Playing football was a welcome distraction for forced labourers, but not a matter of course. It was even strictly forbidden for Eastern Europeans. And yet the game helped a few to better their lives - like the Dutch forced labourer Bram Appel.
Abraham Leonardus Appel was born in Rotterdam in 1921 and grew up in The Hague. He played for local football clubs as a teenager. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, the young man was arrested in a raid in 1942 and deported to Berlin as a forced labourer.
Like many other forced labourers, he was initially employed in the armaments industry, where he worked on parts made of plastic for aircraft construction. In his scant free time, he played football - a privilege that only a few forced labourers had. People from Poland and the Soviet Union lived in guarded camps where football was strictly forbidden. Only Western Europeans like Bram Appel, who were better off in the eyes of the National Socialists, were sometimes accommodated in private quarters and could play football after work.
Bram Appel's talent did not go unnoticed for long. Hans Sauerwein, coach of the football club Hertha BSC, became aware of the Dutchman. Many clubs had difficulties filling their teams. Because the longer the war lasted, the more German players had to go to the front. So that Hertha could continue to take part in competitions, the club began to include forced labourers in the team. For Bram Appel, this was a stroke of luck that may have saved his life: he was taken out of dangerous factory work, moved into an office and moved into his own room in the Ruhleben district of Berlin. His food rations were also now higher.
For Hertha, the tall man proved to be an asset: Bram Appel was a gifted goal scorer and helped Hertha win the Berlin-Brandenburg regional championship in January 1944. Appel later recalled that there was no racial mania or war enthusiasm at Hertha. He even avoided the Hitler salute at the games with impunity. The sports editors were more careful; instead of using his Jewish-sounding first name "Abraham", the journalists addressed him as "Leo".
After the war, Bram Appel returned to the Netherlands. There he was met with distance. A fate the returnee shared with many other forced labourers. In their homeland, they were often labelled as traitors who had worked for the enemy. Only after two years was he allowed to play in Dutch teams again, and in 1948 he was called up to the Dutch national team. However, when he criticised the leadership for their collaboration with the German occupiers, he was dropped from the national squad. To this day, Bram Appel does not appear in the chronicle of Hertha BSC.
About 26 million people from almost all over Europe had to work for the Nazi state in the German Reich and the occupied territories during the Second World War. Among them were prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates. The largest group was made up of the approximately 8.4 million civilian workers who were deported to the then German Reich: men, women and children from the occupied territories of Europe. In addition to Bram Appel, two other forced labourers are known to have played football for Hertha BSC during the war, Eli de Heer and Nout Bierings.
Forced labour is by no means a long-gone injustice. According to United Nations (UN) estimates, more than 40 million people are still victims of modern forms of slavery today. 29 million of those forced into labour are women and children.
Andrew Forrest, founder of the Walk Free Foundation, which works closely with the UN, says: "The fact that 40 million people are still in modern slavery every day should make us blush. Modern slavery affects children, women and men worldwide. This documents the profound discrimination and inequality in the world, coupled with a shocking tolerance for exploitation. We must stop this. We can all help change this reality - in business, government, civil society and as individuals."