The 27-year-old Jewish-American, who moved to Germany in 2008 to pursue his professional aspirations, will be the first Jewish male athlete to play in the Olympics under the German flag since the end of World War II.
A native of Minnesota, Kaufmann played hockey as a forward for the state university’s hockey team, where he was a Western Collegiate Hockey Association scholar-athlete pick for all four years (2004 to 2008) of his college term. When he did not get subsequently drafted by the National Hockey League, the talented player decided to seek his fortune elsewhere, and wound up accepting an invitation from the Dusseldorf Metro Stars – one of Germany’s most successful professional hockey teams. Kaufmann plans to play with the national team in May’s world championships, and he is likely to be a member of the German squad that will compete in the 2014 Olympics in Russia.
Kaufmann is well aware of the emotional turbulence generated by the fact that he – as a Jew and descendant of Holocaust victims – is bringing world-stage glory to the very same country that persecuted his family and his people. And he has wrestled with those weighty emotions himself. “A lot of the time, I was thinking whether my grandpa would be happy about this, or sad or mad,” he commented. “The more I thought about it, I know he had plans to come back to Germany before he died. He wasn’t able to, but that helped me get over those initial fears. I feel more pride with the association of feeling German than I ever thought I’d have.”
Evan Kaufmann was speaking about his grandfather Kurt, who languished in ghettos and concentration camps under Nazi rule, somehow managing to survive until he was liberated. Gaining his freedom, Kurt Kaufmann found his surviving sister in a Berlin hospital, and he had to push her to safety in a wheelbarrow because her left leg had been amputated due to frostbite. Ultimately settling in the United States, the survivor was forced to cope with nightmares and various manifestations of psychological trauma in the ensuing years, yet – according to his son, and Evan’s father, Farley – he did not hold a grudge against the next generation of Germans as a whole. Prior to his passing in 1990, Kurt Kaufmann had planned to pay a return visit to his hometown of Wittlich for the first time since being uprooted from there in 1939.
During his first few years as a member of the Dusseldorf Metro Stars, Evan felt too uncomfortable to reveal his Jewish heritage or his personal Holocaust connections to his teammates. But recently that has changed. “I’ve found that the younger generation here in Germany is open to differences,” he mused, “and from my experience they’ve all been interested in knowing more about being Jewish, including the holidays and traditions.”
In addition to his own feelings, of course, Kaufmann had to consider those of his parents when he became a citizen of Germany and a key player on the country’s national team. “My parents were a little unsure initially just because of everything that happened in Germany,” he admitted, “but they knew it was my lifelong goal to be a professional hockey player and I had committed so much time to it.” Kaufmann is well aware that a significant number of American Jews would be critical of one of their own deciding to relocate to the birthplace of Nazism. “Germany is so different today than it was back then,” he insisted. “I wish more people could come over here so they wouldn’t have to carry that stereotype forever.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Kaufmann elaborated on his perspective regarding how he reconciles the monstrous crimes of Germany’s past with its civilized present. “Obviously, you never want to forget,” Kaufmann said. “But everybody deserves a second chance and a right to rectify their mistakes. Most people today had nothing to do with it. I’m not going to hold it against a whole country for what happened long ago. You’re never going to move forward if you keep doing that.”
Evan and his wife Danielle, who is expecting their first child in June, find it both challenging and rewarding to practice religious Jewish rituals in the seemingly forbidding environment of Germany. “The first year we were in Dusseldorf, we went to a small Orthodox synagogue. We had a tough experience,” he related. “We were taking photos from the outside, and we were questioned and had to show our passports because there was an incident there a few years prior. That spoiled it for us.” And near their apartment, someone spray-painted a swastika on an electrical box. “It makes us a little hesitant when we decorate for Chanukah,” Danielle Kaufmann told the New York Times. “But it doesn’t stop us. We feel very comfortable here. We’re not hiding who we are. We are very proud where we came from. We’ve been embraced. Germany’s a different place now.”
Indeed, the Kaufmanns remain committed to observing holiday-related mitzvot in the same fashion as they did back in the United States. Evan does not play professional hockey on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, while Danielle bakes Chanukah cookies for the Metro Stars’ holiday party and pastries to share with the team members on Purim.
Kaufmann’s adoption of German citizenship and prominence as a national sports figure has generated a range of responses from Jewish leaders with ties to that part of the world. “This is something to be glad about and rejoice,” Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, opined to the Times. “It shows that Jews in Germany are not strange and something to be wondered at,” he said, “but that they are normal citizens, wanting to take part in all of society.”
On the other hand, Menachem Z. Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, expresses decidedly mixed emotions on the topic. “I think everyone has to make his own decisions in this respect,” he told the New York Times. “It is clear that hockey is the most important priority. Just like there are Israelis or other Jews who have settled in Germany out of economic or career convenience, he is doing the same. I do not presume to judge him.” Yet Rosensaft also said he felt “a certain degree of sadness” for Kaufmann. “He has effectively turned his back on the United States and has willingly taken on citizenship to identify henceforth as a German. That, in terms of his family history, is at best a somber reality. There is a question in my mind whether a Jew should voluntarily go to Germany and take on that role.”
In any case, Evan Kaufmann is clearly not harboring second thoughts about his new personal and prosessional affiliation. “From a hockey standpoint, I’ve committed myself to Germany,” he declares matter-of-factly. “It’s something I’m proud about.”