The Warsaw Jews and football before the war

Written by: dr Bartosz Borys
Beginnings of football in Warsaw and the first Jewish club.
mecz gwiazdy Warszawa_2.jpg

Gwiazda Warszawa’s match /  Source: „Bądź silny i odważny”. Żydzi – sport – Warszawa [„Be strong and brave”. Jews – sports – Warsaw], ed. G. Pawlak, M. Sadowski, D. Grinberg, Warsaw 2013.


Football appeared on the Polish territories for the first time in the second half of 19th century, in the Austrian partition. The sport arrived in Warsaw most likely in early 20th century, and the first football pitch was located in the Saski Garden – training grounds for athletes associated in the Warsaw Sports Club, from which later emerged first football clubs: Korona (1909) and Polonia (1911). The first Jewish team was established during World War I. In 1915, after the retreat of the Russian army and takeover of the city by Germans, the governor of German-occupied territories of the Kingdom of Poland, Hans von Beseler, allowed the clubs to function. Still, real development of Jewish sports, including football, began in independent Poland, especially after the end of the Polish-Bolshevik war.

Jews and sports

An early promoter of sports in the Jewish communities (19th century) was Max Nordau, one of the most important ideologists of Zionism. During the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, he was encouraging Jews to develop interest in sports. In 1903, Alfred Flatow – a German Jew inspired by Nordau – established Jüdische Turnerschaft, the first Jewish sports organization, which became an example for institutions such as Makabi (1921) and Hapoel (1926). In Jerusalem, the first Makabi club was established already in 1911, and Hapoel – in 1920.

From mid-19th century onwards, sports and gymnastic societies had been growing in popularity across Europe. Jewish Zionist and socialist politicians had also began to promote sports among Jews. It was seen as a means of preparation for colonizing Palestine and developing their own state there – stereotypical Jewish city-dwellers, usually working in trade, were considered unable to do so. Soon, similar opinions were also shared by rabbis. Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote that „when young people take up sports in order to strengthen their bodies and souls for the good of a stronger nation, this holy work elevates the Divine Providence as much as King David’s songs and hymns in the Book of Psalms”.

At that time, the motto „Be strong and brave” had become accepted by the global Makabi movement. The name of the movement refers to Judah Maccabee, one of the leaders of the Jewish uprising against the Seleucid rule in Palestine in 2nd century B.C. Judah had liberated Jerusalem, and in 164 B.C., he purified the Temple of Jerusalem, defiled three years earlier. These events gave origin to the Hanukkah festival.

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Poster announcing a match in B-class league between Bar Kochba and Makabi,
19.06.1926 r. Source: National Library

Jewish football clubs in independent Poland

In 1920, Makabi Warsaw was one of five founding clubs of the Warsaw Regional Football Society (WRFS), together with AZS, Polonia, WKS and Korona). The number of clubs associated in the society kept growing – in 1930, there were already 73, including 24 Jewish ones, and in 1934 – 106 (including 33 Jewish ones). In the late 1930s, the number of associated clubs shrunk to 88, including only 19 ones.

In Warsaw between the world wars, sports clubs were often allied with political parties. This symbiotic relationship was beneficial for both sides. Followers of a particular party had a chance to meet like-minded people and take part in sport, educational and social activities. The parties could have increased their popularity, they could have also activated more of their members and sympathizers for demonstrations and other events. Political societies had been supporting sports clubs with funds and propaganda. Certain independent sports teams had also been sympathizing with various political factions.

Some parties provided facilities for the sports clubs. The Bund’s building at 34 Nalewki street was a home for Jutrznia Warszawa, Poalej Syjon-Prawica supported Hapoel Warszawa and invited them to their headquarters at 14 Gęsia street, right-wing organization Agudat Israel at 9 Graniczna street was also the location of Hasmonei Warszawa, while Zionists had invited Makabi to their headquarters in Simons’ Passage at 2a Nalewki street.

Among left-wing parties in Warsaw, the strongest one was the Polish Zionist Party (Polska Partia Syjonistyczna), as well as Jewish parties Bund and Poalej Syjon. The PZP helped establish the Polish working-class club Skra in 1921, while the Society of Jewish Tradesmen, influenced by Poalej Syjon-Lewica, founded the Gwiazda (Yiddish: Sztern) Warszawa. Bund’s club was Jutrznia Warszawa, the Zionists had their Nordyja Warszawa, and Poalej Syjon-Prawica — Hapoel Warszawa.

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Gwiazda Warszawa’s coat of arms

In late 1925, the Skra club founded the Society of Workers’ Sports Clubs (SWSC), which managed to spread its activity across the country by 1927. The SWSC was supported by the PZP, Poalej Syjon and Bund, it was also a part of the Socialist Workers Sports International and took part in international competitions as the Representation of Workers’ Poland. Left-wing activists wanted sports to influence the attitudes of the „fighters of the proletariat”, and helped shape a new human struggling for a better future. They believed that workers’ sports contradicted the bourgeois „pursuit of records”. The majority of SWSC members were activists of the Skra club. Skra also owned their own stadium at Okopowa street, used by many working-class clubs – including Jewish ones.

What kind of tournaments were taking place in the interwar era?

Football tournaments in pre-war Poland different significantly from the ones we know, so it may require some special explanation.

The first tournament for the Championship of Poland was supposed to take place in 1920, but it wasn’t even finished on the regional level due to the Polish-Bolshevik war. The first complete tournament for the Championship of Warsaw, which was treated as a preliminary stage for an all-Polish tournament, was organized by the WRFS in 1921. Warsaw clubs competed initially in the top class in the city – A-class, as well as on the second level – B-class. Due to a growing number of teams, the third Warsaw league (C-class) was added. Between 1921–1926, the monopolist for victories in Warsaw A-class was Polonia, who despite this never managed to succeed in an all-Polish tournament. The first Jewish club to be promoted to the Warsaw A-class was Makabi in 1926.

1927 brought a significant change in the system of play, when the all-Polish First League was created. In the first season, three teams from Warsaw took part – Legia, Polonia and Warszawianka. No other club from Warsaw A-class enjoyed a similar success through the entire interwar period.

Among the activists of the SWSC, among whom there were members of Jewish clubs associated with left-wing parties, an idea of „protecting” working-class sports from the bourgeois sports. It had resulted in a change in the league system and in creating – after an agreement from the football commissions – different tournaments for the working-class clubs. In 1933, the Warsaw football league established then Autonomous Workers’ Sub-league (AWS) with separate A, B and C-class groups for working-class teams. The winner of the Warsaw AWS A-class competed with the leader of the „standard” Warsaw A-class and in case of winning, they could take part in regional play-offs with winners of 3 other regional leagues to be promoted to the First League. Not all Jewish football clubs participated in the AWS games (for instance the largest one, Makabi, didn’t) – only the workers’ ones which belonged to the SWSC.

The experiment with a separate league for workers’ clubs led to them losing a chance of regular competition with strong clubs not associated in the SWSC. Eventually, the quality of matches played within the AWS leagues kept sinking and with every year, chances for promotion to the First League decreased for workers’ clubs every year. Poorer matches drew fewer attention from the audience. Another issue were organizational problems – teams late for matches or not arriving at the pitch at all, especially in B — and C-class of the AWS. The idea was eventually withdrawn in July 1939, and soon the outbreak of war made it impossible for Warsaw clubs to return to the regular leagues.

A match between joint teams of Skra Warszawa and Gwiazda Warszawa against Hapoel Wiedeń. Date: 1 August 1936 r. Location: Skra Warszawa’s stadium at Okopowa 43/47.

Source: National Digital Archive


Top Jewish football clubs in pre-WWII Warsaw

The leading Jewish football clubs in interwar era Warsaw were Makabi and Gwiazda.

Makabi, the first Jewish team in the city, was a real sports institution, of which football was only one of many sections. The club itself participated in the founding of WRFS in 1920, but its successes remained moderate. After promotion to the Warsaw A-class in 1926, Makabi kept playing in the league until 1933, and in that time, they managed to get to the runner-up position only once. After relegation to the B-class, they managed to return to the top league soon before the war broke out in 1939. One of the most famous Makabi footballers was Józef Klotz, who made a transfer to Cracovia in 1925. He wrote his name in history thanks to the first goal for the Polish national representation during the match with Sweden in Stockholm in 1922, won by Poland (2:1).

Gwiazda (Yiddish: Sztern) was founded in 1923, on the basis of a previously existing „wild” club, „Jugend Spartakus”. The club had ties to Poalej Syjon-Lewica, joined the SWSC, it was also a part of the all-Polish Gwiazda sports association. The club changed its location a few times – initially, its headquarters were located at 38 Nowolipki street, then Dzika 21, Miła 2, and in the 1930s — at Dzielna 9 and Leszno 74. Gwiazda had its training hall at Leszno street, and matches were usually played at the Skra stadium at Okopowa street. The team’s colours were red and black. In 1924, footballers played their first season in C-class, which was followed by promotion to B-class in 1926 and A-class in 1928. Their biggest success was double victory in Championship of Warsaw, in 1932 and 1934.

According to historian dr Robert Gawkowski, between in 1918 and 1939 in Warsaw there were 176 sports clubs, out of which 70% had a football section. Jewish clubs made about 25% of them.

Of all the Jewish clubs, Gwiazda got closest to promotion to the First League. The team won the A-class twice. In 1932, they managed to take over Makabi, which took 7th position out of 11. In play-offs for promotion to the First League, Gwiazda competed with three teams which won in A-class torunaments in other local leagues: Legia Poznań, ŁTSG Łódź and Polonia Bydgoszcz. Gwiazda played matches and rematches with each of them, but eventually the team ranked only as third. The winner was Legia Poznań, promoted to the next stage of play-offs (they eventually lost in the final stage of play-offs against Podgórze Kraków). Gwiazda got their next chance in 1934. As the winner of the Warsaw AWS A-Class, they had to compete against the top club in „standard” Warsaw A-class. Because the first position was taken up by the backup team of 1st League Warszawianka, Gwiazda played against the Polish Telephone and Telegraph Company Football Club. Gwiazda won, but they didn’t succeed later in preliminaries against Legia Poznań, ŁTSG Łódź and Gryf Toruń. Legia Poznań won the play-offs again, also repeating its failure in later stages. Gwiazda was the last one of four teams in the play-off group.

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Poster announcing a match between Korona and Makabi. 02.04.1927 r.
Source: National Library

Aside from Gwiazda and Makabi, there were a few other Jewish clubs in in the Warsaw A-class and later in the AWS A-class, such as Bar Kochba, Hapoel and Czarni. In the last full season 1938/1939, finished in 1939, Gwiazda won the AWS A-class, Makabi took the second place in „standard” B-class, and Hapoel was the runner-up in AWS B-class.

Political attitudes of representatives and players influenced their relationships with other clubs. Sometimes they made cooperation difficult or even impossible, but sometimes they influenced positively the interest of the audience.

Relationships between left-wing Gwiazda and Zionist Makabi weren’t ideal. Matches between Makabi and Polish team Korona Warszawa, which didn’t accept Jewish players, were called high-risk games. Matches between Gwiazda and Warszawianka often ended with fights. On the other hand, certain clubs sympathizing with the National Democrats, such as AZS Warszawa, wanted to play with Makabi or Gwiazda, because it meant larger ticket sales. Conflicts occurred also between working-class clubs playing in the AWS. In 1937, AWS A-class was won by Znicz Pruszków, but the SWSC decided to delegate Skra Warszawa to play-offs against the winner of „standard” Warsaw A-class – the association argued that Skra was „more experienced politically”. As a result, the team withdrew from the association.

The stadiums of Warsaw

Soon after World War I, footballers were struggling with finding a place to play in. In 1919, two facilities were potentially available – the cycling racetrack in Dynasy at Oboźna street (damaged during the war), and the stadium at Agrykola. Due to renovation in 1921, playing football and watching a match by audience became impossible in the first location. The Agrykola stadium was renovated only in 1922. Warsaw had to wait for proper investments in sport infrastructure – including football pitches and stadiums – until mid-1920s.

For Jewish clubs, one of the most important locations was Skra’s stadium at Okopowa 43/47. This area was assigned to the club by the Polish Socialist Party in 1923. It was divided into two football pitches – one near the wall of the Lutheran cemetery, and the other – close to Okopowa street. The first match there took place on 1st of May 1927. Later, the stadium was used mainly by workers’ football clubs, such as Polish club Skra (Workers’ and Academics’ Sports Club), and Jewish clubs — Gwiazda, Makabi, Jutrznia, Czarni and Bar Kochba.

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Toporol agricultural society, picking cabbage, until 1942 — area of the pre-war Skra pitch at Okopowa. Source: JHI

In 1927, Jewish teams began to play also at the AZS stadium in Skaryszewski Park (currently Drukarz Warszawa stadium), where football pitch was rented e.g. by Hakoah. In August 1928, Polonia’s stadium opened at Konwiktorska street. During the opening match, hosts played against Jewish club Hasmonea from Lviv. The stadium was used also by other teams, such as Bar Kochba, Makabi and the team of the Jewish Academic Sports Association (JASA). In 1930, the largest sports facility in Warsaw – the Polish Army stadium at Myśliwiecka street – was completed. Initially, the stadium could host 8,000 people, but in mid-1930s, the audience could have been as large as 20,000. The stadium belonged to the State Office of Physical Culture and Military Education and was used by clubs such as Legia Warszawa, Jewish clubs — Hasmonea or Bar Kochba, as well as the Polish national representation. The Makabi club received a piece of land for its own facilities at Zieleniecka avenue, current location of the National Stadium. The football pitch opened there in 1934. It was utilised by Makabi and several other teams.

Co-authors of the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto involved in the football life of pre-war Warsaw

Natan Tytelman and Szmuel Szajnkinder, active in the football community in pre-war Warsaw, during World War II joined the Oneg Shabbat group and helped create the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto.

In the interwar period, Tytelman – like dr Emanuel Ringelblum, founder of the Oneg Shabbat group – was an activist of the Poalej Syjon-Lewica party. He was also one of founders and managers of the Gwiazda club. In German-occupied Warsaw, he began his work for Oneg Shabbat, for whom he prepared reports about the situation of Jews in German-occupied areas outside Warsaw (in Biała Podlaska or in Vilnius). He was also collecting folklore of the Warsaw Ghetto, and wrote a paper about the ghetto Labour Office. He was also writing a diary in Yiddish; the Archive contains fragments from May 1941, which provide information about prevailing moods among the ghetto community and their response to the wartime conditions.

Szajnkinder played for some time in Hagibor (Hebr. Hero) Warszawa. The team was founded in 1925 and their biggest success was promotion to Warsaw B-class in 1932. Szajnkinder gradually became more interested in sports journalism and about 1931, he began to work for „Der Moment”, one of the most popular Jewish press titles published in Yiddish. In September 1939, Szajnkinder participated in defense of Warsaw. Later, he was in a POW camp, and after release, he was employed in the Praga district of Warsaw, in a soup kitchen financed by Joint. When the Warsaw Ghetto was created, he worked at the Kitchen Central of Jewish Social Self-Help. He probably met Ringelblum through social work. In 1942, he began to cooperate with Oneg Shabbat, for whom he was writing accounts of soldiers participating in the September campaign (in Yiddish). Oneg Shabbat documents contain also his literary works and a diary written in the ghetto.

Circumstances and dates of Szajnkinder’s and Tytelman’s deaths remain unknown. The latter was probably killed in the ghetto in 1943.

The history of Jewish football in pre-war Warsaw is a very interesting subject – due to its unique nature and the fact that in a short period, there emerged over 30 teams which competed in tournaments and presented diversity – also from a political point of view. None of the Jewish clubs managed to reach the level of the national first league (established in 1927) – the only teams which succeeded were Legia, Polonia and Warszawianka, but Gwiazda managed to prove its skills by winning the Warsaw A-class twice (1932 and 1934), confirming its position as Warsaw’s best Jewish team. Apart from Gwiazda, only Makabi achieved a significant success – they were runners-up in Warsaw A-class in 1929. Other Jewish teams couldn’t boast such achievements. Bar Kochba team managed to reach the A-class level, while between 1933–1939, three teams played in the AWS A-class league: RKS Czarni, Hapoel oraz RKS Żar.


Selected bibliography:

Archiwum Ringelbluma. Tom 11. Ludzie i prace „Oneg Szabat”, editors: Aleksandra Bańkowska, Tadeusz Epsztein, Warsaw 2013;

„Bądź silny i odważny” – Żydzi, sport, Warszawa, editors: Grażyna Pawlak, Daniel Grinberg, Maciej Sadowski, Warsaw 2013;

Gawkowski R., Encyklopedia klubów sportowych Warszawy i jej najbliższych okolic w latach 1918–1939, Warsaw 2007;

Gawkowski R., Futbol dawnej Warszawy, Warsaw 2013;

Gawkowski R., Rokicki J., Stosunki polsko-żydowskie w sporcie II Rzeczpospolitej [w:] Parlamentaryzm, konserwatyzm, nacjonalizm, editor: J. Żyndul, Warsaw 2010.

dr Bartosz Borys   historyk, kierownik Działu Edukacji ŻIH