous decay. Since the authority in charge of confiscated assets decided against the restoration of the field—the dimensions of the Hakoah training facility were possibly far too large for use by an SA brigade or the decay of the buildings may have been too far advanced for profitable use of the grounds—the Hakoah sporting facility was left to decay. The sports field was completely devastated, initially by the construction of military facilities, among them anti-aircraft artillery positions, until 1945, and afterwards by its use as a dumping ground for rubble. Hence, when Erich Sinai returned to Vienna in 1947, there was “nothing in the Prater resembling the old facility.”[16]

For various reasons, the club, which had already re-established itself in 1945, was unsuccessful in its efforts regarding the restitution of the tenancy rights to the sports field (the lease) and the structures the Hakoah All-round Sports club had built on the leased  land.[17] It was only in 2001 that Hakoah became part of the “Washington Agreement,” a bilateral settlement on restitution between Austria and the U.S.[18] The club subsequently received a leasehold in the location of the old sports facility in the Prater as well as funding for a new sports center which was opened in 2008.[19]



1  This contribution is based on  my  research, see for instance: Susanne H. Betz, “Von der Platzeröffnung bis zum Platzverlust. Die Geschichte der Hakoah Wien und ihrer Sportanlage in der Krieau,” in “...mehr als ein Sportverein”: 100 Jahre Hakoah Wien 1909– 2009, eds. Susanne H. Betz, Monika Löscher, and Pia Schölnberger, 150–184 (Innsbruck: Studien Verlag, 2009); Susanne H. Betz,  “… vor Neid platzend!” Der Sportklub Hakoah Wien und seine Sportanlage im Wiener Prater, in Fußball unterm Hakenkreuz in der “Ostmark” eds. David Forster et al., 88–105 (Göttingen: Die Werkstatt, 2014); and my upcoming publications resulting from the FWF-Project “Jewish  Sports  Officials  in  Interwar  Vienna   ( JSO): Performative Identities and Jewishness between ‘Assimilation’ and Zionism, Acceptance and Antisemitism,” https://jsovienna.wordpress. com/
2  Wiener Morgenzeitung, September 27, 1922, p. 9; and October 7, 1922, p. 10.
3  Austrian National Library, Manuscripts, autograph 1196/37-1.
 Cf. N.N., “Die Makkabi-Bewegung in Oesterreich,” in Nachrichtenblatt des Schwimmklubs  “Hakoah,”   no.  325,  April  15, 1937,  part  II,  p.  1;  no.  326,  May   15,  1937, end, p. 1;  Sport-Tagblatt, August  9, 1928, p. 4; August 22, 1928, p. 3; September 12, 1928, p. 4; Freiheit!, July 30, 1928, p. 8.
 Die Neue Welt, September 7, 1928, p. 9.
 Figures from JSO-database (retrieved on June 23, 2017).
 They made up around 10 % of all Viennese and 91 % of the Jewish population of Austria.
  Austrian State Archives, Archives of the Republic, Stiko Wien: 31-N14.
 JSO data (retrieved on June 23, 2017). 10Christiane Rothländer, Die Anfänge der Wiener SS (Vienna: Böhlau, 2012), 378.
11  Interview with Erich and Kitty Sinai with the author (July 29, 2008).
12  Interview with Erich and Kitty Sinai with the author ( July 29, 2008).
13  Library of Congress, Sigmund Freud Papers, Topic: Valentin Rosenfeld 1967, https://www.; Topic: Maccabi World Union 1939, ms004017.mss39990.00966.
14  Betz,“Von der Platzeröffnung,” 167.
15  Municipal and Provincial Archives of Vienna, M.Abt. 245, B 2, Verwaltungsprotokolle 1925–1954, Jahr 1938/6229.
16  John Bunzl, ed., Hoppauf Hakoah (Vienna: Junius, 1987), 160.
17  Reasons for this were the lasting devastation of the field, the club’s lack of funds, the absence of large-field team sports, and the depleted membership as well as a lack of, mainly financial, state support.
18 washington-agreement.html