May 1, 2009 7:22 pm

Dutch football’s great storyteller honoured in stone

On Monday a stone will be laid by a house in Amsterdam to remember a great sports broadcaster, Han Hollander. His story is terribly typical of the Dutch war.

A Jew from the provinces, Hollander became an icon by chance. As a young conscript in the Dutch army in the early 1900s, he had sat on the edge of his barracks bed, telling his fellow soldiers spellbinding tales of past football matches. One of those soldiers, Willem Vogt, later helped found Avro radio, the Dutch broadcaster. When live football reports became possible, Vogt remembered his old friend. Hollander covered his first game, between Holland and Belgium, on March 11 1928. Soon he was a phenomenon.

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Simon Kuper

His commentaries on Holland’s matches were often partly fictitious, but in the 1930s they helped turn football from a slightly quirky pursuit into an institution among hushed families gathered around wireless sets in their living rooms. People tuned in for Hollander as much as for the football. The Netherlands was the only country to buy broadcast rights to the World Cup in Italy in 1934.

Hollander was a temperamental man, and Vogt acted as his hand-holder, generally opening the broadcast with a “Nice weather, Mr Hollander.” A photograph shows the two together on a stadium roof. Vogt is a thickset presence beside the pencil-thin Hollander, who with his white socks, panama hat, and handkerchief in his breast pocket, could be a tap dancer from vaudeville.

At a reception in Hollander’s honour in 1938, Max Euwe, the Dutch world chess champion, said that often after a football match, particularly when Holland had won, “one feels that we would like to put Mr Hollander on our shoulders and carry him from the field”.

Two years later, in May 1940, Vogt sacked Hollander along with Avro’s other Jewish employees. It was only six days after the Dutch capitulation to Germany, and long before the first German measures against Jews. Vogt was not an anti-Semite. He just wanted to avoid antagonising the Germans. In this he was typical of many wartime Dutchmen.

Hollander’s last weekly Sportpraatje , or “Sports Talk”, went out the day after the Dutch capitulation. But even after Jews began to disappear, he felt safe. Did he not have a certificate signed by Hitler honouring his reports from the Berlin Olympics of 1936? He waved away friends who offered to help find him a hiding place.

Eventually he was sent to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork. He got a relatively cushy job as an administrator, and could have hoped to stay a while at least, but something went wrong. It seems that either his wife made disparaging comments about Germans to a German Jew, or Hollander boasted publicly about his protected status, or both. After 10 months in Westerbork the couple and their daughter were deported. All 2,416 Jews on their transport were killed in the war. Hollander died at Sobibor on July 9 1943. Barely 25 per cent of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust, the lowest proportion in western Europe. Though Dutch anti-Semitism was very weak, there was a widespread Vogtian reflex.

In 1968 Avro published a booklet marking the 40th anniversary of Hollander’s first match commentary. Vogt’s introduction lamented: “How terribly and incomprehensibly unjust that this man, good through and through, somewhat childish, kind and noble [was killed]. His fate became a contribution to a guilt that can never be extinguished.”

Every May 4 the Netherlands marks its war dead. The practice of laying Stolpersteine – “stumbling stones” – at the victims’ former homes has recently spread from Germany. This Monday Juda de Vries, the pre-war Haarlem goalkeeper, will also get a stone at his old house. The four Jewish gymnasts who won gold with the Dutch women’s team at the Olympics of 1928 and were later murdered with their families will probably be honoured soon, too.

Thank you to Thomas Schnitzler and Jurryt van der Vooren, who did most to bring about Hollander’s stone. Future visitors to Amsterdam can find it at Amstelkade 118.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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