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The Frankfurt fan who survived the Holocaust

January 27, 2021

After Holocaust survivor Helmut Sonneberg returned to his hometown of Frankfurt, he fell in love with Eintracht. Now he helps keep the memory of the Holocaust alive – not only on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Frankfurt Helmut Sonneberg Eintracht Frankfurt Fan und Holocaustüberlebender
Sonny holding the photo of him on his way to the 1959 final in Berlin, a final won by Eintracht. Image: DW/T. Lemmer

Frankfurt fan Sonny is a Holocaust survivor

There aren't many Eintracht Frankfurt fans as well-known as Helmut "Sonny" Sonneberg. He has been going to both home and away games for decades, including the match when the club clinched its only German championship in 1959.

What wasn't known until recently was Sonny's backstory. A story of survival and turmoil, it's as personal as the story of so many who experienced World War II. But most of all, it's about a boy discovering the reality forced upon him in the cruelest of ways, before rebuilding his life in his hometown, with the help of his love for football and his favorite club.

Sonny was born in Frankfurt in 1931. While both his biological parents were Jewish, his mother Ria's partner was brought up Christian, and after they were married, she converted to Christianity and had Sonny baptized into the faith.

Sonny, who was 88 when he spoke with DW in 2020, recalled how a neighbor had told Ria that converting to Christianity would shield both of them from anti-Semitism, a notion that her son now describes as "delusional."

Suddenly Jewish

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, introducing sanctions targeting Jews, everything began to change for Sonny.

"I lost three things at once: My family life changed, as I wasn't allowed to spend time with my father; my religion changed. As I found out I was Jewish; my last name was changed to reflect my religion."

The night of November 9, 1938, also known as the so-called Krystallnacht, was when the then-7-year-old Sonny began to notice that something was wrong. On that night, many synagogues were set on fire, Jewish businesses were looted and Jews were brutally attacked by Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) soldiers and civilians alike.

Sonny, who lived close to the one of Frankfurt's synagogues, remembers that night as if it were yesterday.

"I remember standing there, seeing the synagogue on fire," he said. "I saw the fire brigade and police standing nearby, doing absolutely nothing. Nothing. I turned to my mother and asked why they weren't doing their jobs. She started crying and took me back home."

From 1935, when the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws, Sonny was officially regarded as a Jew. His stepfather, a World War I veteran, was under a lot of pressure to leave Ria because she was Jewish, but he refused.

Encountering the Hitler Jugend

After the Nazis ordered the local Jewish elementary school closed, and by then having to wear the Yellow Star identifying him as a Jew, Sonny was moved to a Jewish children's home. At this point, Jews were no longer allowed to attend school. His mother's application to work in the children's home as a cook was accepted, and the family was reunited, if only for a short period of time.

"I remember walking down the street next to a group of teenagers from the Hitler Jugend (the Nazi youth organization). One of them told the others that they can beat us and spit on us if they want. I heard them singing songs about how they'd spill Jewish blood. These sorts of things happened every day."

Frankfurt Helmut Sonneberg Eintracht Frankfurt Fan und Holocaustüberlebender
Image: DW/T. Lemmer

He was 12-years old in 1943 when his Jewish children's home was evacuated and most of the children were sent to their deaths. However, Sonny's stepfather managed to save his stepson, at least temporarily, by going to the office of the Gestapo (secret state police) and waving his army honors under their noses. Sonny became animated as he recounted his father's speech to DW.

"He shouted at them: 'I gave my body for Germany! You will not take the kid! He will stay in Frankfurt!'"

Sonny was initially allowed to stay in his hometown, but he was no longer allowed to leave his home due to the dangers of walking around wearing a Yellow Star.

"My parents did allow me to go to the cinema once. It was dark, and I had figured out how to partially hide my Yellow Star behind one of the curves on my jacket. However, it was still visible enough for me to have been able to show it to police officers had anyone asked," Sonny said with a grin.

Deportation to Theresienstadt

However, in early 1945, Ria and Sonny received a letter stating that they were set to be deported "for labor service abroad." On February 14, the then-14-year-old was put on a train to an unknown location.

"It lasted about five days," Sonny recalled. "We didn't know where we were going. I was scared."

Their destination was Theresienstadt, a ghetto located in Nazi-occupied Czech territory.

"It was dark, you could hear dogs barking and soldiers whistling," Sonny said of his arrival in Theresienstadt.

He also described the various tasks the forced laborers had to do, and how his mother, who was working in the kitchen, smuggled out potato peels for him so that he would have a little more to eat than the minimal amounts of food the Germans gave the inmates.

"They say time heals all wounds. Let me tell you something, it doesn't," Sonny said.

Frankfurt Helmut Sonneberg Eintracht Frankfurt Fan und Holocaustüberlebender
Image: DW/T. Lemmer

Discovering Eintracht Frankfurt

After surviving the war, Sonny and his mother returned to Frankfurt in 1945. Not long afterwards, the then-teenager, found out through friends that a local football team was looking for new players.

Sonny started playing for Eintracht Frankfurt at youth level, eventually making it all the way to their second team. He also began attending the home games of Eintracht's first team.

In the 1950s, Sonny started traveling to away games as well. His most memorable moment: Eintracht Frankfurt's first and only league title, in 1959. As he was on his way to Berlin for the final against local rivals Kickers Offenbach, a photographer captured a shot of him in his car wearing a black-white shirt on which he'd written the results of every Eintracht win leading up to the final.

The club's last few years have included the lows of brushing with relegation but also the highs of winning the German Cup in 2018 and making it to the semifinals of the Europa League the following season.

Sonny's expressions when speaking about the 2018 Cup final in Berlin and Eintracht's 2018-19 Europa League campaign are as rich as his story-telling: "Eintracht will always be my life," he concluded, adding that he would like to be buried under the halfway line at the club's home ground, the Waldstadion - a notion that brings a broad smile to his face.

Keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive

Sonny now works with Eintracht Frankfurt's museum to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, and tells his story to anybody who wants to listen. He was recently part of a group of Eintracht Frankfurt fans who visited Theresienstadt. This was the first time he had visited the camp since he was held there.

"I immediately remembered so many places, even though it was dark. I had to cry a lot," he said of the visit.

According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel, 155,650 people were sent to the Theresienstadt during the camp's 42 months of operation. About 34,000 people died at the camp, while 87,000 people were sent to different extermination camps. Sonny was one of the lucky few that survived. 

Frankfurt Helmut Sonneberg Eintracht Frankfurt Fan und Holocaustüberlebender
"For a lifetime": A special scarf given to Sonny in honor of his lifelong membership at the club.Image: DW/T. Lemmer

Lifetime club membership

When he returned home from his trip, a surprise was waiting for him. Eintracht Frankfurt President Peter Fischer paid a surprise visit to an event Sonny attended and presented him with a lifetime club membership.

"Now you won't be going anywhere anytime soon," Fischer told him. This too, brought tears to the eyes of this Holocaust survivor, but this time they were tears of joy. During his interview with DW, Sonny proudly wore an Eintracht Frankfurt scarf given exclusively to lifelong members. "For a lifetime, Eintracht!" it read.

Read more: German football fans battle resurgence of Anti-Semitism

Confronting the club's past

Sonny's club membership has a backstory to it. Rudi Gramlich, an Eintracht player, who served as the club's president in the 1950s and 60s, is also known to have been a member of the Totenkopf division of the SS, a division responsible for many war crimes and mass murders of Jews during World War II. To this day, Gramlich remains an honorary president at Eintracht Frankfurt, but in 2018 the club announced plans to investigate his Nazi past.

"As long as this criminal is our honorary president, I couldn't become a member," Sonny said he had promised himself.

On Sunday, one day ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, Eintracht Frankfurt have announced that Gramlich will be stripped of his honorary presidency.

It's a move that will clearly be welcomed by Sonny and many others, but it also comes with German authorities recording a rise in anti-Semitic crime in the country in recent years. Not surprisingly, this disturbing trend hasn't escaped the attention of this Holocaust survivor.

"What I've been hearing from young Jews here recently reminds me of my childhood," Sonny said.

Read more: Anti-Semitism on the rise in Germany

Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 24, 2020.