Portraits of Athletes 

Carousel of disciplines

These unique stories could be regarded as a simple collection of individual stories taken from sporting history, but in fact they prove highly indicative of a broader picture.

The disciplines practiced and the selection of clubs provide insight into national sporting cultures, social backgrounds, levels of study, professional careers, and the political activities of these sportsmen and women.

While the vast majority was Jewish, many only became truly aware of their Jewishness when threatened by anti-Semitism and the cruelty of the Nazis. Some were spared for a time, like the boxers of Auschwitz. For others, though, their status as athletes meant they were horrifically tortured. Survivors were rare, and rarer still were those who continued their sporting career after the war. Often, they had to emigrate far from Europe, to America, or to British Mandate Palestine, where they would contribute to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948.

For a long time their story was forgotten, but in the 1980s, it resurfaced. Now, it’s found its place as part of European history.

Gretel Bergmann (1914 - ), athletics

Shortly after Hitler came to power, Gretel Bergmann was excluded from her athletics club. She then emigrated to London, where she won the British high jump in 1934. A few months later she was invited back to Germany, to train for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This gesture was an attempt by the Nazi regime to defuse the Olympic boycott, by projecting the image of a peaceful country that did not discriminate against Jews. As the “Aryan paragraph” had now been implemented, Bergmann was only allowed to join a Jewish sports club: in her case, the Stuttgart club for German-Jewish war veterans (RJF). Despite beating the German record with a high jump of 1.6 meters, she was not selected for the German Olympic team, under the pretext of “unsatisfactory results”. Bergmann’s non-selection – officially due to “injury” – was only made public after the American athletes had boarded their ship to Germany. She emigrated to the United States, where she won the high jump in 1937 and 1938.

Legend of the picture:
Gretel Bergmann breaks the women’s high jump record, reaching 1.6 metres at the sporting championships of the Reichsbundes jüdischer Frontsoldaten (RJF, a sports association for German-Jewish war veterans), held on the Berlin Grünewald sports ground.
Berlin, Germany, July 1936.
© Bildarchiv Pisarek/akg-images.
Victor « Young » Perez (1911-1945), boxing

Born in Tunis, Pererz learned boxing with his brother, and took “Young” as his ring name. He moved to Paris to pursue his boxing career, where he became World Flyweight Champion in October 1931, by knocking out America’s Frankie Genaro in the second round. His final match in Paris on December 7th 1938 was also lost on points. On June 18th 1943, Perez was arrested in his hotel, for neglecting to wear the yellow star. He was interned at Drancy, and then deported to Auschwitz on October 7th 1943. He was selected for labor, and placed in the Auschwitz III Monowitz camp, where he was recognized as an ex-champion. His captors organized a match against a German heavyweight, intended to demonstrate the “Aryan” fighter’s supremacy. When the SS guards saw Perez was winning, the match was brought to a halt and Perez was forced to join the work detachment as punishment. On January 18th 1945 he was sent on a death march, along with thousands of others. Four days later, he was killed by a burst of machinegun fire from a German guard.

Legend of the picture:
Signed portrait of boxer “Young” Perez.
Paris, France, October 29th 1931.
Coll. Musée national du Sport, Paris.
Ilona Elek (1907-1988), Helene Mayer (1910-1953), Ellen Preis (1912-2007), Fencing

According to the Nuremberg laws, the three women on the podium for foil fencing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics were of “mixed-blood” (Mischlinge). One of them, though, attracted everyone’s attention: silver medalist Helene Mayer, who performed the Nazi salute. She was half-Jewish through her father – a well-respected, patriotic doctor – and had enjoyed considerable popularity since her victory at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, aged just 17. It was in California, where she remained to study Law after the Los Angeles Olympics that she discovered she had been barred from her Offenbach club. As the perfect embodiment of everything the Nazis considered “Aryan”, she saw herself as German, and accepted Hitler’s invitation to take part in the Berlin Games. It was her sporting ambition and political naivety, more than the fear of reprisals against her family which ensured her support for the Nazi regime and all those against the Olympic boycott. She pursued her career in the United States, before returning to live in West Germany after the war.

Legend of the picture:
The podium for women’s fencing at the Berlin Olympics. From left to right: Austrian Ellen Preis (bronze), Hungarian Ilona Schacherer-Elek (gold) and German Helene Mayer (silver). © Bettmann / Corbis.
Matthias Sindelar (1903-1939), football

The son of Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrants, Sindelar was nicknamed “The Mozart of Football” and helped build Austria Wien FC into the Wunderteam that would dominate 1930s football. In 1938, Austria’s annexation by the Reich sounded the death knell for Austrian football. The Wunderteam was dissolved, and its best players were invited to join the German Mannschaft team. Using an old knee injury as an excuse, Sindelar refused to play under the Nazi flag. In a final match, organized to celebrate the Anschluss, he scored one of the two winning goals, and danced with joy in front of the Nazi dignitaries’ box. When the match was over, Sindelar was the only player – along with Karl Sesta – who had not performed the Nazi salute. These acts of civil disobedience turned him into a symbol of sporting resistance to Nazism. A few months later, on January 23rd 1939, Matthias Sindelar was found dead in his apartment. On the day of his funeral, over 15,000 people followed Sindelar’s body through the streets of Vienna.

Legend of the picture:
Austrian footballer Matthias Sindelar (on the left) at the match between the Austrian and German teams.
Austria, 1938. © D.R.
Alfred Flatow (1869-1942) and Gustav Felix Flatow (1875-1944), Gymnastics

Alfred, born in Gdansk, was deported from Berlin in October 1942, dying two months later. Gustav was born in Berent, West Prussia, and in 1943 was arrested in the Netherlands, where he had been in hiding. He was interned in the transit camp at Westerbork, before being transferred to Terezín in February 1944. He died there the following December.
In 1896, at the first modern Olympics in Athens, these two specialists in parallel bars and the horizontal bar had significantly contributed to the German gymnastics team’s success. Winning three gold medals and one silver, Alfred was one of the most-decorated athletes of the moment. In 1903 he left the Berliner Turnerschaft club, joining others to form the Judische Turnerschaft: the Jewish gymnastics federation in Germany.
In 1997, the city of Berlin commemorated the cousins, renaming the Reichssportfeldstraße (Reich Sports Complex Street) as Flatowallee (Flatow Boulevard). In addition, the German post office issued a stamp bearing their picture.

Legend of the picture:
Alfred Flatow, at the parallel bars trials, where he won the gold medal.
Athens, Greece, April 6th – 14th 1896.
© akg-images.
Alfred Nakache (1915-1983), Swimming

Nakache was born in Constantine, Algeria in 1915. In the 1930s, he became a figurehead for French swimming. He was French champion several times over, and his sporting ascent continued until summer 1942. Even as Marshal Pétain’s regime brought in anti-Semitic legislation, turning France’s Jews into second-class citizens, it granted “Artem” Nakache permission to represent the Tricolor in swimming. However, this contradiction was not to last. The champion was the target of anti-Semitic attacks in the newspapers, and the Committee for General and Sporting Education (CGEGS) banned him from taking part in the 1943 French championships. He was deported to Auschwitz in January 1944 with his wife Paule, and daughter Annie, who were killed immediately upon arrival. Nakache was placed in the Auschwitz III Monowitz camp, where he continued to swim. Sometimes it was an act of resistance: maintaining human dignity in the face of the unspeakable; other times, it was an act of subservience, at the whim of an SS guard who would force him to swim. The nickname “Swimmer of Auschwitz” may evoke a particularly tragic episode in Nakache’s life, but it cannot erase his records, as well as his participation in the 1936 and 1948 Olympics, making him an exceptional French champion.

Legend of the picture:
Alfred Nakache (left), winner of the 200 metres freestyle swim at the French championships. Tourelles swimming pool, Paris, August 28th 1938. Coll. Musée national du Sport, Paris.
Alojzy “Alex” Ehrlich (1914-1992) table tennis

Born on January 1st 1919 near Komancza, in a village in the Polish Carpathian Mountains, Alex Ehrlich began his table tennis career at Hasmonea Lwów, a sports club created in 1908 that welcomed Jewish athletes. His career was a brilliant one. He won the silver medal on three occasions, at the world championships in Prague (1936), Baden (1937) and Cairo (1939). The Polish champion, who had lived in France since the early 1930s, played matches and competitions that became the stuff of legend. In the fabled Poland-Romania match in Prague, ambidextrous Ehrlich played against Farkas Paneth, a Jewish champion from Cluj, for two and a quarter hours before a single point was scored. It was also in Prague that French champion Michel Haguenauer and his Romanian counterpart Marin Golberger played a deadlocked match for seven and a half hours. After this, the ITTF (International Table Tennis Foundation) decided to alter the rules: the net was lowered, and a time limit was imposed on each set. The war disrupted Ehrlich’s promising career in a number of ways. He was arrested in June 1944 at Bourbon-L’Archambault, while helping a resistance network. He was deported to Auschwitz, then to Dachau. As his parents, who had stayed in Lwow, had been killed, Ehrlich moved permanently to Paris after his release from the camps. He joined the French team and, like Farkas Paneth, his partner in that historic match, became an internationally-renowned trainer. When he died in 1992, he was recognized as the most famous “Polish table tennis player in France”.

Legend of the picture:
Alex Ehrlich (1914 – 1992) Polish table tennis player, he three times won silver in the World Championships in the 1930’s.
Deported in Auschwitz, he settled in France after the war and became a famous coach.
Coll. Musée national du Sport, Paris.

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quizz According to the Nuremberg laws, how were the three women Olympic champions for foil fencing considered?
as “mixed-blood” (Mischlinge)   as “aryans”