(Vienna 1919 – Vienna 2015): Forced labour in the “Kanada Kommando”
The club secretary of the Austria Wien football club in a concentration camp
Norbert Lopper was raised in a Jewish family in Rauscherstraße in Vienna’s 20th District. During his childhood and adolescence he spent his free time with football-loving friends in the nearby Augarten. And that was important, because the family, with its four sons and two daughters, lived in cramped conditions in a one-bedroom apartment. Father Leo, an invalid since the First World War, traded in watercolours and etchings, which he sold while travelling in the countryside; mother Regine worked as a furrier during the season and sewed bed linen at home. As in many other Jewish families, his mother, who came from Galicia, was devout: “We were devout, but not religious.”
Norbert Lopper was a mediocre student, only excelling in sports lessons. As a teenager he joined the football section of the Jewish all-round sports club Hakoah and played there in midfield as a “halfback”. The Hakoah football team was famous, having once been Austrian champion. In 1934 he began an apprenticeship as a plumber. His taskmaster, an antisemite, bullied him. Lopper was unable to stand it for long and retrained in fountain pen repairs.
Following the assumption of power by the Nazis, his mother sent him on the run as the eldest son. In June 1938, he crossed the Belgian border illegally, without papers. His siblings and parents followed him to Belgium; his mother’s siblings had also already fled there. In Brussels, Lopper was able to play for the Jewish football clubs Étoile Bruxelles and later Maccabi Bruxelles and earn a little money. He fell in love with a Jewish woman two years his junior, Rebecca Cige, who had fled with her parents from Berlin to Belgium.
In May 1940, the German Wehrmacht invaded neutral Belgium. Norbert Lopper fled to Revel in southern France with the family of his future wife. He was interned in Saint-Cyprien near the Spanish border. In late July 1940, he escaped from the camp. For reasons that are difficult to understand, his partner’s parents wanted to return to Brussels from the unoccupied part of southern France. Lopper went with them and was reunited there with his family, with the exception of his father, who had been interned in the South of France. In October 1940, he married Rebecca. In 1942, the couple was ordered to report for “labour duty”. His parents-in-law wanted the couple to take their younger daughter Sonja with them as well, so that the sisters would remain together.
In August 1942, the three were deported to Auschwitz concentration camp in passenger carriages. Norbert Lopper ended up in a civil engineering squad with a brutal Polish foreman who meted out beatings to his underlings. After a few weeks, Norbert Lopper’s strength had run out and he came close to ending his life at the electric fence. At that moment he met a Unterkapo from the “Kanada Kommando”, a Rom from Vienna, and approached him: “’Can you do anything to help me?’ [...] ‘Where are you from?’ I say: ‘From Vienna.’ He says, ‘Come stand in there, in my place.’” “Kanada” was the room for personal effects, where prisoners worked in shifts sorting the property stolen from the arrivals for further use. Norbert Lopper’s job was to open suitcases and sort the contents, or to unload the luggage of the arriving deportees at the ramp and then load it onto trucks. In the wagons, however, lay severely injured people, dead bodies and trampled children. The ramp was the place where doctors – Josef Mengele is particularly infamous – decided in a matter of seconds who was fit to perform forced labour and who was not. Lopper and others tried to save human lives. It was risky. They whispered to older people that they should lie about their age during the selection in order to be chosen for forced labour. It was especially bad for mothers with young children or babies. If the mothers refused to be separated from them, they were murdered with their children.
Norbert Lopper witnessed a scene that was unparalleled in drama. He had just enlisted in the Kartoffelkommando (“potato squad”) when he caught wind that his brother and mother were among the deportees on a newly arriving train. He panicked because it was obvious to him that given her age his mother would be murdered. He talked his Viennese friend from the Kanada Kommando, Hans Schor, who had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, into trying to save her. Schor took a trembling Norbert Lopper aside to calm him down. He managed to intervene to save the life of Lopper’s mother. After the selection, an SS guard, Richard Böck, escorted Lopper's mother to join those who would not be gassed immediately. Regine Lopper survived.
Lopper’s first wife Rebecca was murdered in the gas chamber in October 1942. His sister-in-law Sonja, his parents-in-law, his father Leo Lopper and his sister Klara were also murdered at Auschwitz. Norbert Lopper started a new family in Vienna. For almost thirty years, from 1956 to 1983, Norbert Lopper left his mark as club secretary of the Austria Wien football club. Only a few people there were aware of his previous tragic and dramatic fate.
Literature and sources
Norbert Lopper, Interview 37.062. Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation. Transcript Freie Universität Berlin 2012: http://transcripts.vha.fu-berlin.de/interviews/695?locale=de&page=5&year_of_birth_from=1919&year_of_birth_to=1919 (23.11.2021).
Johann Skocek, Mister Austria. Das Leben des Klubsekretärs Norbert Lopper – Fußballer, KZ-Häftling, Weltbürger, Vienna 2014.
Life story of Norbert Lopper: https://www.nationalfonds.org/norbert-lopper.html (23.11.2021).