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The Nazi Olympics: Jewish Athletes


Lambert: My name is Margaret Lambert. I was born Gretel Bergmann in a very small town in the south of Germany. I loved everything that had to do with physical activity,and I was good at it. There was this little club in that town, and you could go as often as you wanted, in the afternoon or in the evening, whoever was ready there. The older people helped the younger people how to do certain things, and, it was great. Due to my love for sports, most of my friends were not Jewish, and that was never, never, never a problem until a certain time in my life. Social institutions are not established in a back room. The Olympic Games, as majestic as they are. are part and parcel of systems that they are helping to create. The Nazi Olympics was just one stepping stone torward the legitimization of the Nazi regime. On it, it was one more step toward the Holocaust. By 1935, Jews were excluded from all German sport associations. They were able to establish their own sport associations but German sport clubs, gymnastics clubs excluded them.

Lambert: In the spring of 1933, it was just around my birthday, and it was not a very nice birthday present, I got a letter from my sports club. “you are no longer welcome here, because you’re Jewish. Heil Hitler,” and that was the end of that. There was no Jewish sports, per se, in the town. We tried to straighten out an old potato acre that somebody had given us, and we ran there and I started a field handball. But after a while everybody got tired of this, you know, the same people every day, it was horrible.

Eisen: The Germans established an Olympic training camp in Ettlingen.They invited Jewish athletes. None of them were selected to the German team. The two athletes who were selected to the German team were half Jewish Rudi Ball was perhaps the best hockey players in Germany. and the famous fencer Helene Mayer, beautiful, tall, statuesque blonde woman, who exemplified the “Aryan” ideal of female beauty. The reason that these two Jewish, half Jewish, athletes were selected was because of the extraordinary American pressure to include at least one Jewish athlete. Indeed we find that Gretel Bergmann, who was from Jewish ancestry, fully, was robbed from the German team in spite of her very high level of performance. My candidacy, for, for, as an Olympic athlete was really all a sham. It was just something that the Germans did to fool the whole world. Jewish American response from the street level was staunchly against participation in the Olympic Games,When the participation was decided. Many Jewish athletes were influenced by community leaders by rabbis, not to participate in the Olympic Games. Some of them responded to this pressure, some of them decided to go.

Green: I’d been always thinking and wanting to be in the Olympics. In 1936, in the Harvard-Yale track meet, Norman Cahners and myself had won six gold medals between us, and there was quite a bit of publicity about whether we were going to the Olympics, whether we could qualify. I went to Temple Israel in Boston, and Rabbi Levy had seen the publicity, and I had great respect for Rabbi Levy, because, prior to our meeting with him, although I had heard about the problems in Germany, and what was going on ,I didn’t really have a detailed understanding of the problems there and that meeting was really a shocker to both Cahners and myself .I don’t remember all the gory details that they went into. Something about book burning, and taking away the rights of Jews. All those details were pretty repulsive to us. After we boycotted the Olympics, no one came to speak to us or ask us if we’d make any statements about it. And, I don’t think that anyone knew particularly that we did boycott it because there was no publicity about it one way or the other. The time of the Olympic Games, I was working at a summer camp, as a counselor. I was thinking about how it would’ve been to be running in those events And I had a longing to have been in it. But as I look back on it, I don’t remember having any terrible regrets for having made that decision. Never a second thought on it.

Glickman: We were aware of the fact that there was antisemitism in Germany, we just didn’t know what Nazism was. Remember, this is from the perspective of two years before Kristallnacht. The Holocaust was not only not a thought, it didn’t exist in our imagination, in our dreams. I was on the team. It was a goal I had sought. “Holocaust” was a word that I didn’t even know in 1936. The 400-meter relay was selected beforehand. Sam Stoller would start, I was to run the second leg, Foy Draper run the third leg, and Frank Wykoff run the anchor leg. The morning of the day we were supposed to run in the trial meets, we were called into a meeting, the 7 sprinters were, along with Dean Cromwell, the assistant head track coach, and Lawson Robertson, the head track coach, and Robinson announced to the 7 of us, that he had heard very strong rumors, that the Germans were saving their best sprinters, hiding them, to upset the American team in the 400-meter relay, and consequently, Sam and I were to be replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe.We were shocked, Sam was completely stunned, he didn’t say a word in the meeting. Watching the final, all sorts of emotions flashed through my being. Frustration, certainly. Anger, certainly. I look out on the track and I see Metcalfe passing runners down the backstretch he ran the second leg. And, that should be me out there, that should be me, that’s me out there. Antisemitism was the basic reason, I believe, that Sam and I didn’t get to run in the Olympic Games. Here were the great black athletes, who couldn’t be kept off the winning podium, they were maulers. But here were two rather obscure Jewish American athletes, who could be kept from the winning podium, so as not to further embarrass Adolf Hitler. But what happened to me was as nothing compared to that which took place later on, there’s just no comparison. I was there, and that mattered. What took place was much, much, more important afterwards.

Eisen: Hitler attended the finals of the wrestling competition, between a German champion and a Hungarian champion. The Hungarian champion happened to be Jewish. Karoly Karpati beat the German champion decidedly. He was hailed as a national hero in Hungary, yet during the Holocaust he was hauled to the Ukraine in a labor, forced-labor company, which the Hungarians established. Very, very close to the famous Hungarian fencer Attila Petschauer, he was an Olympic champion who died in the Holocaust. In order to kill a human being, you have to dehumanize first. To create an image which is not human anymore. So you have no compunction, or you have no issue to kill or eliminate. The Olympic Games was a stepping stone of this exclusion, and, obviously, the 1936 Games provided the legitimacy to the Nazi regime, which led later toward the Final Solution.

German Jewish athlete Margaret Lambert, Dr. George Eisen, and American Jewish athletes Milton Green and Marty Glickman reflect on the dilemmas facing Jewish athletes and their experience during the 1936 Olympics.