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Remembering Bayern Munich's Jewish history

Remembering Bayern Munich's Jewish history
The legacy of former Bayern Munich president Kurt Landauer continues to live on with the team and its fans. (FC Bayern Munich)

As an author, Dirk Kamper was intrigued by the story of Kurt Landauer, a concentration camp survivor who helped turn Bayern Munich into one of the best soccer teams in the world.

But as a German, he was more than a little apprehensive about exploring it. Stories about Nazis, Jews and the Holocaust still touch raw nerves in Germany seven decades after the war.

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"To tell you any qualified things about anti-Jewish feelings in Germany, it would take a lot of time," Kamper said in an email interview. "It is still there, without any doubt."

In the end, though, Kamper's curiosity won out over his caution.

"There was a point in time," he said "where this story had to be told."

So Kamper is telling it, in a book that will be released this week and in the movie "Landauer," which will air on German TV this month. Yet it's a tale that may well have remained ignored if not for a 2003 newspaper story on Landauer's nephew Uri Siegel, which set in motion a series of events that ended with Bayern's largest fan group embracing the club's forgotten past, unfurling a banner with Landauer's likeness at games and organizing memorial soccer tournaments in his name.

"They remembered," says Bayern Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a star striker in the 1970s and '80s who said he never heard the former team +president's name mentioned around the club during his playing days. "And they were the first to bring back Kurt Landauer."

Bayern's Jewish roots are deep. When the club was formed in a bohemian quarter of Munich more than a century ago, two of the 17 people who signed the founding charter were Jewish. (One of them, Benno Elkan, would escape Germany for London, become an artist and eventually design the menorah that stands outside Israel's parliament building.)

And under Landauer, a businessman and banker who had played for the club as a teenager, the Jewish influence grew, peaking in 1932 when the Jewish president and his Jewish coach led the club to its first German championship.

The celebration was short, though. With Adolf Hitler consolidating power, anti-Semitism became official policy in Germany and Bayern was quickly denounced. Landauer was soon arrested and transported to Dachau — the death camp established the same day he was forced to resign as Bayern's president.

Although his service as a decorated soldier in World War I won his release from the camp — three brothers and a sister were not so lucky, dying at the hands of the Nazis — Landauer could not return to Germany. So he emigrated to Switzerland, where Bayern's most dramatic act of Nazi defiance took place.

When the team — now cleansed of Jews — traveled to Zurich to play a Swiss club, Hitler's state police banned the delegation from meeting with Landauer. But it couldn't ban him from attending the game, and when the players spotted him in the stands, they lined up and applauded their former president.

"At this very moment, he knows that he lost everything, even his siblings," Kamper said. "He will perhaps never return to his homeland, and the Gestapo wants to force the players not to make any contact.

"But they don't care, they take the risk. And I think this, in some way, saved his life."

Two years after the war Landauer did, of course, return to Munich, where he was immediately appointed president for the third time, becoming the longest-tenured chief executive in club history. And less than two years after that Bayern made it back to the round of 16 in the German championships.

Landauer was eventually voted out of office. Without his leadership, Bayern, a club he ran for nearly two decades before and after the war, quickly ran up massive debts before being relegated to German soccer's second tier. But the legacy of Landauer, who died in 1961 at the age of 77, lives on.

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The club's highly successful youth program was a Landauer innovation, as were the team's policies of fiscal responsibility and corporate sponsorship. To Rummenigge, he was German soccer's first "professional" president.

And he made a far larger contribution to the country at large.

"Starting the process of returning to a civilized society would never have been possible without people like Landauer," said Kamper, whose book is titled "Landauer: The Man Who Made FC Bayern."

"These people, although they had been beaten and tortured, returned to Germany and started up again. There were only a few. And Landauer was not one of the most famous. But with his work he was one of the most important persons to turn this country on a right way. Not because he talked about it. Simply because he did it."

Yet the club ignored those contributions and, like much of Germany, repressed the horrors of the Holocaust. Longtime Bayern executives often deflected questions about what the club euphemistically referred to as "political events between 1933 and 1945" by saying they weren't alive at the time. Others admitted they feared "negative reactions" if they spoke of the club's Jewish heritage.

So it fell to members of Bayern's main supporter, the Ultras, to resurrect Landauer and bring his story to light.

"For them the story of Landauer is perfect: A man who never lost his love [for] his club, whatever happens to him or his family," Kamper said. "That's how many supporters want to see themselves."

For Rummenigge, a two-time European player of the year who calls Landauer "the father of the modern FC Bayern," the club's struggles with its past carry important lessons for the present. Last week the team played a Champions League game behind locked doors in Moscow, the empty stadium punishment for Russian fans' racist chants and display of "far-right symbols" during a game there last year.

When the teams meet again in two months in Munich — the city where the Nazi Party was born — they will play before a packed grandstand built over a museum that now honors Bayern's Jewish past. And in those grandstands fans will be wearing T-shirts and scarves bearing the name and visage of their club's former Jewish president.

If Munich can come that far, Rummenigge believes Moscow can too.

"Sports can do a lot in favor of our culture," he said. "I believe everybody has the obligation to fight against racism. Soccer can [be] a very important part of this."

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