Nazi Olympic legacy touches Canadians

Vancouver Holocaust museum details how 1936 Berlin games became propaganda victory for Hitler.

By BY HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
February 17, 2010 22:17
A Berlin street during the 1936 Olympics.

nazi olympics 311. (photo credit: Carl and Liselott Diem Archive)

VANCOUVER – For an eight-year-old girl living in Berlin in 1936, the most enduring Olympic memory of that year’s games was her mother telling her she wouldn’t be able to go on account of her faith.

“It was the first time I was told I couldn’t do something because I was Jewish,” she explained, asking that The Jerusalem Post not print her name in order to protect her privacy.

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“There was a lot of activity and hubbub all around and I was very excited. I told my mother, ‘I want to go,’ and she said, ‘No, we’re Jewish. We can’t go.’ I couldn’t understand it,” said the now 81-year-old Vancouver resident, who was touring the Vancouver Holocaust Education Center this week when the memory surfaced.

“That was the beginning of learning what was going to happen,” she noted.

“That was my first taste of anti-Semitism in Germany.” And in some ways, the Olympic games provided one of the first major tests for the world of how it would react to that challenge – would it send its athletes to an international competition purportedly dedicated to brotherhood and coexistence in a country that had passed the Nuremberg laws stripping Jews of citizenship and basic rights just months ago?

The answer was yes, as the Vancouver Holocaust museum details in its current exhibit, “More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics.” In fact, the display also reveals that Hitler himself – who inherited the games after they were originally awarded to Berlin under the Weimar government in 1931 – initially didn’t want the stage them at all because of the values they were meant to represent.

“The Olympics smacked of internationalism and cooperation, so he didn’t want to participate,” according to Frieda Miller, the museum’s executive director.

She noted that Joseph Goebbles had to convince him of their propaganda value. Once Hitler embraced that argument, though, he became a micromanager of the undertaking, firing officials and designing some of the facilities himself.

But to pull off a propaganda victory, he needed the other countries to show up. Of concern to the International Olympic Committee, according to the exhibit, was the treatment of German Jews. Nazi leaders went to the trouble of taking down anti-Jewish signs and postponing certain planned ethnic cleansings, though the legal code continued to tighten its official discrimination.

To show the IOC that Jews would be included, the Nazis also threatened the family of track and field star Gretel Bergmann – who had moved to Britain to train once German laws barred Jewish participation in sports clubs – if she didn’t come back and compete. Under duress she returned for the German Olympic trials, helping the Americans to decide against boycotting. (The American Olympic Committee official leading the charge to go, Avery Brundage, later moved onto the International Olympic Committee and made the decision to continue the Munich games after the Israeli team was murdered by Palestinian terrorists.)

With US participation assured, the Nazis then declared Bergmann disqualified because of “poor performance.” However in the winter Olympics, also held in Berlin, Jewish hockey star Rudi Ball did succeed in taking the ice for Germany after his non-Jewish teammate said he would sit out the games if Ball was excluded.

Though no nation boycotted, several individual Jewish athletes decided to stay home, and boycott movements were organized by labor unions and Jewish groups around the world.

Some, though, went to Berlin to expose the lie in the Nazis’ racist ideology. And in fact, the 1936 Olympics were later called “the Jesse Owens games” because the African-American athlete won so many medals.

“It must have been a very, very difficult decision for these athletes,” guide Linda Kelly acknowledged, stressing that the museum doesn’t take a position on whether they should have gone to Berlin or not. “They train all their lives. This is their dream,” she said. “To be asked not to participate just cuts off their dream entirely.”

The Holocaust center did, however, want to raise questions about the decision countries made and how this episode affected the rise of Nazi Germany.

“This was a critical moment in the history of the Holocaust, and it came at a critical juncture at the building of the racial state,” Miller said. “It’s a momentous time when you can legitimately ask: What did Canada do? What else could have been done?” In a partial answer, she continued, “This was a missed opportunity . It went beyond a failure to act [to] a willingness to not see, a willingness to be taken in by the Nazi charm offensive.”

The curators also thought it was an appropriate moment to educate the public about the significance of those games and the events leading up to them – and the museum has enjoyed record numbers of visitors and media attention since the opening. One of the notable facts that many visitors have learned is that Nazi Germany introduced the torch relay to the modern Olympics.

“Everyone is sort of shocked by the torch relay,” Miller noted.

One of those surprised to learn of the relay’s origins was Karen James, a local resident who visited the exhibit before carrying the Olympic flame herself.

James, herself Jewish, swam in the Munich games for Canada and left once the Israeli athletes were massacred.

The jolt was then compounded when she found out that the Vancouver Organizing Committee included a clip of the 1936 torch relay in an inspirational video being shown to participants before they carried the torch.

“It was offensive to me,” said James, who called the organizing committee to express her objections. The video was later replaced by a film of highlights from the torch relay as it was making its way across Canada.

“We are retiring the ... video to focus on the highlight videos that show the tremendous excitement generated by the Torch Relay as it has made its way across the country,” VANOC said in a prepared statement quoted by Canada’s Globe and Mail earlier in the month.

“I thought they made the right decision removing it,” Miller said, adding, “I don’t think they had done this intentionally to cause offense.” But she did stress, “It demonstrates what happens if you use controversial material like this out of its historical context.” Miller said including the footage only reinforced the idea that the torch relay originated in Greece rather than in Nazi Germany.

Still, she said she wasn’t opposed to the torch relay in its current incarnation.

“It’s important that we understand our history,” she said, but “I don’t think you can make the one-to-one comparison between the torch relay used for Nazi propaganda and the torch relay in a multicultural and wonderfully diverse Canada.” She concluded, “It’s what you make of it.”


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