Evan Kaufmann is different than most hockey players, especially in Germany where he plays professional hockey.
The Plymouth, Minn., native had many family members killed in the Holocaust. Now he plays for the German national team.
He believes he is following in his grandfather’s footsteps, moving on from Germany’s past and trying to pass on a lesson of tolerance between Jews and Germans.
“I’ve always known the history of my family and, in particular, the experiences that my grandfather went through when he was younger,” Kaufmann said. “There was really no way I could have known how much it would effect my life later down the road.”
Kaufmann told his story at a program titled, “Reclaiming Heritage: A Question of Allegiance,” Tuesday at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
The high school hockey star went on to play for the University of Minnesota hockey team. “I was the only Jewish player on my hockey teams growing up,” he recalled.
He thought his hockey career was over after graduation. Then he received a call from his agent, who told him that a team from Dusseldorf, Germany, the DEG Metro Stars, was interested in him.
After a few days of deliberation with his family and wife-to-be Danielle, Kaufmann decided to pursue his lifelong dream of playing professional hockey — in the land where the Holocaust began.
Kaufmann’s grandfather, who miraculously survived the shoa, moving between ghettos and work camps in Germany during World War II, proved a big reason for going. He had planned a trip back to Germany before he died, to show he was ready to leave the past behind.
“To me and the rest of my family this meant that after all these years my grandfather had seemed to grow the courage to move forward,” Kaufmann said. “The more we discussed it, the more we realized that it wouldn’t be right for us to continue hanging on to some of these stereotypes.”
Still, moving to Dusseldorf, a city he knew little about and where almost nobody spoke English, made Kaufmann nervous. Plus, Danielle remained in the United States planning their wedding as Kaufmann tried to decide if moving to Germany permanently would be the right move.
Coming to the conclusion that he wanted to stay in Germany, Kaufmann married Danielle. The couple started life together in Dusseldorf.
“It wasn’t until a few months ago that I even realized how controversial the issue may be to some people and the strong connection that many people feel when hearing about my decision,” Kaufmann said.
This year the German national team asked Kaufmann to play for Germany during the international hockey championships. Kaufmann had eligibility to play because he had become a duel citizen of both the United States and Germany.
But he found himself hesitant to play for a country that had murdered so much of his family. Playing for a team in Germany was one thing, but representing the entire country would be another.
Once again, citing his grandfather’s readiness to move on from the past and realizing how much Germany has changed since the Holocaust, he decided to play.
Kaufmann became the first Jewish player for a German national team in any sport since the rise of the Nazis. In that role, he tries to spread a message of tolerance.
He is not sure if he has one specific message, but he wants people to know that Germany is different now. While no one should forget the past, he said Germans of today should not be punished for what past generations did.
Kaufmann and Danielle are expecting their first child, a son, in June. Since he has opened up about his religion, he said his teammates ask him many questions about his Jewish heritage.
Kaufmann recently signed a three-year contract to play with the Nuremberg Ice Tigers this season. He and Danielle have become good friends with his teammates.
“They do seem to be very educated about the events of the Holocaust and the reality of the situation,” he said. “It’s important that we’ve realized that my German friends and I today really find the only difference among ourselves is that we grew up in different countries.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.)