Israeli ice hockey captain defends joining Auschwitz home town team

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Israel's ice hockey team captain has joined a club in the town where Nazi Germany's most notorious death camp was located, but he says he will be "playing for the Holocaust victims". 

Eliezer Sherbatov has drawn criticism and even been accused of "treason" after signing on with a Polish team in Oswiecim, where the Nazi occupiers built the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

"There are Jews who are unhappy that I have signed with Oswiecim," the 28-year-old told AFP from the town in southern Poland.

"I tell them, what happened 80 years ago will never be forgotten. That's why, 80 years later, I want to show young people that they should be proud of their heritage and that now anything is possible." 

Operated by the Nazis until 1945, Auschwitz was part of a vast network of death and concentration camps across Europe set up as part of Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" of genocide targeting an estimated 10 million European Jews.

This year marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, where the Nazis killed more than 1.1 million people.

"Being a key player to win the championship, particularly in this town, it's like playing for the Holocaust victims at the same time," Sherbatov said. 

"A Jew has come back and is going to win for you."

- 'Treason' -

Born to a Russian family in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv, Sherbatov grew up in Montreal, Canada. 

His father, a fan of the Montreal Canadiens -- the club with the most titles to its name in North America's National Hockey League (NHL) -- encouraged him to take to the ice. 

Fast and strong, Sherbatov stood out. He played junior ice hockey in Montreal, and some of his teammates have moved into the ranks of the NHL.

Pursuing his dream of making a living as an ice hockey player, Sherbatov has played in Europe and Kazakhstan.

A friend told him about the Polish premier league and the Oswiecim club.

Israeli media jumped on the news of Sherbatov's signing.

Some Israelis have been taken aback by the decision, and one prominent rabbi accused him on Twitter of "treason, a betrayal of the #Jewish people".

The official account of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum responded by saying that the "history of #Auschwitz shows us the danger of stereotypes in the perception of others... Luckily, @Sherbatov1 understands that better".

Warsaw has long been at pains to point out that Poland, which was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, could not have and did not collaborate in the Holocaust, although individual Poles may have done so.

- 'Never lost hope' -

"The Holocaust is something unimaginable, but now, we have a country behind us that protects us -- Israel," Sherbatov said.

"We Jews have never lost hope," despite anti-Semitism, he added.

Sherbatov dreams of seeing ice hockey take off in his home country.

Israel ranks 34th in the world for men's ice hockey, and counts 700 players who gravitate to three indoor ice-hockey rinks it hosts under the blazing Middle Eastern sun. 

The country of around nine million counts more than a million nationals from the former Soviet Union and thousands from North America who are a potential source of interest in the sport and of reinforcements for the Israeli national team.

Sherbatov hopes to one day see Israel have a franchise in an international competition such as Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

In the past decade, the KHL has expanded to include a club from China, and there has been talk of a possible franchise in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE this week became just the third Arab country to announce a normalisation of ties with Israel.

"I want to finish my career in Israel," said Sherbatov, who admits he would have to brush up on his Hebrew.

"I want to play in my country, for my country, from the start to the finish."


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