DÜSSELDORF, Germany – You often hear from hockey players how special it is to play for their national team. But for Evan Kaufmann, who skates for Germany, a country where his Jewish grandfather once escaped from a concentration camp to the United States, wearing this particular jersey carries a significance that goes well beyond sport.
While Germany’s participation at the recent four nations tournament in Minsk, Belarus, won’t be reminisced fondly in sporting terms by German hockey fans due to the last-place performance for the team, it will surely be remembered for Kaufmann’s emotional premiere in the “black-red-golden” jersey of the German national team.
Kaufmann is a German-American dual citizen. This wouldn’t be too exotic or uncommon as far as the German national ice hockey team is concerned – if not for his family’s past in the European nation.
The 27-year-old forward came to Germany as a rather unknown player in 2008. He had just finished his business administration studies at the University of Minnesota where he played NCAA hockey when he decided to go to the country of his ancestors.
When he arrived at the camp of DEG Düsseldorf in the summer of 2008, he told a local newspaper:
“I’m looking forward to learning the language and culture. After all, I have German heritage in my family. My grandfather was born in Losnitz and came to the U.S. after World War II. Unfortunately he passed away recently, but I have always wanted to see the country where he grew up.”
The exact circumstances of his family’s past weren’t known until recently. Kaufmann didn’t want to make a big deal out of it and he didn’t feel comfortable talking about it.
It is a story that rests heavy on his shoulders. His grandfather Kurt Kaufmann was deported to a concentration camp by the Nazis during the Hitler regime. Kurt Kaufmann lost his parents and several cousins in the gas chambers where millions of Jews and other ethnic groups were executed. But Kurt was able to escape from the Holocaust and to emigrate to the United States together with his sister.
“It’s not something I was comfortable sharing with most people. But I’ve found that the younger generation here in Germany is open to diversity, and from my experience they’ve all been interested in knowing more about being Jewish, including the holidays and traditions,” Evan Kaufmann told JTA.org.
“Germany is so different today than it was back then. I wish more people could come over here today so they wouldn’t have to carry that stereotype forever,” he added.
“Obviously, I never want to forget what happened, and that’s why I tell my story. But to hold that against a whole nation of people who had nothing to do with it, would not be right.”
Evan Kaufmann doesn’t know all the tragic details of his grandfather’s destiny in Germany’s darkest era. It was a difficult topic for the family and his grandfather didn’t want to talk about it. Kurt Kaufmann moved to Minnesota where the family settled down and where his grandson Evan Kaufmann would play college hockey for the University of Minnesota, winning a Western Collegiate Hockey Association title before getting an offer from Germany.
After having had mixed feelings at first, he applied for German citizenship so he’d be able to play professional hockey in the native country of his grandfather without falling under the import quota.
“I had never thought about coming to Germany at that time,” Kaufmann told German agency DPA before his debut. No one in his family had ever gone back to visit Europe.
“None of my family wanted to go to Germany after what had happened. They had mixed feelings [about me going], but they knew it was my dream to play professional hockey. I took the chance and I haven’t regretted it a single second.”
Kaufmann took on the challenge and signed a contract with DEG Düsseldorf to move to the country where his family was almost wiped out entirely. Düsseldorf is not far away from Cologne, where his grandfather was living before being deported to the camp.
“I was well received and felt very comfortable in Düsseldorf from the beginning,” said the 27-year-old when looking back. “My parents also come over to visit me once a year. They saw that it works well for us here. That put them at ease. We even went together to my grandfather’s hometown. Some elderly people we met even remembered him. It was a very emotional moment.”
Evan has learned the German language during his more than three years in Düsseldorf and he was supposed to stage his national team premiere in November at the Deutschland Cup in Munich, not far from his grandfather’s hometown. An injury prevented him from playing there, but he made his debut in February at a four nations’ tournament in Minsk.
Unlike the time before the ‘30s when the Nazis came to power, Kaufmann is one of only a few Jewish athletes to represent post-war Germany internationally.
“I didn’t have to think much about it. It is huge honour for me,” Kaufmann told DPA about his feelings before his premiere in the German jersey. “I play with a passion and I will give my best for the country. My grandfather would be proud of me.”
His grandfather died in the ‘90s, but Kaufmann has found reconciliation with a different Germany as a national player.
And maybe he will even receive yet another call from national team coach Jakob Kölliker to play at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland and Sweden next spring, and possibly get a chance to show his skills leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
With 18 goals in 46 games in the German league, Kaufmann is currently Düsseldorf’s second-best goal scorer only behind Patrick Reimer, who was his roommate at the recent tournament in Minsk.
Kaufmann plans to move to Nuremberg for the next season, where he will continue his pro career with the Nuremberg Ice Tigers. He and his wife Danielle expect their first child in June.