Almost everything the wider world knows about the life of Eddy Hamel is owed to Simon Kuper’s Ajax, The Dutch, The War. Kuper’s brief introductory description of Hamel reveals how precious little we have in terms of biographical detail:
“We know that Eddy Hamel was born in New York in 1902 and that he later moved to the Netherlands. He was Jewish, probably of Dutch descent.”(Page 47 of the US paperback edition)
We also know two other important facts from Simon Kuper’s telling. First, Eddy Hamel played outside right for Ajax for most of the 1920’s and was regarded particularly for his sporting play. Second, however long Eddy Hamel had lived in Holland, he possessed a United States passport, which he could not produce when Nazi Germany invaded. In April of 1943, Eddy Hamel died at Auschwitz as one more singular, once-in-a-universe human existence, joining the multitude of millions in the 20th Century whose life story was ended by racially motivated mass murder.
As the United States Soccer Federation celebrates their centennial year of existence, the year 2013 also marks the 70th anniversary of Eddy Hamel’s murder. What is truly remarkable about the concurrence of these two anniversaries is that the life of Eddy Hamel screams out for remembrance and the United States is desperate to create a sense of identity and history around the nation’s role in the game. Yet, the death of Eddy Hamel does not rate in significance in the “History of U.S. Soccer” timeline, not when important things were happening two years later like the “US Football Association” changing its name to the “US Soccer Football Association.” True, Eddy Hamel was not capped by the United States and he never played for a US Soccer sanctioned league in any form. But then again, neither did the Pilgrims in 1620 that somehow make the timeline for allegedly playing a soccer-like game.
Eddy Hamel needs to be embraced as part of American soccer history. It does not matter how much time Hamel spent in America, or how little we know of his life. Hamel’s deserves embrace by those formally and informally responsible for building the identity and cultural memory soccer in the USA. Hamel was many things: he made his living in Holland and was of Jewish decent and was (as Megan Rapinoe so proudly sang at the 2011 Women’s World Cup) born in the USA. Rather than Hamel’s diverse identity running counter to some qualification for the American sporting pantheon, he fits in perfectly with the best parts of the pluralistic identity of which the country prides itself. The permitting of overlapping identities and allegiances within the group represents not only the better part of American political culture, but is a part of American culture the rest of the footballing world should see as the antidote to the worst of tribalism in the sport. Eddy Hamel was born in New York City with strong ties to a different homeland and as a member of a particular cultural/ethnic/religious community— in short he was a rather typical New Yorker.
How can USA soccer remember someone for whom we know so little about? First, let us notice that this question has not bothered American soccer enthusiasts with regard to the legendary status of Joe Gaetjaens, the goalscorer in the miracle 1-0 win over England in the 1950 World Cup. Gaetjens, according to Leander Shaerlaeckens signed papers declaring intent to become a citizen of the United States, which was enough to make him eligible to play for country in terms of FIFA rules. I do not know if Gaetjens ever followed up on his path to citizenship and I frankly do not care.
Gaetjens resonates with us for the same reason that Eddy Hamel should: we can recognize something about our human experience in his story. Millions of Americans can recognize something of themselves in the story of a man who worked at a restaurant in order to pay for school and to give him time to pursue his dream. In fact, Gaetjens’ story of leaving the Caribbean for New York to study at Columbia University also happens to be the early life story of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, whose intellectual influence on American politics is rivaled perhaps only by James Madison. Like Eddy Hamel, it is believed that Gaetjens may have died at the hands of authoritarianism. In Gaetjens case, it was the brutal reign of Francoise “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti that may have taken his life.
If the life of Joe Gaetjens is emblematic of one kind of American migration story deeply embedded in American culture, the life of Eddy Hamel symbolizes another. The relationship the United States has with the Holocaust runs deep and is far too complex to mention in detail here. But suffice to say the commitment in the United States to remembering the Holocaust has been a national project that extends beyond the national identity of Jewish-Americans alone. Perhaps nothing exemplifies the commitment to a collective American remembrance of the Holocaust than the fact that when an Anti-Semitic gunman opened fire on the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the man he killed was an African-American Security Guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns who gave his life to protect visitors and staff in the museum that day.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, our commitment to treating it with the requisite moral seriousness it deserves often seems to wobble. The Holocaust-denying regime in Iran was permitted to participate in the FIFA 2006 World Cup in Germany had they qualified because, according to FIFA, they “strictly separate sport from politics.” (ha!) The issues of racism in football are too numerous to catalog at this point – and that simply refers to incidents from the past two years. With racist chanting recently directed toward American striker Jozy Altidore in Holland, now is as good a time as there has ever been to remember why stopping racism is bigger than the game. Eddy Hamel reminds us that racial hatred has taken, and continues to take, the lives of decent people, and we should embrace our connections to these victims and hold them close to us. Eddy Hamel was murdered by a political regime intent on denying the human dignity to millions of people who had a right to it.
We cannot erase the enormity of the crime perpetrated against Eddy Hamel, and it appears likely that there are no easy solutions to the problems with race and football in today’s game either. But the American football community can send out some glimmer of hope that people still believe in justice and decency into the darkness by remembering all that we do know about Eddy Hamel. We can remember and celebrate that Eddy Hamel, like all targets of racial violence, was a person with dignity… and we can reaffirm this by honouring that dignity today.
Steven Maloney writes about football and politics. He also holds a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Maryland and is a political science lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. You can follow him on twitter here.