The untold story of Poland's secret World War II football leagues
Leszek Rylski, 92, leans forward in his chair and with his forefinger traces the names on a list of footballers
It’s stark reading. “Zbikowski, a defender, shot. The Izydorzaks, strikers, both died in the camps. Ostrowski, a striker, died in the Warsaw Uprising,” he notes.
As Poland brace to kick off Euro 2012 on home turf on Friday, there’s an extra edge for Rylski, who remembers how playing football brought hope during the dark days of World War II.
The story of Rylski and hundreds like him who risked arrest or death at Nazi hands to play in secret leagues across the country is little known in Poland, let alone abroad.
“It was an escape from the harsh reality of daily life. It was a way to create an illusion of normality,” the sprightly Rylski told AFP in a study full of trophies.
“It was also an act of protest against the German occupation. It was dangerous, but we felt satisfaction because it showed us that despite the terror, we were still here.”
Polish football was shattered when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and carved up the country in 1939.
In German-occupied territory Jewish footballers were forced along with the rest of their community into ghettos, or perished in death camps set up by the Nazis.