Ernő Egri Erbstein: Tragic tale of Jewish soccer hero who defied Nazis

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Story highlights

Ernő Egri Erbstein's story has been brought to life in a new book

Jewish football manager survived the Holocaust

He helped Italian club Torino win five league titles in 1940s

Erbstein was killed in a plane crash along with rest of Torino squad in 1949

CNN  — 

The name Ernő Egri Erbstein may be almost forgotten – but his story should not.

It is a tale of human endurance, defiance, heroism and tragedy during one of the darkest times of the 20th century.

Brought to light by a new book, “The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer” by British author Dominic Bliss, it reveals how a Hungarian Jew established himself as one of soccer’s most sought after and successful coaches at a time when his life was placed in peril following the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

A survivor of the Holocaust, Erbstein went on to lead Torino to great success, establishing the Italian club as one of the heavyweight powers of European football before tragedy struck.

In May 1949, Erbstein lost his life in an airplane crash near Turin which killed all on board including the players of his team.

The accident is remembered every year by the club’s fans at the scene of the crash – the Superga hillside by the city’s iconic basilica.

And yet, while the sporting success story of “Il Grande Torino” is remembered, Erbstein’s tale seems to have been lost in the ensuing decades.

“It’s pretty strange that you can type somebody’s name into Google and nothing on them comes up,” Bliss told CNN.

“There were a few paragraphs in one book I read but I found it all a bit mysterious and so began to do some research.

“At the start I thought that it would be great to do an article on him … I didn’t expect to write a book.”

The wreckage of the airplane which crashed into the Superga hillside in 1949.

Forget a book, Erbstein’s story could be turned into a movie – so intriguing is the plot, which takes in Nazi labor camps, great escapes, allegations of being a communist and the love which drove one man to do everything in his power to save his family.

Part of the great Hungarian Jewish football intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s, Erbstein ended his playing days in the U.S. with Brooklyn Wanderers before his managerial career took him to Italy.

He achieved notable success with Bari and Lucchese before joining Torino in 1938, but fled to his native Hungary before the start of World War Two following the introduction of the “Manifesto of Race” by the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

In Budapest, he set up a business with his brother at a time when the Jews of Hungary were forced to wear yellow stars and ostracized from society.

Five years later, in March 1944, Germany invaded Hungary and the atmosphere began to change.

By October, deportations of the country’s Jews began to take place as the Nazis stepped up their “Final Solution” – the complete destruction of European Jewry.

In his book, Bliss describes how more than 400,000 people – men, women and children – were crammed inside 150 trains and deported to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland.

According to Bliss, every day 12,000 people were transported from Hungary to Auschwitz in this way.

Supporters of Torino FC hold a banner commemorating the players who lost their lives when their plane crashed in the Superga air disaster, on the 65th anniversary of the tragedy last May.

Erbstein, his wife Jolan and their two daughters Susanna and Marta began to fear for their futures.

“As the net closed in, there were few options open to would-be escapees, even for a man of Erbstein’s considerable resourcefulness,” writes Bliss.

“But treatment of Jews could also be rife with inconsistency and there were some places – even in the darkest months of the Holocaust – where shelter could be found with the right connections.”

One of the most audacious war-time efforts to save Hungary’s Jews was the creation of a factory which produced uniforms for soldiers at a local convent.

Under the watch of Catholic priest Father Pál Klinda and Gitta Mallász – a former international swimmer who would later become known for publishing the spiritual instructions received by her friends during the war – hundreds of Jewish women were given jobs which crucially were carried out on Vatican property.

The women remained safe until a group of local Nazis, known as “Nyilas,” broke into the convent and forced the entire group to leave on an infamous death march.

“You cannot imagine those people, they were monsters,” Erbstein’s eldest daughter, Susanna, says in Bliss’ book.

“There was a commander of the whole thing, a military commander, and they took us all in a room where we were waiting for whatever they decided to do. They took us and said: ‘Give us the keys and whatever you have in your rooms.’ Of course, everyone had their most valuable things with them, and so first they took all those valuables from us.

“As it was a Sunday, it was the only day when we could receive telephone calls and maybe visits from our relatives. And they decided, as some kind of joke for them, that when some of us were called to the telephone, they would tell us: ‘Tell the person to come here because there is a party and don’t dare to let them understand that there is anything different here.’”

Turin hosted the Europa League final in May 2014 -- here a Benfica fan wears face paint depicting the Superga air disaster.

However, Erbstein’s survival instincts and good fortune ensured his family somehow escaped certain death.

When he entered the labor camp, his eyes set upon a familiar figure – a man who had been Erbstein’s orderly in the Habsburg Army some 30 years earlier.

This friendship would keep Erbstein alive and ensure he could keep in touch with his family in the convent.

The officer would accompany Erbstein to a nearby telephone box for him to make calls, while, if the scene was too dangerous, the man in uniform would do it himself.

On the fateful night his family were moved onto a death march, Erbstein managed to speak with Susanna.

Unaware his daughter was being held at gunpoint on the phone, he listened as she spoke in a high-pitched voice and talked about a “party” and how he must come.

Allowed to leave the camp by his former sergeant, Erbstein called Susanna’s ballet teacher Valéria Dienes – one of the country’s most notable dance exponents, who had connections with Hungary’s papal nunciature.

Angelo Rotta, the man in charge of the Pope’s embassy-like body in Budapest, was one of the men behind a campaign to save the city’s Jews and was fully aware of the convent’s dual role. He also knew Susanna, who had given him a guided tour in Italian and it appears she left a lasting impression on him and his young assistant Gennaro Verolino.

Rotta took it upon himself to warn senior Hungarian government officials that an attack on land owned by the papacy would leave the country facing huge criticism. The warning worked.

Sent by Rotta, Verolino drove towards the site where the women were being marched by the Nyilas, carrying an order from a senior government official to return the group to the convent.

Around 70 women were saved from certain death that night by Verolino. Yet, almost immediately, Erbstein’s wife and daughters plotted their escape.

Tunneling through the garden fence, they left the convent and headed to the home of Jolàn’s sister in Pest. Married to a Catholic man, she was able to escape the anti-Semitic laws because Hungarian law insisted that the husband’s racial background should take precedence.

“It was extremely dangerous because we had no documents,” Susanna told Bliss during one interview.

“If somebody stopped us it would have been terrible. But, after walking and walking – it was very far from the villa – we arrived, and we were accepted at my mother’s older sister’s house.”

With his family hidden, Erbstein began to plot his escape from the labor camp. Along with four other men, including Bela Guttmann, who would go on to lead Portuguese football club Benfica to European Cup glory in 1961 and 1962, Erbstein staged a daring exit.

The men were placed on a train to Germany but jumped out of the window and to safety without alerting the guards.

Erbstein headed to join his wife and daughters but was kept hidden so as not to alert the neighbors, who may have informed the authorities of his presence. It was there that the Erbstein family managed to obtain false documentation in a bid to hide their identity.

By December 1944, many of Hungary’s Jews had moved to houses under the protection of Swedish diplomats.

Raoul Wallenberg, who led the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, helped save thousands of Jewish lives by issuing protective papers and housing them in buildings owned by his government.

Erbstein was one of those taken in by Wallenberg, and remained there until the end of the war when he returned to his family.

A year later, the Erbsteins moved back to Turin and Ernő resumed duties at Torino, which had won two league titles during his absence.

Working together alongside club president Ferrucio Novo, who kept in touch with Erbstein throughout his time in Budapest, he would guide Torino to two more league titles and leave the club on the brink of domination.

Having worked his way back to the top of the game, Erbstein had begun, slowly but surely, to move on from the terror which had plagued his life.

And yet, with the world seemingly at his feet, his life came to a shuddering halt in 1949.

On May 4, the entire Torino squad was returning to Italy from a friendly game against Benfica in Portugal when the plane crashed into a hillside and all on board were killed.

It was left to Vittorio Pozzo, a two-time World Cup winner during his time as Italy’s national coach, to identify the dead – 18 players and the management staff.

The incident still haunts Torino, with generations of supporters making the pilgrimage to the basilica every year on the anniversary of the accident.

Researching his book, Bliss joined fans visiting the Superga hillside near where the Fiat G-212 plane clipped the embankment wall of the basilica.

“It was quite amazing how all these people come every year to remember their team,” he recalled.

“It was a very moving experience.”

Erbstein’s story has attracted attention from football fans who were previously unaware of his contribution to the game and the story behind his life.

Bliss, who has gained a sizable following on Twitter since publication, hopes his comprehensive “detective work” will bring even greater exposure to the Hungarian’s tale.

“I put a lot of hard work and effort into researching every area of Erbstein’s life,” he said. “It was an untold, or forgotten life story, so I took my research very seriously and it was incredibly rewarding to uncover so much exciting material.

“It may look to be a niche topic because Erbstein isn’t particularly well known these days and the clubs he managed are not ‘superclubs’ with millions of fans around the world.

“But look beyond that and we are talking about human experiences that would move anybody – world wars, persecution, a plane crash – and sporting achievements that have rarely, if ever, been matched.”