An Olympic medalist and Holocaust survivor, Karoly Karpati epitomized Jewish strength

For Karoly Karpati, there was no such thing as turning the other cheek, even to a Nazi guard.

April 15, 2015 21:36
Olympic medalist and Holocaust survivor Karoly Karpati

Olympic medalist and Holocaust survivor Karoly Karpati. (photo credit: INTERNATIONAL JEWISH SPORTS HALL OF FAME)


Dear Reader,
As you can imagine, more people are reading The Jerusalem Post than ever before. Nevertheless, traditional business models are no longer sustainable and high-quality publications, like ours, are being forced to look for new ways to keep going. Unlike many other news organizations, we have not put up a paywall. We want to keep our journalism open and accessible and be able to keep providing you with news and analyses from the frontlines of Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish World.

As one of our loyal readers, we ask you to be our partner.

For $5 a month you will receive access to the following:

  • A user experience almost completely free of ads
  • Access to our Premium Section
  • Content from the award-winning Jerusalem Report and our monthly magazine to learn Hebrew - Ivrit
  • A brand new ePaper featuring the daily newspaper as it appears in print in Israel

Help us grow and continue telling Israel’s story to the world.

Thank you,

Ronit Hasin-Hochman, CEO, Jerusalem Post Group
Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief

UPGRADE YOUR JPOST EXPERIENCE FOR 5$ PER MONTH Show me later Don't show it again

For Karoly Karpati, there was no such thing as turning the other cheek. The Hungarian wrestling champion never stepped away from a challenge in competition and refused to do so away from the mat as well.

Karpati was born under the name of Karoly Kellner in 1906 before his family chose to change its Jewish surname in what was a common practice in Hungary at the time.

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.

The odds were stacked against Karpati becoming an elite athlete from the start, with his initial introduction to sport coming via a doctor who told his parents that physical activity might help strengthen their short and underweight son. However, he would go on to become one of the world’s best wrestlers before almost losing everything in the Holocaust.

At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Karpati just missed out on a medal in the featherweight Greco- Roman style competition, finishing in fourth place. After advancing through the first three rounds, he suffered his only loss of the event against eventual gold medalist, Voldemar Vali of Estonia. Despite winning a decision in his quarterfinal match with Giacomo Quaglia of Italy, Karpati was eliminated from the tournament due to an accumulation of bad marks.

However, four years later he would scale the Olympic podium, winning the silver medal in the lightweight freestyle competition in Los Angeles. He beat 1928 gold medalist, Osvald Kapp of Estonia, in the second round before ultimately losing a decision to Charles Pacome of France in the final.

His crowning achievement arrived in 1936 at the “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin. He took the gold medal in the lightweight freestyle competition with a win against no other than German titleholder Wolfgang Ehrl. He was one of five Jews to win an individual gold medal at the Berlin Games, to the disgust of the Nazi leaders.

He was rumored to have said before the final in Berlin, “I will come out of this ring the Olympic champion, or I will be carried out dead.”

The 10-time Hungarian national champion and four-time European champion (1927, 1929, 1930, and 1935) went into coaching following his retirement, but everything changed with the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary in the years leading up to the Second World War.

Sandor Slomovits of Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote about his father’s experiences alongside Karpati before the Holocaust and in a labor camp in Poland. According to Slomovits’s story published in Jewish Action magazine, his father first met Karpati in the city of Debrecen, Hungary, in 1937. With groups of anti-Semitic students roving the streets, Slomovits was told not to walk to his hotel from the synagogue after dark, before Karpati intervened.

“I’ll walk him there. He’ll be safe,” said Karpati. As predicted, a half dozen students attacked Karpati and Slomovits.

“While my father stood by and watched,” wrote Slomovits, “Karpati grabbed two [members] of the gang and, in an astonishing display of power and athletic skill, used them as cudgels to beat the others, routing the whole band.”

Their next encounter would arrive five years later in the Munkaszolgalat, the forced labor crews of Jews that were attached to the German-allied Hungarian army. As a national hero, Karpati was initially exempted, but he eventually wound up in a labor crew in Nadvirna, Poland, with Slomovits.

“Karpati asked, ‘How do the Germans treat us here?’ The reply was, ‘As long as you do your work, there’s no problem. But if you slow down too much, they give you a shove with their gun butts.’ Karpati snorted, ‘Let them just try to shove me. The man who touches me is in death’s hands.’” Slomovits and several others begged Karpati not to retaliate, but the Olympic champion insisted he wouldn’t be able to help himself and that, indeed, proved to be the case.

“They were at a small bridge spanning a shallow stream when a German guard, walking along the line of working men, casually nudged Karpati with his gun stock,” wrote Slomovits.

“Karpati whirled around, twisted the rifle out of the soldier’s hands, broke it over his knee, grabbed the astonished man and threw him over the bridge into the stream below.

My father and the other 100 Jews in the work detail immediately began saying the Shema, certain that death was at hand. ‘We were crying. We knew our lives were over.’ “Miraculously, nothing happened.

Perhaps, despite Nazi propaganda about the physical inferiority of Jews, the officer in charge at the scene was impressed with Karpati’s skill and strength. In any case, he decided to summon his commanding officer. That man, paradoxically, chose to order the arrest of the hapless soldier who’d been tossed into the stream by Karpati – for allowing a Jew to do that to him. To maintain discipline though, Karpati was immediately transferred elsewhere.”

Karpati survived the war, returning to Budapest to continue his successful career coaching Hungary’s Olympic wrestlers until 1967. He was also a member of the Hungarian Olympic Committee from 1945 until his death and wrote a number of textbooks on wrestling.

In 1982, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch presented the bronze medal of the Olympic Order to Karpati for his lifelong work with youth in sports education. He passed away in September 1996 at the age of 90.

So many did not survive, however those who did, such as Karpati, left a legacy of strength and inspiration that continues to resonate through generations.

Read more of Allon Sinai's profiles on Jewish athletes who lived and died during the Holocaust

A boxing hero who fought through to the end of the Holocaust

The tragic tale of the Jewish Hungarian fencer

Fallen champions: Story of '28 Dutch women gymnastics team

Tales of Jewish athletic perseverance

Henoch remembered for impact on sports, humanity

Otto Herschmann among great Jewish athlete Nazi victims

Related Content

Isaac Herzog as a baby with his father, Chaim Herz
August 15, 2018
Commemorations mark centenary of Chaim Herzog’s birth