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Chess a game of resistance in the Holocaust

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Did you know that Holocaust victims used wooden clubs, newspapers, toothpaste tube caps, and bread to create chess sets during World War II?

This was revealed by Dr Rachel Perry on 15 May in a webinar titled “Checkmate: Making, Playing and Picturing Chess in the Holocaust”.

Perry, who has a PhD in art history from Harvard University and teaches in the Rights Ignite Graduate Programme in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa, was the webinar’s guest speaker.

Organised by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in partnership with Ghetto Fighters House and the Jewish Historical Institute, it was the first webinar in the series, “Crafting Heritage – A Homage to David Friedmann.”

“A game of war, chess was made, played, and pictured in a time of war by individuals in hiding or in captivity in the ghettos and behind barbed wire in the camps across Nazi-occupied Europe,” said Perry. “Instead of throwing the game and giving up, they invented. With do-it-yourself techniques and tools sourced out of found materials and throwaways, they made chess pieces carved out of wood, folded out of paper, etched into tin, and moulded out of bread. They also took up a pen and ink and drew chess games, both real and imagined.”

Zigmund Stern, who carved a chess set out of wood while hiding with his family in a bunker in Slovakia in 1944, noted that chess was a reminder of cultural continuity, said Perry.

“By playing chess, victims could recreate a sense of relative normality and stability,” said Perry. “They could exercise control over their fate and preserve something of their past world even as it was being destroyed. Like other practices of maintaining social, cultural, and educational life under oppression, chess was a form of resistance. It wasn’t just a popular pastime for people in hiding. We find it, surprisingly, in the ghettos, transit camps, concentration camps, and yes, even extermination camps. Photographs document the educational and social function of chess.”

A photograph taken in Warsaw during the spring of 1940 shows two Jewish refugee boys playing chess at a Jewish welfare organisation which was established shortly after the city came under German control. Another photo, taken in Amsterdam in early 1943, shows Jewish children playing chess at an extracurricular youth care centre which was set up by the Jewish Council in Tilanusstraat.

“Many more scenes such as these occurred but owning and operating a camera was a rare commodity and often a punishable offence,” said Perry. “Drawings and paintings made by the victims fill this gap – like a watercolour made by Leo Yeni in 1944 in the Bellinzona camp. It shows that chess offered a place separate from the everyday, an ideal arena where the contest was civilised and played according to agreed-upon rules.”

Found near the Allach-Karsfeld concentration camp, a chessboard was carved on the underside of a small bowl, suggesting that the game was played with small leftovers or even pebbles, said Perry.

“The board is hidden underneath the bowl, speaking to the risk of owning and playing chess. In some cases, the selection of the material was more motivated. Elhanan Ejbuszye created a chess set in Auschwitz Birkenau out of wood, but not any wood. He was a carver of miniatures and was transported to the extermination camp in the summer of 1944. He was placed in block 20, whose leader was well known for beating the inmates with a wooden club. One day, Ejbuszye offered to carve him a chess set from the club, hoping he would appease him. However, before finishing the task, he was transferred to a labour camp where he and his fellow prisoners made use of this set. As he testified, he transformed a tool of punishment into a tool of peace, which allowed his fellow Jews a rare chance to forget their difficult circumstances for a while.

“One of the most innovative chess sets was fashioned by Hermann Rautenberg in KL Buchenwald. It is made out of cardboard and old newspapers. On the inside of the box is a newspaper clipping of a chess problem solved by a German chess master, suggesting that Rautenberg was passionate about both the theory and playing of chess beyond the confines of the camp.

“Other examples testify to innovation and ingenuity. Lieutenant Marian Boglowski and other prisoners made chess pieces out of the blue and black caps of toothpaste tubes.”

Robert Bregulla, a prisoner of two camps, crafted chess pieces that resemble solid stone statues, but are actually made from dough, water, salt, and flour. “Bregulla isn’t alone in turning bread and dough into the shape of chess pieces,” said Perry. “In the camps, we found an enormous variety of chess either being quite literally food for thought or requiring the exchange of food for mental nourishment. Strictly rationed, bread held enormous value. Yet, inmates were willing to forego their hunger to play chess. A prisoner of Bergen Belsen recounts that he sacrificed five whole days of his bread ration for a set of chess, but his gambit paid dividends because he and some of his fellow prisoners concentrated on the game so intensely, they forgot about their hunger.”

When Edgar Toussaint van Hove was imprisoned in Siegburg prison in Germany, he created an innovative chess set that allowed players in solitary confinement to play together. “Each individual square on his handmade paper board opened and closed, allowing the chess figures to be slotted into it so that they won’t slide off,” said Perry. “Every day, a person responsible for the bread delivery would move the chessboard from one cell to another, allowing prisoners separated in different cells to play together.”

Chess was also used as a cover for resistance networks, said Perry. Joop Wetserweel, a Dutch resistance group, had a dummy chessboard with a hole which they used to smuggle documents for members of Zionist youth groups.

“Survivor testimonies describe clandestine resistance meetings held under the pretext of chess competitions,” said Perry. “Prisoners could gather around the players and exchange information or hold private conversations without arousing the suspicions of the SS [Schutzstaffel].

“What we found is that chess also fostered divisions, cliques, and hierarchies among the prisoners. Jewish inmates were too tired, hungry, or sick to play games. It was mostly the non-Jewish privileged [inmates] who had access to materials and the time for leisure activities.”

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