A return participant in the Maccabiah...59 years later

77-year-old Joe Wohlfarth will represent Israel in tennis after his teenage trips as a soccer player for Great Britain.

By MEL BEZALEL
June 25, 2009 07:14

 
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Sitting in his elegantly-decorated Rehavia apartment with his wife Dinah, Joe Wohlfarth is affably modest for someone who has represented Great Britain in the Maccabiah games - a quality that is magnified ten-fold when you discover that he played on the British soccer team twice, in 1950 and 1957, and that he is preparing to represent Israel in the tennis masters this year, at the age of 77, having made aliya from the UK nine years ago. "I think to myself it's quite good to have represented Great Britain twice," admits Wohlfarth reluctantly, "but what I'm more proud of is being able to represent Israel. That makes me more proud now - having a shirt with Israel on the back." Despite his admirable humility, Wohlfarth concedes that he was talented at all ball games from a young age, and distinctly recalls playing soccer with older children when he arrived in England from Frankfurt on the Kindertransport, aged seven. He was sent to a children's collection camp near Ipswich, England, alone, without his mother and two brothers who perished in the Holocaust. His father, who was in the book business, in London at the time, was forced to stay - told that he'd never survive if he returned to Germany. Upon moving in with his father and stepmother in their Kilburn, London, home, Wohlfarth began to take soccer more seriously and joined a team called Primrose in Hampstead, primarily comprised of boys from Europe with a similar background. After a few years on the team, he was scouted by a coach on the 1950 Maccabiah committee. After a few trials, he was selected to represent the British team at the third Maccabiah, the first to take place in the State of Israel, when Wohlfarth was only 18. Despite being the youngest member of the team, Wohlfarth says he wasn't nervous. "I was elated… Playing soccer, you enjoy it and do it. It comes naturally because I was always a natural soccer player." This was to be Wohlfarth's first trip to Israel, and despite his current fervent Zionist beliefs, as an 18 year old he hadn't given Israel much thought - he says the idea of travelling there "didn't pull me particularly." He and his teammates stayed in an army camp called Mahane Yona in the northern part of Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Street, which was "all sand in those days." "The country was in desperate straits," Wohlfarth remembers solemnly, recollecting the sight of impoverished locals pleading with the camp-dwellers for food while he and his Maccabiah peers dined on extra rations to keep them in top form. "It was tragic," Wohlfarth laments. Surprisingly, not a tremendous amount of training went on in Israel - fortuitously for Wohlfarth, who played what was then called "inside right" and "midfield" today, as he never enjoyed training. He remembers his teammates practicing on the sand against some Israeli boys. "They beat us because they were much more adept at playing barefoot than we were," Wohlfarth regales with a grin. "We had soccer boots or trainers on and we slipped all over the place." Although looking at Wohlfarth today, his pride in the Israeli state's first Maccabiah tournament is unmistakable, his younger self didn't completely absorb the importance and magnitude of the 1950 Games. "I was aware of the newly established state," says Wohlfarth, but he felt the significance of the event crescendo during the opening ceremony, when he realized he was in the presence of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and other politicians. "I think I could relate," says Wohlfarth, "but I was just a kid in a sports tournament." Just after meeting Dinah, his future bride, at a Jewish summer camp in 1956, he applied and was selected to represent Great Britain as a soccer player again in the 1957 Maccabiah, aged 25. This time, the team took the silver, and the Maccabiah felt like a very different place. The boys stayed in tents in Ramat Gan, where the games are currently held. "It was more organized and they were very efficiently run and made strong attempts to give it a regal treatment," Wohlfarth recalls fondly. Wohlfarth's second Maccabiah was to be his last as a soccer player, though he continued to play in local clubs for about 10 years. He and Dinah married in 1958 and raised three children - Caron, now 49, Michael, 47, and Adrian, 43 - who all live in Israel. They also have 10 grandchildren, ranging from eldest Nava, 23, to Matan, aged seven, and a six-month-old great-granddaughter, Tamar. Wohlfarth didn't start playing tennis regularly until he turned 55, and since retiring from a successful architectural career in London, it was to become his main sport. On moving to Israel, he met "a few very competitive Americans who were meshuga about tennis," and he joined the Merkaz Tennis (tennis center) in Jerusalem, playing singles there three times a week for two hours. Applying to represent Israel in this year's Maccabiah wasn't Wohlfarth's idea, the 77-year-old maintains. It was his youngest son's, Adrian. "Adrian thinks I am much better than I really am, which is very nice of him," says Wohlfarth, smiling. After obtaining the required medical insurance and taking part in a competition, Wohlfarth gained a place on the team, despite suffering from tennis elbow recently, and is due to play in the 75-80 category of the tennis masters this July, alongside four other Israeli hopefuls. Despite Wohlfarth downplaying his achievements and regarding himself as an "average player," his children are consumed with pride and admiration for their remarkable father. Adrian tells The Jerusalem Post that he feels "tremendously humbled and proud at the same time." Humbled? "Because at 77, my father is probably fitter than me… but the feeling of pride running through our whole family is about more than just sport… Having been separated from his mother and two brothers… and to have grown into a fine teenager and been selected to play for the British soccer team was a massive achievement in itself… To now be playing in the Maccabiah once again is fantastic." Since receiving the thumbs-up for this year's Maccabiah, Wohlfarth has kept his training constant, still playing three times a week. "That's all I need," says Wohlfarth, seeming totally unfazed by the challenge until he lets on how embarrassed he gets when family members watch him play. He recalls an early childhood memory of his stepmother cheering him on during an important soccer match, until a ball smacked him in the face, by which point she had scurried onto the pitch to ensure he hadn't incurred any major injury. Wohlfarth's energy and spirit simply don't match his years, and he is already joking (though unconvincingly so) about competing in the next Maccabiah, when he's 80. "When my friend and I walk off the court, we say to each other, 'Baruch Hashem, we're able to do this,'" says Wohlfarth. "But what will we do when we get old?!"

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