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How the Nazis treated Jewish athletes

Ruben Kalus / db, kbm
August 5, 2016

Some top athletes were excluded for no apparent reason; others were allowed to compete in Berlin in a fake show of Nazi "tolerance." A new exhibition explores the fate of 17 Jewish athletes during the Nazi period.

Jewish boxer Erich Seelig at the exhibition 'Zwischen Erfolg und Verfolgung. Jüdische Stars im deutschen Sport bis 1933 und danach" at the Deutsches Sport und Olympic Museum, Copyright: DW/H. Mund".
Image: DW/H. Mund

Regular athletes can turn into sports heroes overnight. Take, for example, the German national soccer team, winners of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 2016 German handball team at the European Championships, and tennis player Angelique Kerber after defeating Serena Williams at this year's Australian Open.

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are all about participating - and the glory of winning, too. Altogether, 206 nations are competing in 28 sports, all of them intent on bringing home as many medals as possible.

Religion doesn't play a role in sports today, nor does the color of one's skin. At the Olympic Games in Germany 80 yeas ago, the situation was quite different.

After seizing power in 1933, the Nazis began to systematically persecute and push out Jews - including Jewish athletes. They were excluded from their sports clubs, banned from national teams, titles they had won were taken back and they were prohibited from participating in competitions because they were Jewish. Some were murdered like so many of their fellow Jews.

Tennis player Nelly Neppach at the exhibition 'Zwischen Erfolg und Verfolgung. Jüdische Stars im deutschen Sport bis 1933 und danach
In action: Nelly Neppach, a top German tennis player in the 1920sImage: DW/H. Mund

"Between success and persecution," a month-long exhibition at Cologne's German Sports & Olympia Museum sheds light on the careers, lives and fates of Jewish star athletes up to 1933 and after that fateful year.

Segregated, driven out, murdered

Seventeen life-size Plexiglas sculptures stand right outside the museum on the promenade by the Rhine River, out in the open for everyone to see. Each one of them shows Jewish medalists in action. There's world Chess Champion Emanuel Lasker, bent over a chessboard and pondering his next move, football player Julius Hirsch cheering a goal, and Martha Jacob throwing a discus.

Before Hitler took power, these athletes were big stars in the wake of a "huge boom in sports in the 1920s in Germany," historian Hans Joachim Teichler told DW. In 1914, there were about one million gymnasts in Germany and perhaps 100,000 athletes, he said. "In 1933, there were still a million gymnasts - and six million athletes."

Before the persecution of the Jews, religion never played a role in public sports clubs, Teichler argued. "They were respected, voted on the board and awarded emblems and honors like the Golden Eagle."

But the political and social situation took a drastic turn.

Prof. Dr. Hans Joachim Teichler, Copyright: DW/H. Mund
Prof. Dr. Hans Joachim TeichlerImage: DW/H. Mund

Six of the athletes portrayed in the exhibition were killed by the Nazis, including enormously successful track and field athlete Lilli Henoch, the gymnasts and cousins Alfred and Gustav Felix Flatow and soccer star Julius Hirsch. Nine of the athletes portrayed fled abroad, and some managed to continue their careers in their new homes, like fencer Helene Mayer, who was US Champion eight times between 1934 and 1946 and the first woman to win the world championship in 1937.

Propaganda ahead of the 1936 Olympics

Unlike other Jewish athletes, Mayer was permitted to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where she won a silver medal. On August 4, 1936 - exactly 80 years before the exhibition opened in Cologne - she made the finals in Berlin.

Her participation was meant to show that the Nazi regime was tolerant toward Jewish athletes. The Nazis wanted to appease other countries like the US and avoid a boycott against the Games. However, other Jewish athletes were systematically discriminated against - or weren't allowed to prepare for the Games simply for propaganda reasons.

One of them was Gretel Bergmann. Today, the former track athlete is 102 years old and lives in New York. In 1936, she was cut from the Olympic team shortly beforehand for non-transparent reasons.

sculpture of chessplayer Copyright: DW/H. Mund
Emanuel Lasker is said to have taken a "psychological" approach to chessImage: DW/H. Mund

Showing 'what Germany was capable of'

The Nazi regime did everything it could to come across as a good host, "because Hitler and the leaders and also Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels wanted to show the world what Germany was capable of," explained Teichler.

But the foreign journalists saw through the act. They noticed "that propaganda boxes with the original inscription 'The Jews are our downfall' had been painted over or removed. And they saw that many anti-Semitic signs had disappeared."

For the journalists, it was clear that some of the athletes had been arrested and they continued to report critically about how the Olympic Games were used as a smokescreen. That led to angry letters to the editors since the international audience was seeing a different, not pristine sports event.

Get more information on your phone

Online, visitors to the museum can find additional information about individual athletes, the development of sports in Germany, the perfidious propaganda practiced by the Nazis, and the attempts of Jewish sports clubs to organize themselves.

A QR code is attached to the back side of the sculptures and takes users to a website with background information, pictures and videos on the topic.

In another multimedia feature, visitors are invited to interact live with current German athletes in Rio via a social media tool set up in the museum.

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