Jewish hockey player addresses backlash after signing with team in Auschwitz

Eliezer Sherbatov says he wants to show Jews are "stronger than ever" after signing with a team in Auschwitz, the site of the Nazi concentration camp.
/ Source: TODAY

A Jewish professional ice hockey player says he is trying to make a statement that "Jews are stronger than ever" after getting backlash for signing with a team based in Auschwitz.

Eliezer Sherbatov, 28, has faced criticism for signing a one-year contract with a team in Oswiecim, which is the Polish name for Auschwitz, where nearly a million Jews died in the largest of the Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers in World War II, according to the Auschwitz Museum.

"Never thought I would have to say this: For a #Jew to play for team #Auschwitz is treason, a betrayal of the #Jewish people, and a shameful stab in the back for millions," New York City Rabbi Elchanan Poupko tweeted. "There are lots of hockey teams out there, @Sherbatov1 , find another one."

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"It’s unfortunate that you cannot see the positive in all of this," Sherbatov answered. "I didn’t sign there to be a tourist, but to show the world that Jews are back, stronger than ever! We remember and will never forget the holocost. I’m trying to give hope to us."

Sherbatov, a left wing who has been playing professionally since 2011, told the Israeli publication Yedioth Ahronoth after signing with the team last week that "people here in Poland are happy that a Jew from Israel came to play for Auschwitz."

"I am happy to make this history, and of course want to help not forget the Holocaust," he continued. "I know a lot about the Holocaust, and my family explained it to me. I saw the concentration camps, but of course I will go visit and it will give me extra motivation."

Poupko questioned Sherbatov on Twitter about why he just couldn't have signed with another team. Sherbatov has played for teams in France and Kazakhstan and last year played in Slovakia.

The rabbi added that every goal Sherbatov scores "will bring pride to a town that saw our brothers and sisters go up in smoke day in and day out."

"Yes I had other opportunities," Sherbatov answered. "But if you can’t see that this is bigger than me and you, then I am disappointed. My goal is to lift the cup so people can cheer a Jewish hockey player. That’s what I call, creating a new history for us Jews!"

Officials at the Auschwitz Museum took Sherbatov's side in the debate with Poupko.

"History of #Auschwitz shows us the danger of stereotypes in the perception of others," the organization tweeted. "Sadly, rabbi Poupko showed also his lack of knowledge or, what would be worse, ignoring historical facts. Luckily, @Sherbatov1 understands that better - we hope you will visit the Memorial soon."

Poland's ice hockey player association also sent Sherbatov a welcoming message after he signed.

"Welcome, Eli Sherbatov!" the organization tweeted. "We know how sensitive and symbolic it will be for you to play in Oświęcim, the place so important for your fellow countrymen, for us and for the World. Do get in touch. We will do all for you to feel welcome. And so will everyone in Oświęcim and beyond."

Sherbatov told Yedioth Ahronoth that his parents, who immigrated to Israel from Moscow, were "excited" for him. Sherbatov split his youth between hockey-mad Canada and Israel, where hockey is a minor sport.

"They were very happy and excited for me," Sherbatov said. "I had a great opportunity to play here in Auschwitz, and it is also a great opportunity for them to show how strong the Jewish people are.

"The fact that I play here shows everyone that we are strong and do not forget what we went through in this place. We are of course progressing in life and developing Israel, with hockey being a good example that anyone can connect and meet anywhere, even in a painful place like Auschwitz."