DÜSSELDORF, Germany — A hockey jersey hung in each player’s locker. It bore Germany’s national colors, black trimmed in red and gold. The front was emblazoned with an eagle above the word Deutschland. This would be Evan Kaufmann’s first time wearing the jersey. He removed it from the hanger and turned it around to see his family name spelled in capital letters.
Evan Kaufmann and his wife, Danielle, are expecting their first child in June.
He would recall feeling a tingle of excitement. He felt something else, too, emotions that crisscrossed like the laces of his skates. He was proud to wear the jersey but also solemn about what history had done to the name on the back. His great-grandfather starved to death by the Nazis. His great-grandmother herded to extermination on a train to Auschwitz. His grandfather shuttled between ghettos and concentration camps, surviving somehow, finding a displaced sister after the war, pushing her from a hospital in a wheelbarrow after her lower left leg was amputated because of frostbite.
On Feb. 10, Kaufmann finished dressing and skated onto the ice at a tournament in Belarus. With his initial shift, he became one of the few Jews to represent Germany in elite international sports since World War II, the first in ice hockey since the 1930s and perhaps the most visible to have had family members murdered in the Holocaust, according to sports historians and Jewish officials.
“It was almost surreal,” said Kaufmann, 27, a forward who was born in Minnesota and is the second-leading goal scorer here for the DEG Metro Stars of the German professional league. “From an achievement standpoint, it was amazing to represent the country. But it was pretty insane to think about what my grandpa had to survive to allow me to be where I am today and how it’s come a long way from then to now.”
He came to Germany four years ago, not as a symbol but as a yearning hockey player. Slight at 5 feet 9 inches and 165 pounds, undrafted by the N.H.L. out of the University of Minnesota in 2008, Kaufmann found his best pro opportunity in perhaps the least likely place. The country where his great-grandparents and other relatives were murdered now offered him accelerated citizenship because of his family’s brutalized past.
In hockey terms, Kauffmann is considered fully German, eligible for the national team, unbound by restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed to play in the domestic pro league.
On his Düsseldorf club team, some international players wear a small flag on their jerseys denoting their home countries. Kaufmann displays the German flag.
“With each year, you do feel a little more loyalty toward Germany, a stronger connection,” he said. “I still consider myself more American, but from a hockey standpoint, I’ve committed myself to Germany. It’s something I’m proud about.”
Issues Beyond Game
In June, Kaufmann’s wife, Danielle, 25, is due to give birth to the couple’s first child. As fatherhood approaches and news of his personal story begins to spread, there is an issue beyond hockey to consider: while the murder of six million Jews was a barbaric collective, forgiveness among their descendants must be individual. Has enough time passed? Will enough time ever pass? Each must decide for himself.
“Obviously, you never want to forget,” Kaufmann said. “But everybody deserves a second chance and a right to rectify their mistakes. Most people today had nothing to do with it. I’m not going to hold it against a whole country for what happened long ago. You’re never going to move forward if you keep doing that.”
Those who agree with him point out that more than 100,000 Jews live in Germany today, far fewer than the 550,000 before the Nazis came to power but many more than two decades ago, before an influx from the former the Soviet Union. They note that Germany has confronted its Nazi past and made Holocaust denial a crime, that many Germans are committed to reconciliation and acceptance of responsibility.
“We’re not there yet, but we are on the way to being less exotic and a little more normal,” said Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Kaufmann’s presence on the national hockey team “is something to be glad about and rejoice.”
“It shows that Jews in Germany are not strange and something to be wondered at,” he said, “but that they are normal citizens, wanting to take part in all of society.”
No one can say precisely how many elite Jewish athletes have represented postwar Germany. Fewer than a dozen, many say, but even that might err on the high side.
“Of course it’s absolutely rare because we have so very few Jews in Germany,” Graumann said. “There were only 30,000 here 20 years ago.”
A South African-born swimmer named Sarah Poewe won a bronze relay medal for Germany at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Another swimmer, Herbert Klein, won a bronze medal at the 1952 Helsinki Games, but there is debate whether he was Jewish. For some, such ambiguity represents thankful progress that Jews are no longer so easily put on lists, filed into categories.
“We don’t ask those kinds of questions anymore, fortunately,” said Ella Rujder, the executive secretary of the sports organization Maccabi Germany.
The German women’s team that won the European indoor field hockey championship last month included two or three Jewish players, Rujder said. About 200 participants from Germany took part last July at the European Maccabi Games, a kind of Olympics for Jewish athletes.
Germany and Israel also have regular exchanges of young athletes. An Israeli forward named Itay Shechter plays in the Bundesliga, and yearly, the German soccer federation honors those who fight racism and anti-Semitism in memory of Julius Hirsch, a Jewish star killed at Auschwitz.
“I think it’s fine for an American Jew to represent Germany,” said Margaret Bergmann Lambert, a champion high jumper who was prevented from competing for Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympics because she was Jewish and who, at 97, now lives in Queens. “It’s a step forward.”
A Question of Allegiance
It is not so unambiguous for everyone. In May, Kaufmann and Germany could face the United States at the world hockey championships. And again at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It is a silly question to ask, as someone did, whether he would want to defeat the Americans. Any competitor would want to defeat his opponent. But it is another aspect to sort out in a story that will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
“I have mixed emotions,” said Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a New York lawyer who is the vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. “I think everyone has to make his own decisions in this respect. It is clear for Kaufmann that hockey is the most important priority. Just like there are Israelis or other Jews who have settled in Germany out of economic or career convenience, he is doing the same. I do not presume to judge him.”
At the same time, Rosensaft said he felt “a bitter aftertaste and a certain degree of sadness” for Kaufmann. “He has effectively turned his back on the United States and has willingly taken on citizenship to identify henceforth as a German,” Rosensaft said. “That, in terms of his family history, is at best a somber reality. There is a question in my mind whether a Jew should voluntarily go to Germany and take on that role.”
Recently, Kaufmann was interviewed by Rabbi Jason Miller of Detroit, who wrote in a blog that he approved of his career choice, saying, “This is just one more way in which the Jewish community will come to view Germany differently.”
One of Miller’s readers, Jason Klein, the president of a Web-based company that helps patients find discounted drugs, responded online: “My family is 25 percent of what it once was pre-WWII. I subscribe to never forgive, never forget and I can’t imagine (no matter how talented I was) a meaningless sport being worthy of this. …Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame the Germans of today for the crimes of their grandfathers, but I certainly wouldn’t be in the spotlight supporting their country and waving their flag.”
The Ancestral Village
Kaufmann has seen this and similar rebukes. He and his family believe such views are corrosive. Perhaps the best understanding of their mercy for others comes from the place where their forebears found none for themselves. It is the family’s prewar village of Wittlich, located three hours south of Düsseldorf in the wine-making region of the Moselle River Valley.
On Thursday, the village of 15,000 was full of young people costumed for Carnival. At the local Jewish studies center, a photograph from 1935 showed Evan Kaufmann’s grandfather, Kurt, smiling a thin smile and wearing a crown at school for the Jewish festival of Purim. Kurt’s sister Ilse sat next to him in a fancy outfit. But these joyous times were ending as persecution of the Jews accelerated. According to the book, “Jewish Life in Wittlich,” Kurt and Ilse Kaufmann would become the only students to survive deportation to the concentration camps.
In a postwar letter, Kurt Kaufmann wrote of persisting on chance, turnips and potato skins. After being liberated, he found his sister in a Berlin hospital. Eventually, they made their way to the United States. As he aged, he still had nightmares and other psychological scars, but he felt no ill will toward Germany and its people, said Farley Kaufmann, Kurt’s son and Evan’s father. The elder Kaufmann continued to drink wine from the region, gave an oral history and, before he died at age 68 in 1990, he had planned to visit Wittlich for the first time since his family fled in 1939.
It is a place, like other places, that took everything the Kaufmanns had. But it has since become a place of remembrance. There is a Jewish cemetery there, a study center. The desecrated synagogue had been restored as a museum and culture center. On display is a Torah scroll that Kurt Kaufmann helped rescue, storing it in the attic of his father’s upholstery business. It was found years later at the family home, refurbished by new owners and still standing at 26 Tiergarten Street.
“I’m sure some people don’t like it,” Farley Kaufmann, a certified public accountant in suburban Minneapolis, said of his son’s playing in Germany. “I understand and sympathize. It’s bittersweet to me. I thought long and hard, would my dad be happy or not with what Evan is doing? I honestly feel my dad would be very proud. He didn’t hold grudges.”
In visits to Wittlich and elsewhere in Germany, Farley Kaufmann said it had begun to feel “more like home.”
“The people are nice,” he said. “I see German people trying to educate about what happened. I don’t see anybody denying what happened. I don’t see anything but people trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
On the first day Evan Kaufmann spent in Germany, in July 2008, he went for a walk in Düsseldorf to stay awake after a transatlantic flight. An elderly man approached and began saying something repetitive in German. Kaufmann did not understand. Then the man said in English, “Jew? Jew?”
Kaufmann was shocked. He had only just arrived; already a random encounter had validated every reservation he and his family had about him being in Germany.
“I don’t know,” he told the man guardedly. “Are you?”
“Yes, I am,” the man said. “I saw your nose. I thought maybe you were Jewish, too.”
The man explained that he had gone to Israel before or after the war. Then he went on his way.
“I had a feeling in my stomach that something bad had just happened,” Kaufmann said.
There have been other unsettling moments. He and his wife were once intercepted by the police at a synagogue here and made to show their identification. Security was tight because the synagogue had been firebombed in 2000. Down the street from their apartment, a swastika has been spray-painted on an electrical box.
“It makes us a little hesitant when we decorate for Hanukkah,” Danielle Kaufmann said. “But it doesn’t stop us. We feel very comfortable here. We’re not hiding who we are. We are very proud where we came from. We’ve been embraced. Germany’s a different place now.”
On a daily basis, life here feels no different from life in Minneapolis, Evan said. Jewish customs and holidays have become a connecting point between himself and his German club teammates. Evan takes a break from play for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Danielle bakes Hanukkah cookies for the Metro Stars’ holiday party and pastries to share for Purim.
“They never really understand that we don’t celebrate Christmas,” Evan said with a laugh.
Gradually, he has shed his reluctance and begun to share some details about his family history. If it is not exactly healing, it is an attempt to inform, to build a bridge, to help show that Germany is a more open place now. His teammates seem curious, surprised.
“Evan is the first Jew I really met,” said Patrick Reimer, a teammate on the Metro Stars and Kaufmann’s roommate last weekend on the German national team’s trip to Belarus.
Reimer said he felt a sense of gratitude that a Jew could be named to the national hockey team and sad that it had taken so long. Since the 1930s, in fact, when a star named Rudi Ball led Germany to a bronze medal at the 1932 Winter Olympics and was said to be the only Jewish participant for Germany at the 1936 Winter Games in the Bavarian resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
To be honest, Reimer added, he did not pry into details of the darker events in the Kaufmann family history. “There is still a barrier in the head,” he said. “We both know it should never have happened, what happened 70 years ago.”
Frieder Feldmann, a spokesman for the DEG Metro Stars and a history teacher at a private school, has encouraged Kaufmann to tell his story. But even Feldmann fumbles for the words, seeks the neutral ground of euphemism.
“I can’t speak with someone when my people killed his people,” Feldmann said.
Hockey is safer territory. On that subject, the Metro Stars speak effusively of Kaufmann, his calm, his ability to read the game, his willing muscularity for a small player. “I can use him in any situation,” Coach Jeff Tomlinson, a Canadian, said.
At the tournament in Belarus, Kaufmann was named Germany’s star of one game. On Tuesday, in league play, he scored in a victory over first-place Berlin. On Friday, he scored again in a shootout victory. There are still times, he said, he wonders whether he is doing the right thing. What would his grandfather think?
“Knowing he was planning on coming back after all those years, I think it shows he was ready to forgive,” Kaufmann said. “That helps me be comfortable with it.”
Next season, he will play for Nuremberg, which has its own fraught history. It trivializes the Holocaust to call Kaufmann’s presence in Germany closure or a happy ending, Feldmann said. “But if it is ever possible to have peace in this story,” he said, “maybe it is a small brick in a good wall.”