The Death Match: Bakers against Nazis

Football.  The Beautiful Game.  But actually it is more than that. It is a way of expressing oneself.  It is a palette of life which reflects all the emotions – joy, sorrow, grit, helplessness, determination. Barely a game played on the pitch has been so vividly spoken about. We at Goalden Times revive the fascinating journey with Srinwantu Dey.

“For our beautiful presence
They fell in a fight…
For ages your glory won’t fade,
The fearless hero-athletes”

Once upon a time in a faraway land life and death looked eye to eye, truth gave birth to legends. The mystery of this tale has not been unravelled even today; the brutality of this chronicle will never be surpassed, the romance of this saga will never be forgotten

We remember them !
We remember them !

Scene 1: Prologue

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The story dates back to the 1930s; the city of Kiev was still recovering from the great famine of the past decade under the iron hand of Joseph Stalin. The mood was bleak. Repressive policies, the terror of NKVD (The Russian Secret Service & predecessor of KGB) and regular torture routines had condemned the locals to a permanent state of paranoia.

Amidst the gloom and desolation, football thrived like an oasis. It was one of the few means of recreation for the people, an outlet to relive and savour memories of more carefree, glorious times left behind. The very rare photograph below shows. As Dynamo Kiev rubbed shoulders with the best of Moscow during the late 30s, football became very popular in Kiev, and a source of pride and nationalism for the Ukrainian people.

A rare photograph showing Dmitri Shostakovich – an eminent figure of 20th century music, who was also an ardent football fan -- enjoying the beautiful game in Leningrad
A rare photograph showing Dmitri Shostakovich – an eminent figure of 20th century music, who was also an ardent football fan — enjoying the beautiful game in Leningrad

 

Until 1935, Dynamo was not even the best club from the city of Kiev. However, they had gradually gained in stature, fighting against local rival ‘Lokomotiv Kyiv’ and the other big guns of capital city Kharkiv. When the Russian football league was established  in 1936  this  small club from Kiev showcased their brilliance in front of bigger audiences of The USSR and managed to secure a 2nd place finish. A 3rd place in 1937 and a 4th place finish in 1938 in the Soviet Championship proved that the initial success was not a fluke. The team was managed by legendary manager Mikhail Tovarovskiy. Dynamo owed a large part of their success to their huge, 6 feet tall, aggressive goal keeper Nikolai Trusevich. He was the talisman of the team and leader on the pitch, and apart from his goal saving prowess, was also the starting point of attacks like his modern counterparts. The future looked bright. However, just as the Ukrainian people started dreaming about Dynamo dominating Soviet football,   the scenario changed for the worse.

A smiling face of Mikhail Tovarovskiy
A smiling face of Mikhail Tovarovskiy

Scene 2: Operation Barbarossa and the new beginning

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The 1941 season was only nine games old when, on 22nd June, World War 2 interrupted its course. Driven by Adolf Hitler’s unrelenting aspiration to conquer Soviet land, over four million of Axis army invaded the USSR, the largest invasion in the history of warfare till date. Soon the Germans had occupied some of the most important land sectors of Russia, many in Ukraine, and Kiev was one of them.  As part of the Barbarossa campaign, the Red Army of Kiev was encircled and overwhelmed after a month long battle on 26th September, 1941. A few Dynamo players were out at the front and they became prisoners of war, as the Germans captured 650,000 people  – Trusevich   being one of them. War, thus, nipped his football ambitions in its budding stage.

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While the condition in the prisons was barbaric, the condition outside was no better. Soon after the fall of Kiev, the civil life of Ukrainians under the Nazis became worse than that under the Stalinist regime. By November end, approximately 100,000 Ukrainians had been executed brutally. Those who lived, lived in constant terror with their lives at the disposal of a tyrant regime’s whim. When they looked for some escape, they turned to football, which still existed on the patchy grounds, over the war-wreckages and thousands of dead bodies.

Prisoners of Wars are released in front of Nazi work force
Prisoners of Wars are released in front of Nazi work force

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During late 1941 and early 1942 a few prisoners of war were released. Trusevich was among those lucky souls. When he returned to Kiev he found that the city had changed beyond recognition under the Nazi rule. . He found no shelter, no job and hardly any food, and started realizing that the Nazi government had released them to die in cold and hunger. His muscular physique started crumbling. One of the best goal-keepers of Soviet Union was forced to survive on the streets waiting for a slow death.  Having seen what happened to the resident Jews under Nazi rule, his only solace was that his Jewish wife and daughter were able to escape from the city.

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While Trusevich was struggling to survive on the streets of Kiev, one day, all of a sudden, somebody came out from a nearby café calling his name. To his surprise the person was greeting him with a smile, a rare sight in the oppressed city. The man was Iosif Kordik, a bakery owner and a fervent sports lover. An ardent follower of Soviet football, he had recognized the dishevelled yet familiar face of the celebrity goal-keeper through the cafe window. Kordik offered a small job to Nicolai at his bakery, an offer that the starved goal-keeper didn’t give a second thought before grabbing.

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Trusevich joined ‘Bakery no 3’ as a janitor. Slowly he realized Kordik’s real reason behind recruiting him. Kordik, although Czech by birth, had apparently received German sympathy by speaking fluent German and convinced the Nazis that he was an Austrian with a Ukrainian wife. However, inside, he was suffocating in the dreadful and tyrannical climate. Only sports, particularly football, could offer him some relief. Hence he had decided to create his own football team with his workers with an aim to participate in the local leagues. He knew that it would be vital to have an influential figure in his team, a leader, and Trusevich was his best bet.

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Scene 3: The Genesis

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Trusevich, with the help of Kordik, started searching for surviving Dynamo team-mates and other players from Lokomotiv. The first person he contacted was Makar Mikhailovich Goncharenko, an ex-Dynamo winger famous for his skill and trickery. This pocket-sized wizard had slammed 20 goals for Dynamo during the 1938 season and was living illegally in his former mother-in-law’s house. Very soon the dream started taking shape. During the spring of 1942, they approached several players and were able to build a formidable team- Nikolai Trusevich, Mikhail Putistin, Ivan Kuzmenko, Makar Goncharenko, Mikhail Sviridovskiy, Nikolai Korotkykh, Alexey Klimenko, Fedor Tyutchev, Vladimir Balakin, Vasiliy Sukharev and Mikhail Melnik (eight Dynamo and three Lokomotiv players). Most of the players were suffering from malnutrition and a few had contracted deadly pneumonia but still their courage and love for the game united them against the Nazis. They thought football could be their only way to fight the Nazis, their only weapon against the dark force.

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FC Start with one of their opponents
FC Start with one of their opponents

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Trusevich named the team F.C. Start, to mark it as a new beginning, the genesis. Kordik registered for a league with other German teams and teams from their allies like Hungary and Romania. F.C. Start was the only team that was representing Ukraine and they started playing as a matter of pride. Their first opponent was Rukh, the pet team of the league owner who was an associate of the occupying power. On June 7th, 1942 F.C Start played the match with tired bodies, half-empty stomachs and without a proper kit. Yet they were representing millions of war victims, and what they lacked in strength they made up in spirit. Rukh was literally no match for their prowess and were destroyed by a humiliating 7-2 score-line. However, the victory came at a price as the humiliated German commandants banned them from training at the main stadium.

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In spite of proper training facility and 20 hours of shift at the Bakery their spirits pulled them along. The Bakers kept outperforming other Hungarian, Romanian and German teams, winning by commendable margins. Soon, they started gaining appreciation from the supporters and rapidly grew a cult following. Tortured civilians started paying hard earned money to watch the triumph of their local heroes against their ruthless occupants and the Bakers seldom disappointed them. On top of their performance, Trusevich’s team used to wear a red shirt symbolizing communism. However, with regular score-lines like 6-2, 11-0, 6-0, 5-1and 3-2 against an insignificant Ukrainian team made from prisoners and vagabonds, it was just a matter of time before the German authority intervened.

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Luftwaffe was the aerial warfare branch of the German Wehrmacht during World War II, and their football team, ‘Flakelf’, teams consisting of multiple professional players, was considered among the finest of the German military.  The Nazi authority arranged a match between Start and Flakelf on 6th August. It was expected to be a highly competitive match as both the teams were undefeated. A highly spirited and skilful ‘Start’ team crushed the Luftwaffe side convincingly with a score of 5-1. It is was rumoured that during half-time Kiev superintendent ‘Iron Cross’ General Eberhardt met the Start players and threatened them – “If you do not lose, you will be executed”. But they didn’t surrender and played to win. The Ukrainian supporters exploded in joy at the result but the Germans, with their egos bruised, planned a bloody revenge.

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Scene 4: The Death Match

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Three days after the humiliation a second ‘revenge’ match was organized on 9th August. By that time Flakelf had bolstered their team with some fresh players and they expected the already overworked and undernourished players of Start FC to be tired with three days of Bakery workload. Their intention was clear — the Nazi government didn’t want to be defeated on occupied territory land. The stadium was full to its capacity, bursting with 2000 spectators, SS patrol (Nazi Protection Squadron) and police dogs. Before the game, several senior authorities visited the Start dressing room asking them to -‘lose the match or die’. One of them in an SS uniform claimed to be the match official and asked the team to greet their opponents with a Nazi salute. Trusevich sensed that it was not going to be an ordinary match anymore; the consequences were going to be greater than winning or losing. Still, the army of half-starved players decided not to bend to the Nazi threats.

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The grudge match poster
The grudge match poster

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The two teams lined up in the stadium and Flakelf gave the Nazi Salute as expected. With all eyes on the insignificant Start team, they shouted ‘FizcultHura!’ translated as ‘Long Live the Sports’, a traditional Soviet pre-sports cry. The game got underway in a tense atmosphere. The Germans started committing brutal fouls and the SS referee turned a blind eye on them. It was every bit a grudge game. As a result of their opponent’s aggressive approach Trusevich soon suffered a head injury and while he was still recovering Flakelf scored their first goal. However, despite the initial setback and completely biased refereeing, the skilful and spirited Soviet players started dominating the game led by their talismanic forward Goncharenko. Start came back in the match with a Kuzmenko stunner and went 3-1 up before half time by virtue of two brilliant goals from Goncharenko. In the second half, both the teams scored two goals each and FC Start emerged winners once again with a 5-3 score-line. The Ukrainian crowd, tasting a hint of glory after a long time, started jeering the Nazi officials.  On the other hand, being disgraced in this prestige match, the Nazi authority planned something sinister.

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Scene 5: Postlude

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The remaining part of the story is better kept untold. Well, there were no immediate consequences. ‘Start’ again went to play against Ruth next weekend and hammered them 8-0. However, there is a saying that vengeance is more satisfying when exacted in cold blood. Two days later, on 18th August, Gestapo (Secret State Police) arrived with a warrant at the Bakery No. 3 and arrested the Start players in front of a helpless Kordik. The revenge started thereafter. There is no verifiable record of what happened, there are truths surrounded by myths. There are different versions from different sources, plenty may have got added and plenty were omitted. The government and its press, as expected, may have moulded the stories to their own interests.

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The last surviving member of the squad Goncharenko, revealed a lot of facts during a 1992 conference testifying the truth. The widely believed version says that there were no immediate consequences of the game but after arresting those players SS started torturing them to confess themselves as criminals or undercover NKVD agents so that the Gestapo had a documented reason to execute them. They did succeed in establishing a connection between Mikola Korotkykh and NKVD and tortured him to death, the first reported martyr of the ‘Game of Death’. Unable to break the others, the rest of the players were deported to ‘Syrets concentration camp’ next to the valley of Babi Yar.

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Babi Yar still cries for the fighters !
Babi Yar still cries for the fighters !

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Babi Yar is a ravine in Kiev and a notorious site where multiple massacres were carried out by the Nazis. Condition of the camp was beyond imagination, brutal to the core. Around this time the Soviet army started fighting back in guerrilla style. Though this was supposed to be good news for the prisoners, with every guerrilla attack the Germans started extracting revenge by killing people in the camp. One of the team-mates Pavel Komarov was alleged a ‘traitor’ by Goncharenko in his 1992 report and he affirmed that Komarov used to pass information to Germans about their team mates – in return he was allowed to escape in 1943 when the Red Army hit back. Rest of them were   still surviving under the brutal jurisdiction of camp commander Paul Radomski.

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After six months of continuous agony, suddenly they heard on 23rd February, 1943, that the Soviet partisans had launched a number of attacks on the oppressed territory. Germans knew their glory days were nearing an end once they surrendered in the Battle of Stalingrad, on 2nd February 1943. The next day Radomski lined up all the prisoners and ordered to kill every third of them. Luckily Goncharenko along with Tyutchev and Sviridovsky were working with the city squad that day but Kuzmenko, Klimenko and Trusevich were summoned. They knew their lives just hung on mere randomness. As expected, all the  three  stars of the grudge match were chosen to be shot.

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Goncharenko and his mates had already anticipated the fate awaiting them on returning to the camp and they escaped from their city duty and were able to hide in the city until Kiev was liberated by the Red Army. However, in the camp Kuzmenko and Klimenko couldn’t alter their fate and were shot to death one after the other. It is believed that when Trusevich was about to die, he shouted ‘Krasny sport ne umriot’ – ‘Red sport will never die’ and then was shot in the head. Folklore has it that while he was being shot, Nikolai Trusevich was still wearing his favourite red and black goal-keeping shirt.  All the dead bodies were thrown into Babi Yar ravine and the foggy freezing morning became silent again.

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Culture

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The myth of ‘The Death Match’ may have been modified by the Soviets and Germans in their respective propaganda but the heroics of eleven legendary players who fought for thousands of oppressed civilians against Nazi tyrants will never be forgotten. There is a statue commemorating the heroics of the Start team outside the Kiev stadium which stands tall with the first four lines of this article embossed in Russian.

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“For our beautiful presence
They fell in a fight…
For ages your glory won’t fade,
The fearless hero-athletes”

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What they did 70 years ago is still very much relevant in modern Ukraine.  Seventy years ago, these brave footballers fought, not with weapons, but with the spirit of the beautiful game. In their fateful season which happened to be both their first and last, FC Start was undefeated, and the combined score line of the matches reads 56-11 with a goal difference of 45 (The invincible Arsenal team in 2003/04 season kept a GD of +47).

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There are at least three acclaimed movies inspired by this incident – Two Half Times in Hell (Hungarian: Kétfélidő a pokolban) in 1962, one happier Hollywood version ‘Escape to Victory’ in 1981 and a very controversial Russian movie ‘Match’ in 2012.Another animated movie on this story, ‘Playing the Game’, is set to release soon. We had the opportunity to discuss about the movie and the impact of ‘Death Match’ on Ukrainian society with the writer and director of the movie, Tyler Gooden, and below are the excerpts –

GT: What made you start this project on a long lost 70 year-old story?
Tyler: I see it as continuing the story. But it’s hard to say what compelled me to begin. I was moved by their story, and the further I dug into that time and place, the more I was moved and humbled by the history of the people, and the more I began to see a grand metaphor for life itself.

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GT: Do you think this story has a reference or impact on the current situation in Ukraine?
Tyler: Our story is relevant in many ways, and every day I am more confident that the angle I am taking with the story is the right one. Thematically, there are uncanny parallels. I think that’s because the struggle of Ukraine for the past 300 years is still relevant to what is happening now. If our movie has any kind of impact, it will be as any art form should have impact- and that is a kind of messenger, a catharsis, a way of working through struggle to find meaning in the human experience. But I don’t want people to see my movie in political terms, it’s not that kind of movie. People should experience cinema the way they experience dreams.

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GT: How do you think people can be connected to this incident?
Tyler: We are a small team of committed people, and we are spread around the world. I got an email today from one of my artists, who is in the Phillipines – far from Europe, and it was a personal message to me expressing concern about Ukraine’s situation. So, if there are any Ukrainians reading this, or eventually watching the movie, I hope that they know we are with them in spirit, and their story has affected us. Our movie is not intended to be a picture of history, but a picture of humanity. If anyone wants to keep up with it, they can follow us on twitter or facebook. The plan is to finally have something for the public this year.

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Playing The Game Movie Illustration
Playing The Game Movie Illustration

 

Sources:

  1.    ‘Dynamo: Triumph and Tragedy in Nazi-Occupied Kiev’ By Andy Dougan
  2.    ‘More Than a Game: When Sport and History Collide’ By Jan Stradling
  3.     NY Times
  4.    ‘Playing the Games’ < Twitter: @PlayingtheGame1 Facebook>
  5.     Official Dynamo Kyiv website

About Srinwantu Dey

Srinwantu Dey lives in Chicago who takes football journalism seriously un¬der the huge influence of Eduardo Galeano. He is keenly interested in various creative ways of story-telling on the beautiful game, its diverse socio-cultural and humanitarian appeal. Srinwantu habitually travels, documents and visu¬ally captures how football explains different societies and ethnicities. He ca be reached at @SrinwantuDey.