Happy Birthday Eddy Hamel—American Soccer Player Murdered in Auschwitz

I have done a piece on Eddy Hamel before, but for two reasons I wanted to do a post again about him. Firstly it is his 120th birthday today, secondly, we are only a few weeks away from the FIFA World Cup, the biggest tournament of the sport he loved so much.

He was born in New York City. He was Jewish, as were his parents who were immigrants from the Netherlands. He moved to Amsterdam in his teenage years. In 1928 he married Johanna Wijnberg, and in 1938 they had twin boys, Paul and Robert.

Eddy Hamel was the first Jewish player, and also the first American, to play for Ajax in Amsterdam. Prior to Ajax he played for Amsterdamsche FC (AFC). His first acquaintance with Ajax was a special one. The training fields of AFC and Ajax were next to each other and Hamel had broken a window of an Ajax changing room while in a rowdy mood. The groundskeeper did not take it kindly and gave the boy an earful. In 1922 Hamel became the first Jewish player at Ajax and the first American at one of Europe’s most famous football clubs. The Ajax supporters—at the time also largely with a Jewish background—quickly embraced him.

Ajax’s players in 1926 pose for a team photo. Eddy Hamel is kneeling, front left.

Hamel became a first-team regular for Ajax. To date, only four other Jewish soccer players have followed in his footsteps – Johnny Roeg, Bennie Muller, Sjaak Swart, and Daniël de Ridder. Hamel was a fan favourite and was cited by pre-World War II club legend Wim Anderiesen as part of the strongest line-up he ever played with. He had his fan club in the 1920s, which would line up on his side of the field at the beginning of every game, and then switch sides to be on his side of the field in the second half. After his retirement as a player, Hamel managed Alcmaria Victrix for three years and continued to play in an Ajax veteran squad.

Hamel, his wife and their sons lived across town at the time, in a second-floor flat at 145 Rijnstraat, not far from where 13-year-old Anne Frank and her family lived. In apparent defiance of the Nazis’ rules, Hamel continued to play for his old club’s alumni team, Lucky Ajax, during the German occupation.

On Oct. 27, 1942, Hamel was stopped by two officers from the Jewish Affairs division of the Amsterdam Police Department, which had turned compliant with the Nazis. The arrest report, written in German, states that Hamel told his captors he was born in New York. He gave “coach” as his profession. As for the reason for his arrest: He’d been caught in public sich ohne judenstern—without his Jewish star. Despite his American citizenship, Hamel was detained by the Nazis because he was a Jew.

Eddy and his family had to report to Westerbork. They ended up in the so-called ‘English Barrack’. Here were British and American citizens who were eligible for exchange. But that status turned out to offer no protection either. Leon Greenman, who was in the same barracks, spent the last few months with Eddy. Both their families were deported to Auschwitz in January 1943, where the women and children were immediately murdered. Both men were to work.

Eddy spent four months doing hard labour at Birkenau. After he was found to have a swollen mouth abscess during a Nazi inspection, the Nazis sent him to the gas chambers in Auschwitz concentration camp on April 30, 1943, where they murdered him.

I don’t know if this was the case but I think it is safe to assume that Eddy would have watched matches of the young talent at Ajax. I have no doubt that he would have enjoyed the talent of Rinus Michels, who played for the youth team in Ajax in 1940/1941. Rinus Michels went on to become the most successful manager of the Dutch national team, with whom he won the European title in 1988.

Ajax 4 with Rinus Michels kneeling in front with ball. Netherlands, Amsterdam, 1940-1941 season.