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Vienna's Jewish Sports Club, Smashed by Nazis, Gets New Life

By Matthias Wabl

Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Erich Sinai sought out old Jewish friends from the Hakoah sports club when he returned to his native Vienna in 1947 after seven years in a Soviet detention camp in Kazakhstan. He only found one, Karl Haber.

Together, they lobbied to recover some of Hakoah's sports grounds appropriated by the Nazis after Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Their efforts have turned into a 57 million-euro ($74 million) complex, including athletic facilities, a school and retirement home alongside the Danube, that's helping energize the city's Jewish community. It's scheduled to open next year.

``In the beginning, we didn't think it would ever be possible to get anything back,'' Sinai, 89, says as he looks over the construction site. ``For me, Hakoah was like a family.''

Hakoah, which means ``The Force'' in Hebrew, was fabled before the Nazis destroyed it. Its soccer team was Austria's national champion in 1925, regularly attracting more than 25,000 fans. Wrestler Micky Hirschl won two medals at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932.

Vienna's Jewish population dropped to 6,000 after World War II from 180,000. About 60,000 were killed by the Nazis. Today, Austria's capital has about 20,000 residents of Jewish descent, including many new arrivals from eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The Hakoah center, the biggest of its kind in Europe, will help them build a common spirit, says Paul Haber, president of the club, which has 400 members. His father, Karl, died in 1998 at the age of 79.

``The sports center could become an element of integration for the entire community,'' says Haber, 62. He predicts Hakoah will have 1,000 members by 2010.

U.S. Backing

The center got a boost in 2001 when the Austrian government agreed to return 20,000 square meters (4.9 acres) of land, once part of the imperial hunting grounds. It's close to Vienna's giant Ferris wheel and the Ernst Happel Stadium that will host the Euro 2008 soccer championship. Austria also pledged $8 million to fund the new sports center as part of its Holocaust compensation accord with Jewish groups and the U.S. government.

The new Hakoah center, designed by Austrian architect Thomas Feiger, will include an arena with about 200 seats, tennis courts, a beach-volleyball court, a fitness room, a sauna and a recreation center. The club is trying to raise 2 million euros to finance an indoor pool for its 100 swimmers, who currently swim at pools around Vienna.

Hakoah was founded in 1909 after some Viennese sports clubs banned Jews as anti-Semitism spread. It grew into the country's biggest athletic club, with about 5,000 members.

The soccer team toured Europe and the U.S. in the 1920s and drew a crowd of 46,000 people to the Polo Grounds in New York on May 1, 1926. While it was there, Hakoah's star, Bela Guttmann, quit to join the New York Giants, an American Soccer League team.

`Political Act'

Three female Hakoah swimmers refused to take part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics to protest Hitler's policies.

``The foundation of Hakoah at the time was certainly a political act of protest, but for me, the sport was always at the center of everything,'' Sinai says.

A former handball player, Sinai has discovered more people he trained with in Vienna. They meet once a month at the Cafe Schottenring, which opened opposite the Vienna Stock Exchange in 1879. He's also in touch with other Hakoah friends who are now scattered around the world.

The club has survived since the war by renting facilities for activities including basketball, tennis, table tennis, karate and hiking.

Sinai says the start of construction last year was one of the best days of his life after having fought for so long. He says he thought the club would die in the 1960s and '70s.

Vienna's Jewish Life

For decades after the war ended, Vienna's Jewish community lacked the financial means to attract more people. Jews who came to Vienna tended not to seek each other out, and instead stuck together with people from their home countries, including Georgia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, Haber says.

Now the city's biggest Jewish organization, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, aims to increase membership by broadening services such as housing, schooling and health care, says Natalia Najder, who's in charge of relations with the group's 7,000 members. That and the Hakoah center will help make Jewish life in Vienna richer, she says.

People like Gawriel Karschigiew, 35, are already benefiting. A dentist, he left Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with his parents in 1974. Today, he shuttles his sons Uriel, 4, and Jonathan, 8, to Hakoah swim classes every Monday, taking advantage of the chance to meet other parents while exercising himself.

For Haber, creating a place to meet and play will help draw children into the wider Jewish religious and community life.

``The different sport groups are currently dispersed all over the city,'' Haber says. ``That should change now. Eventually, we want to express that we are all one family.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Matthias Wabl in Vienna at