A Cool Tradition. A Dream of Champions. Legends of Australian Ice.

Organised ice hockey has been played in Australia for over a CENTURY.

In fact, the ice hockey tradition here is so richly steeped in EMINENCE,

The booming years of MARVELLOUS MELBOURNE,

And the earliest EMERGENCE of the sport internationally,

One wonders how on earth its STORY

Was ever able to be LOST for one whole century,

Like DUST between the cracks of history.

Hongkou Shanghai today, still largely unchanged.

[ HOCKEY ] Shanghai Ghetto

Kurt Defris AM (1910 - 1983)

It was sort of a hierarchy of things. If you went to the United States, that was a good thing. If you went to England that was a good thing. If you went to another European country, it was fine, to Holland, to France, all that was good. If you went to New Zealand and to Australia and then to Canada, that was good. There were countries that were considered to be okay. Brazil was okay, Argentina and Uruguay were okay, maybe Chile. There were countries that were considered to be not so okay, Paraguay and Bolivia, because they were considered to be primitive countries in which it was difficult to make a living, where a European wouldn't be happy. Dominican Republic, Panama, certain Central American countries were considered to be semi-desperation countries you went to. And the worst place was Shanghai. —  Michael Blumenthal, who later became USA Secretary of the Treasury under President Jimmy Carter.

THE AUSTRIAN JEW in the tiny concrete room that housed the electric meters sat glistening in his own sweat, labouring for oxygen in the oppressive heat and humidity of another monsoon summer. It was forty-three degrees centigrade and ninety percent humidity. Mould and mildew grew on his food, his clothes, and inside his closets and chests. Electricity was strictly rationed so there was no fan, and the ubiquitous insects and mosquitoes added to his discomfort. When he could no longer take any more he joined the throng of people on the streets, clad still in Mao suits, the drying clothing and small dogs, the tiny specialty shops crammed with everything from homemade niangao, glutinous rice noodles, to chamber pots emblazoned with red "double happiness" characters.

Shanghai. Powerful and decadent, tremendously wealthy and miserably squalid. Today it is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world but a century ago it was the gun-running capital of Asia, a centre for trade in textiles and opium, an open port where law was subordinated to profit. In the late 1930s, its open port status, where no passport or visa were required, turned it into a last resort for European Jews fleeing Nazism. After 1937, it was controlled by Japan, and in 1941 the Japanese rounded up the city's foreign population in prison camps like those depicted in the film, Empire of the Sun.

Kurt and Steffie Defris were among the 20,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe who were required to live in the overcrowded square-mile section of the Tilanqiao neighborhood of Hongkou known as the Shanghai ghetto. They were spared further repression there, but large parts of it had been destroyed by the Japanese in 1937 and the subtropical monsoon climate was almost unbearable for many Europeans.

Officially, it was neither precisely a ghetto nor Jewish, rather a "Designated Area for Stateless Persons," with only refugees required to reside there, but otherwise allowed to move freely. Many lived in group homes called "Heime". By 1941 nearly 20,000 European Jews had found shelter there. Famous Tilanqiao alumni include former US treasury secretary Michael Blumenthal, movie mogul Michael Medavoy and Far Eastern Economic Review founder Eric Halpern; many others have penned memoirs.

Hakoah Vienna football team, 1925 [7]

Born in Vienna, Kurt Defris was an engineer who developed a fanatical interest in sport. He first played outside right at the age of 14 for the juniors of the Vienna Association Football Club alongside Max Gold, who later managed Rapid Vienna on its tour of Australia in 1955. Defris also played with Gold on several thrilling occasions for the world-renowned professional Hakoah Wien in first division soccer. [10] This Club was formed in 1909 and became the most successful and famous Jewish multi-sports club in Europe. "Hakoah" is Hebrew for "the strength" and the club was dedicated to the philosophy of Muscular Judaism.

The Club used sport as a proud beacon in the fight against anti-Semitism as well as a defensive mechanism against anti-Semitic attacks, particularly as these increased in the 1930s. American journalist Franklin Foer has written that Hakoah was "one of the best teams on the planet" at its height in the mid-1920s. [5] Hakoah players decorated their uniforms with Jewish symbols, such as the Star of David, and adopted nicknames of historical Jewish military leaders, such as Bar Kochba. Later, after four years with the highly-ranked Fair Unitas Academic Club, Defris was elected by five hundred clubs to represent them on the Austrian Football Association.

Defris also played table tennis for the Fair Unitas Club in Vienna, home of seven-time world champion Richard Bergman. The former Pritzi-Halle in the 8th district, just a stone's throw from the Votive Church on the Ringstrasse, had been a table tennis salon since the end of the 19th century when men played in tail-coats. Trude Pritzi played there along with a string of successful National League and National Team players, who used the historic rooms for regular training. It survives today along with an assortment of table tennis paraphernalia from all those years ago. However, in this sport, Defris had to play second fiddle to his wife, Steffie, who at one time was ranked third in the world of women players! For two years, he managed the Austrian national amateur soccer and table tennis teams on their tours of France, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. He was nearing the top of the tree as a sports administrator in his homeland. [10]

On 12 March 1938, the German armed forces marched into Austria, and the Austrian population responded to this Anschluss with an orgy of violence against Jews, especially in Vienna. Hakoah Wien was shut down and its facilities confiscated. The football and sports stadium in the Krieau was rented out to the SA-Standarte 90 by the Viennese municipality. [8] In June, the Evian Conference of thirty-two nations ended without taking any action to increase opportunities for Jews to emigrate. No nation welcomed Jewish refugees; anti-Semitism was a worldwide disease. The illusion that Jews could somehow broker an agreement with the Nazi government was destroyed by the end of 1938. German Jews left the country in 1939 at four times the rate of the years prior. The combination of desperation to flee, and the lack of desirable places to go, suddenly made Shanghai an acceptable choice for thousands of Jews in the Third Reich.

As Vienna fell under Nazi control, Defris and Steffie escaped to China by devious means. Japan had occupied the Chinese sections of Shanghai but not the International Settlement or the French Concession. They lived at No 1810 Avenue Joffre (now Middle Huaihai Road), [12] one of the major commercial streets in the French Concession, until the Japanese invaded it in December 1941, soon after they attacked Pearl Harbour. Then they were required to live in the Shanghai gehetto, where a thriving "Little Vienna" soon sprang up, centered around the Broadway Theatre and Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now the Jewish Refugees Museum. They lived a peaceful life recreating some aspects of Viennese culture. Defris was prominent in the Jewish Recreation Club (JRC) and brought the Hakoah ethos to bear on this organisation. [6]

He immediately set about the successful organisation of a special Jewish athletic competition involving 60 football teams and more than 200 table tennis teams in Shanghai, with sections for boxing and swimming. [10] Table tennis was enormously popular there and easy to organise. The Defris were among the several star table tennis players who emerged from the Shanghai Ghetto including George Kapel (Kanzepolsky), captain of the Betar team, who became undefeated champion of Shanghai at age fifteen. [6]

The Shanghai Soccer League's first division featured a number of national teams that were famous in the East — the Russian Sokol, the British East Surreys, the Portugese Luisitano, the French ASF, the Japanese Tung Wen and the Chinese Tung Hwa. Defris played his usual position for the Jewish Recreation Club and was elected president of the International Table Tennis Association of Shanghai, which boasted over 10,000 registered players. He was the only non-Chinese national in the association and his sporting and administrative powers were at their peak. The influential positions he held with the virile sporting sections of Shanghai's population drew the attention of the Japanese Occupational Force. In their eyes, he was little more than a refugee from the western end of the East-West Axis, and promptly stripped of all appointments for the duration of the war. [10]

He and his wife survived the Japanese occupation and as soon as war ended all the clubs of Shanghai Soccer League unanimously appointed him a Selector covering all the league's foreign teams. The Chinese government enticed him with an offer of citizenship to stay and organise all amateur sport in Shanghai, but he was longing to see his family again. [10] In September 1946, the couple made their way to Hong Kong and boarded the ship Yochow to Melbourne, where Defris' parents and sister had emigrated earlier that year. [11] On 27 May 1949, the People's Liberation Army took control of Shanghai. Most foreign firms moved their offices from Shanghai to Hong Kong as part of a foreign divestment due to the Communist victory. Many emigrated all over the world and the city's Jewish population dropped to almost zero.

In Melbourne, Defris instituted a JRC in memory of Shanghai. He won many Victorian table tennis premierships and was instrumental in improving the standard of the game in Australia, a testament to the quality of sport in Shanghai and the impression playing sport had on the members of the community there.

Defris first saw the Melbourne Hakoah Soccer Club play at Preston. Only eight players assembled but Nat Spicer, Hakoah's manager, and thirteen spectators were persuaded to dress and eventually all twenty-two took to the field. The brand of soccer played that day made Defris shake his head with mirth. [10] The club had been founded in 1927 based at Middle Park, and within a decade it was one of the leading sides in the Victorian First Division. It was the first successful non-Anglo migrant backed club in the state, laying the foundation for the dominance of other migrant run clubs after World War II.

Defris is credited with reinventing the Club from the time it was run by Melbourne businessman Jack Skolnik, who was its president in the 1950s, and an early driving force. Defris became club secretary for many decades but characteristically shrugged off the credit, bestowing it instead on stalwarts like Skolnik, Tony Rubinstein and other committee-men. While the club was unable to win a league title post-war, it still managed several victories in the Dockerty Cup, including four consecutive titles in the 1950s. Gradually, the club's supporter base dwindled due to assimilation and lack of renewal from younger supporters, and it eventually merged with South Melbourne's Victorian league reserve side in the early 1980s. Defris was appointed to the Victorian Soccer Council in 1953 and became a State Selector, a member of the League Management Committee, the Disciplinary Committee and Acting Treasurer of the Council.

Defris (left) with Victorian soccer captain, Pat Clark. The Argus newspaper, Melbourne, 27 Nov 1952.

Back in Austria, Hakoah Wien had re-formed in 1945, though its football team was disbanded in 1949. On the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Vienna Hakoah in 1954, Defris sent a message of greeting to Vienna from his new home in Melbourne. The strength of the bond to the "Wiener Original" of the Melbourne Club is evident in his message [roughly translated from the original German]. "Hakoah Sports Club Melbourne welcomes and congratulates the Mother Club and founder of Jewish sports movement for the 45th anniversary of existence. Those members of the local clubs who are sports fans from Europe, domiciled in their newly adopted country Australia, have cause to remember the happy hours provided by the numerous sections of Hakoah Vienna sports club. Hakoah Melbourne had adopted the glorious name of the great founder of the Jewish sports movement in distant Australia and continues its tradition. The Hakoah members in Melbourne celebrate the many Jewish Athletes of your club". [9]

In 1955, he was the first ‘New Australian’ to manage the Victorian Soccer and Australian Soccer (Socceroos) test teams. His association with ice hockey also began that year as manager of the newly formed Arkana IHC based at Melbourne Glaciarium and vice-president of the Victorian Ice Hockey Association (VIHA), later succeeding Bud McEachern as president for seventeen years. Jack Skolnik, Hakoah Soccer Club's president, was also president of the powerful Raiders IHC and their combined presence in the sport that year led to the club becoming Raiders-Hakoah, then merging in 1956 with Arkana, to be known simply as Hakoah by 1957. The club went on to win back-to-back VIHA Championships in 1963 and 1964. They won again in 1971, 1974 and then 1980 for the last time under the captaincy of Eric Theobald whose sons and grandchildren were still active in the sport over three decades later.

In addition to these five VIHA trophies, Hakoah were also National Champions in 1963 and 1974. They were the underdogs in the National against Glebe Lions (NSW) coached by Australia's first Winter Olympian, Ken Kennedy. Glebe had two former Swedish national team players, and players from Switzerland, Finland and Germany. Hakoah had Australian-born Johnnie Thomas, Johnnie O'Brien and Kevin Harris, with Swiss centre, Albert Studer. In 1983, Hakoah merged with the Lions IHC, which had formed four years earlier, to become Hakoah-Lions for one season, then the Rebels IHC for three seasons until they resumed as Hakoah in 1987. When Hakoah became Melbourne Jets in 1995, the club won the VIHA championship in its inaugural season.

Defris ran the Melbourne Hakoah Table Tennis Club and became vice-president of the Victorian Table Tennis Association. He held senior positions in the Victorian Soccer Federation, became an official for the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, and helped organize the nation's first Olympic football (soccer) competition. In fact, his whole week was devoted to sport. Every night he would attend a committee meeting, watch a sporting event or one of his teams in training. He helped several Jewish sporting clubs secure playing fields in Albert Park by becoming a member of the Albert Park Trust, among them Ajax Cricket Club, on the proviso that their name was changed to Hakoah-Ajax CC. His Order of Australia, awarded in 1976 for services to sport, was richly deserved for a man who devoted his life to Maccabi sport and the many organizations that could be of assistance to the wider Ajax-Maccabi movement.

Defris is considered the founding father of the Hakoah movement in Australia although the club preceded him here by several decades. His memory is perpetuated with an annual trophy awarded in his name by Ice Hockey Australia, but also by numerous other sporting clubs including Maccabi Hockey Club, Maccabi Victoria Junior AFL, Maccabi Ajax Cricket Club, Ajax Football Club, and Ajax Junior Football Club. He was awarded Life Membership with Football Federation of Victoria, Ice Hockey Victoria, and Table Tennis Centre of Victoria.

He was made Honourary Life President of the VIHA after his retirement. He was a long-serving member of the Victorian Amateur Soccer Football Association and its successor, the Victorian Soccer Federation; foundation president of Maccabi Basketball Victoria in 1951; holder of senior positions in the Victorian Soccer Federation; and vice-president of the Victorian Table Tennis Association. He was inducted to the Maccabi Victoria Hall of Fame in 2000, and made a Legend in 2011. Today, Maccabi Victoria is the largest Jewish organisation in Australia with 23 clubs and over 4,200 members.

This year marks the diamond jubilee of the beginning of Kurt Defris' involvement in ice hockey here, the year Raiders-Hakoah were born. He hated to sit in judgement and so, of all his duties, he only disliked serving on disciplinary committees. He liked everybody and was enormously popular. [10] His contribution as a builder and administrator of Victorian ice hockey from 1955, including VIHA president between 1962 and 1978, continued for almost three decades up until his death.

These were the years that Victorian ice hockey paid back its Olympic debts and consolidated its participation in international championships. His service was all the more extraordinary given the great diversity of his other sporting commitments and achievements. He died in March 1983 at Balaclava in Melbourne and was interred in the Jewish Memorial Cemetery of Springvale Botanical Cemetery. His wife Stephanie Maria was cremated there in July 1992.

Video (slideshow above): The Jews in Shanghai and Hong Kong - A History
The Bund Shanghai, China, 1930s and the Memorial Plaque at Wayside Park in Shanghai

The arrival of Jewish refugees from Austria in Shanghai, 1938.

Group portrait of members of the S.J.C soccer team which won the Jewish Refugee Committee of Shanghai championship in 1943.

Group portrait of members of the Tikvah ping pong team, Shanghai, c. 1942-6.

A rickshaw driver passes Heime decorated with a victory painting of Allied flags, Shanghai, 1946.


[1] J. R. Ross, Escape to Shanghai: A Jewish Community in China (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 173.

[2] Maccabi (Makkabi) was the name given to the world union set up by the Zionist congress 1922 to coordinate international Jewish sport, and its philosophy was based on Max Nordau's Muskejudentum.

[3] For a definitive history of Hakoah, see J Bunzl, Hoppauf Hakoah, Judischer Sport in Osterreich (Vienna: Junius Verlag, 1987).

[4] A History of the Jews in Shanghai, Steve Hochstadt, The Jewish Community of China.

[5] Foer, Franklin (2004). How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. New York: Harper Collins. pp. 66-68. ISBN 0066212340.

[6] Sport and Jewish identity in the Shanghai Jewish Community 1938-1949, Anthony Hughes, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

[7] Sports under the Star of David, website. Online

[8] The history of SC Hakoah from Vienna, Sports Club Hakoah Wien website. Online

[9] 45 Jahre SC Hakoah Wien 1909-1954, Sportklub Hakoah, Wien : S. C. Hakoah, 1954

[10] Know Your Councillors: Kurt Defris, Morrie Buckner, Soccer News, Aug 27 1955, p 3

[11] Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC. The four images above are also from the Museum's collection.

[12] Jewish Refugees in Shanghai, List of names, addresses and occupations, 1939, p. 37, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC.

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