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Human RightsSonny survived the Holocaust and football gave him freedom

Sonny survived the Holocaust and football gave him freedom

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Inspirational love between a 90-year-old man and Eintracht (Frankfurt) revealed by BBC Sport.

Helmut Sonneberg is probably the most energetic 90-year-old you can see. In Frankfurt, he is known simply as Sonny, and in addition to being one of the most loyal supporters of the local Eintracht, his life story is more than remarkable.

Sonny is one of the Holocaust survivors. For years he refused to talk about the experiences of his early years and all the tortures he experienced at the hands of the Nazis. He is silent even in front of his closest ones.

But a few years ago that changed. Thanks to his two greatest passions – football, which gives him freedom, and Eintracht (Frankfurt), the club of his heart.

But to understand the whole story of Sonny, we have to start on the night of November 9-10, 1938. Crystal Night is still known in Germany and Austria for the anti-Jewish pogrom, which burned 191 synagogues and 815 Jewish-owned shops. About 30,000 people were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and 40 were killed directly.

At the time, Sonny was usually a seven-year-old boy with a Jewish mother. His father is also Jewish, but he left the family shortly after the birth of his child. Hellmuth bears the surname of his second father (Wesinger), who is not a Jew. He doesn’t know anything about his father until that night, but he needs to find out.

The whole family is watching the burning of the Synagogue in Frankfurt, and Sonny’s mother can’t tell him the truth, so she has to find out from a neighbor. Which tells him that he is different, that this is not his real father and that he is actually a Jew. “What is this?” The little boy asks to get the answer that these are the people who go to the Synagogue.

He was sent to a Jewish orphanage to wear the yellow star of David, which distinguished him as “an enemy of the people.” People spit on the streets. He is often beaten. The only consolation is the books his half-sister Lilo brought him. He defines them as his only refuge.

When the Gestapo came to pick him up for the first time, his stepfather resisted. In June 1943, he resisted them again, targeting them with his World War I medals and shouting, “Give me back my boy!”

Something happened, and on March 22, 1944, when the entire old city of Frankfurt was destroyed by bombs and more than 1,000 people died, Sonny and his family hid in the basement.

A year later, he was deported with his mother to Theresienstadt, a town now in the Czech Republic, and his stepfather has nothing to do because he has been mobilized.

“War is the worst thing that can happen to the human race. You see things you can’t talk about later, “he recalled, referring to Theresienstadt, a transit camp for Jews who were later sent to certain death in the East. Then there are about 55,000 people, and the place is like 4,000. Before his eyes, people are dying of hunger. It’s just skin and bones, as he recalls.

He himself is 14 years old and weighs only 27 kilograms when he returns home to Frankfurt.

With tears in his eyes, he remembers how his sister was afraid to hug him “so as not to break him.” He admits that he can forgive and wants to forget some things, but he can’t because the scars remain.

The director of the Eintracht Club Museum, Matthias Thomas, is actually the man who encourages Helmut Sonneberg to talk about his childhood. The two met in 2007, but it was a decade before Sonny got scared and started sharing more.

After the Holocaust, he looked for all sorts of ways to move forward and live normally. He changes 17 different jobs – firefighter, taxi driver, porter at the airport. But the one he enjoyed most was driving a mobile library around Frankfurt to deliver books to disadvantaged children.

And at some point in his early life comes the big change. Football. The game that gives him freedom. He played for the youth teams of Eintracht, failed to reach the first team, but then continued to attend all matches of his team.

In 1959, in the final for the title in Berlin, Frankfurt had to play with its great rival Kickers Offenbach in Berlin. Sonny and his friends cross the border into East Germany in a Volkswagen Turtle, and border guards tell them not to stop until they reach the capital. However, passengers are drinking beer and there must be a break during which they are shot at a soldier. Despite the extreme experience, Frankfurt won 5: 3.

The only title in the history of the team, which, in Helmut’s words, is “in his blood and feels like a second family.”

A year later, he watched the only final for KESH of his team, lost by Real (Madrid) to Alfredo di Stefano.

At that time, the president of the team was Rudolf Gramlich. Captain of Germany at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. That same year, he joined the SS, and Sony only found out about the club’s boss’s past when he was in his late 40s. He immediately renounced his membership. Gramlich remained in office until 1970, and died in 1988.

“I could not accept that such a person – a criminal and a murderer who pretends to be an innocent lamb – is somehow involved in my favorite team. In my Eintracht “, the fan says in a trembling voice.

Grammich was arrested by Americans after World War II but released. Today, Eintracht is well known for his campaigns against discrimination, fascism and anti-Semitism. In 2020, Grammich was finally erased from the history of the club, which posthumously took away his honorary position of president.

The current president of the club is Peter Fischer. A person who points to Sonny as an inspiration.

“Sonny is a man who always gives me strength. He is one of the survivors of the horrific Nazi killing machine that killed millions. Unfortunately, there are few survivors, but fortunately Sonny is one of them. He inspires me to say that we are 100% pure in our principles and we will not move an inch, “said Fischer.

“I know a lot of people my age are gone. I don’t know why I’m still here. But I want to live to be 104 to get all my pension contributions back. I calculated it. Maybe God thinks that after all the pain, I still deserve a little more years of life, ”says Sonny.

And he sums up – that he is grateful. Because he sees the sky, the moon and feels the rain on his skin.

Last but not least, he puts another name on this list. Eintracht (Frankfurt).

Photo by PA Images via Getty Images: Soccer – European Cup – Final – Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt – Hampden Park, Glasgow

Real Madrid’s Marquitos (c, l) and Dominguez (c, r) parade the European Cup around Hampden Park with their teammates after winning the trophy for the fifth successive year

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