Interview with Edjo Frank,
author of ‘A Jewish Heritage’
by Stephanie Marsal
Can you tell us about your family history?
My name “Edjo” is a combination of Edmond, my maternal grandfather and Jonas, my paternal grandfather. As you will understand, my family on both sides are Jewish. Before the war, it was a fairly large family but only some family members survived the Nazi cruelties of World War II.
I was born after the war in 1949. My parents had been living in hiding, working for the resistance. At some point, the Nazis were searching for my father Cobie. They tried to arrest him in the house of my grandparents. He managed to escape. But in retaliation, my grandparents were arrested and deported to Westerbork transit camp in the summer 1942 and then sent to Auschwitz.
My aunt Sedje Frank who was like my father in the resistance was denounced and arrested. She was in several camps until she reached Auschwitz. There she was able to survive because she was a very good violin player and was enrolled in the orchestra playing music to accompany the gazing of the people. She had also been taken by Mengele who did all sorts of research on her body.
How did you learn about the tragic history of your family?
As a small child, I was not told about my family and the war. In fact, my first experience with my Jewish background was when I came back from school with broken glasses. This was in primary school. Other school children had shouted “rot jood” (dirty Jew). I asked my father what that meant. My father told me to go back to school and confront those kids. That was my first experience with my Jewish background. I was 5 years old.
I learnt more about the family history as I grew up. As almost all of my family had perished during the war, I have long been unable to understand what family relations meant. An uncle? A cousin? I could not grasp the reality of these words.
When I grew up, I had a dualistic feeling about my family history: on one side, I wanted to know everything and on the other side, I wished to free myself from that history. At my own pace, I read books and watched films so that I could understand a lot more about that family history.
Why did you participate in the first Anne Frank House / Feyenoord-organised educational trip to Auschwitz with Feyenoord supporters? Did you have any prior experience with the football world and what were your expectations?
In the summer of 2019, I got a phone call from the Anne Frank House asking me if I would go with a group of Feyenoord supporters to Auschwitz in early 2020. I was then informed about the Changing the Chants Project. I replied that I would think about it. I knew that I did not want to go to that place. That is the only place in the world where I would always refuse to go. The Anne Frank House kept asking me. I discussed it with my wife and after a lot of reflection, I said “Yes, I will go one time but not for me but for the Feyenoord supporters’. I overcame my unwillingness to go to Auschwitz for the new generation. But I asked for one favour: I wanted to be there one day earlier than the group because I did not know how I would react to this horrific place. Today, I still cannot tell what happened with me but it was very, very difficult.
How was your experience in Auschwitz?
I did not know what to expect in Auschwitz. First, I did not know how I would react myself, how the supporters would react: would they be really interested or would they consider it as a holiday trip? My experience was also dualistic: on one side, I had some painful, distressing moments when supporters were making some inappropriate jokes and playing music in places where they should not. On the other side, they also showed a completely different behaviour: they were very touched by what they saw and demonstrated a remarkable knowledge of history. I was impressed by what they already knew and how they reacted to those painful situations. I also understood that this inappropriate behaviour may also be a way of coping with the situation and the pain. I could really understand their behaviour and it gave me a hopeful feeling that this group was able to handle the history.
In fact, the supporters themselves helped me a lot to go through the pain of being in Auschwitz. I learnt a lot from them. What I observed gave me the feeling that this was the right thing to do. I then knew why I was there, in this horrific place: not because of my family but because it was necessary to tell them what happened to my family and give them a more personal story of Auschwitz. I was grateful for having had this experience.
What was your experience with football fandom before the trip? And does football have a particular problem with antisemitism?
As a child, I went to Feyenoord football matches with my father. It was a long walk to the stadium, too long for a small boy like me. As an adult, I kept going to the stadium and in the 60’s and 70’s, the antisemitic chanting started to humiliate the opponent team, especially Ajax. At that time, you had hard core groups of supporters who were infiltrated by neo-Nazis. This was the policy of the extreme right to influence the supporters. I did not like these chantings of course but I did not understand at first why they were calling these ‘antisemitic chants’. There were also racist chants against black people. I felt that it was more a football centred than antisemitic centred behaviour. At that time, it was embarrassing for me but I did not engage in any specific efforts toward the football world.
My first meeting with the Feyenoord supporters was the meetings organised by the Feyenoord football fan coach with those supporters with a stadium ban. I had a solid educational background and that’s why I went to this confrontation with these boys.
Could supporters make a connection between what they saw and their own experience?
At the end of the Auschwitz trip, I had a harsh confrontation with the supporters, especially with the group that had the most irritating behaviour. As they asked me what was my experience and my opinion of the trip, I decided to confront them with their behaviour. I must say that this was not a friendly conversation at that moment. Their spontaneous reaction was “Yes, you are right, you are completely right and we did wrong. We should not have done that”. They excused themselves and said that it would not happen anymore. I realised that they were completely honest in their reaction. And when we were back in the Netherlands, they confirmed my impression that they really meant what they said to me. The way they responded to a radio journalist asking them about the holocaust made me very proud of them.
What do you take away from this experience?
Direct confrontation helps a lot. I could then see how they dealt with the issue of racism and antisemitism. I was proud of them. At the same time, I know that it is not easy to create opportunities for such a confrontation. I have asked survivors of the Holocaust to participate in workshops in Rotterdam for the fans with a stadium ban. Some were afraid to take part because they see these boys as being antisemitic. I had to explain that they may indeed shout antisemitic chants but that does not mean that they themselves are antisemitic persons. To make that difference was important for the Jewish community. It is also essential to enter into conversation with the Feyenoord supporters. As I experienced it, we could discuss from the moment they felt that I did not distrust them, that I was not after their person but that I let them feel that it is their words and behaviour that affected me. They then explained me that it is not against the Jewish people, it is against Ajax. It is against the other side. I still have to do a lot of explanatory work with the Jewish community to make clear that these so-called ‘football hooligans’ are not antisemitic. If you get in touch with them, you can realise that they are more with you than against you.
Where does the responsibility for ‘changing the chants’ sit then?
On one side, it is the problem of the supporters. The greatest challenge however is the reluctance and the position taken by the club management be it Feyenoord, Ajax or other clubs. The rhetoric of club managers is sensitive to the issue. These are only words. In fact, very little is done in terms of action, exemplary policies. They should not only formally ban antisemitism and racism in their stadium. They should also learn what their own position is and set the example of what needs to be done. Less words, more action. This is indeed how Feyenoord presents itself.
And how to explain this reluctance of the club management?
There are social reasons: they don’t want to be in the spotlight for being the one club that has racist supporters. They minimise the problem. And there are also commercial reasons: they don’t want to really invest in these efforts because they would have to be clear in their messaging to the public. That means advertising, banners, participation in educational workshop and trips. At this moment, most of the management in professional clubs prefer to have a neutral position for themselves.
So how do we go about promoting change?
Most supporters have one goal: going to football matches and enjoying the love for their own club. Most of them don’t have a love for the management of their own club. They think that the management of the club is more against supporters than with supporters. Having the supporters influence the management level will therefore not be easy. Change has to come from the other side and that side is the society as a whole. And there are intermediaries like me or organisations like the Anne Frank House or NGOs like Radar or others. They have to confront the management when needed with their own duty and remind them of their social responsibility to confront this issue in an active way. It would be good that representatives of the club management also take part in this kind of educational trip. It is important that it is not a small one-off activity. It is part of the core business of the club.
What more do you think the game can do to recognise and address antisemitic chanting?
What would be your recommendations?
It starts with good practices like the Feyenoord supporters’ visit to Auschwitz, the discussions held there and the workshops organised in Rotterdam for supporters with a stadium ban. These good practices should be on the agenda of the club management. What this means is that this agenda should be introduced at the highest level and not left to one or two levels downwards to deal with. And the management should make a genuine plan for the club on how to tackle racist behaviour in the stadium. That plan should embrace a positive approach. How to create an open society inside the stadium? How to create an atmosphere in which all the people are welcome? These are the questions that have to be answered. It is the duty of the management to answer them. The society has to confront the politicians and those football managers to co-operate with them to create such an atmosphere.
There is already some messaging in this respect like “Feyenoord is voor iedereen” (Feyenoord is for everybody) and some clubs may feel that antisemitism is not their priority concern, they deal with other issues such as homophobia and racism. What do you make of this?
These issues all come from the same tree. What we can do is to bring all these different experiences of discrimination together. These workshops with supporters may be opened to all interested supporters but also to people with different opinions or people from outside the stadium. Of course, there may be some common interests that bring them together. Discussions do not have to take place in the stadium, they can be held elsewhere in the city, like in a school. These conversations will help to put this issue on the table, that is the most important. You don’t have to be convinced, you can keep your own opinions but if you are ready to hear other opinions, then the atmosphere in the stadium may start to change.
The participants from the supporter group that went to Auschwitz had all different, different backgrounds, a different anger, a different pride. Still they were together. Then when you realise that these differences are acceptable, you may have arguments with others but a lot of fun and agreements too. In the workshop, we don’t start with confronting supporters with their bad behaviour but we are asking about their lives, their family, their fears, their pain. Then you can exchange those feelings and opinions and then it feels like a wall that is crumbling down.
What can the game do more?
There are two main ingredients for change to happen: courage and duty. The courage not to judge and to question the reasons for such a behaviour. The duty of the club management to step in and make things happen. And a prerequisite is that the highest level of management come down to talk to the supporters and give them a possibility to discuss, confront their opinion and experience and train themselves.
Any specific recommendation in the Dutch context?
Football clubs like Feyenoord should organise an exhibition about the Holocaust and Feyenoord fans, footballers and donors of Jewish origin who were killed during WWII. They should create banners where they display positive messages about living together. Maybe a confrontation between Ajax and Feyenoord supporters could also be good if well organised. They could talk about their love for the club and why the other club is the enemy to be humiliated. This may be part of being a supporter but they have to discover the border of what is acceptable and what is not. Direct and open confrontation is the best to this end.