For over 50 years, the fate of almost half of the Dutch ladies’ gymnastics team,
which won the Olympic title in Amsterdam in 1928, was unknown.
Games were the first in which women participated in gymnastics events, and the
all-around competition was dominated by the hosts.
The 12-woman Dutch
team became local heroes after recording a score of 316.75 points to beat out
Italy and Great Britain for first place, one of just six golds won at the Games
by the Netherlands.
Five of the gymnasts, as well as their coach Gerrit
Kleerekoper, were Jewish.
Only one of those six survived the
Kleerekoper made a living as a diamond cutter, but his true
passion was gymnastics.
He painstakingly put together a gold-medal
winning team that competed in Drill, Apparatus, and Jumps, with medals only
being awarded for all-around team performance.
It was known that
Kleerekoper died at Sobibor on July 2, 1943, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s
that the fortunes of Estella Agsteribbe, Helena Nordheim, Anna Polak, Elka de
Levie, and Judikje Simons were finally established.
Olympic Committee found no trace of them – despite many years of searching – due
to the fact that the Nazis, who kept very systematic records, did not bother to
include the maiden names of their female victims.
The gymnasts had all
likely married after 1928, and without their maiden names, it seemed to be
almost impossible to track them down.
However, thanks to one relentless
Dutch engineer, Fred A. Lobatto, who as a schoolboy saw the 1928 Games, the
fates of the five Jewish members of the women’s 1928 Dutch gymnastics team were
finally brought to light.
The Dutch Society for Jewish Genealogy tracked
down the maiden names of many thousands of married Jewish women and it quickly
became apparent that four of the five gymnasts, as well as their coach, were
murdered in German concentration camps.
Judikje Simons, later Judikje
Themans- Simons, born August 20, 1904, died March 3, 1943, at Sobibor, together
with her husband, Bernard, their five-year-old daughter Sonja, and their
three-year-old son Leon.
Simons, who ran an orphanage with her husband in
the city of Utrecht that housed 83 children, had apparently been warned that the
Nazis were heading her way, and was offered a hiding place by Dutch
However, Simons had no intention of forsaking her orphans,
sealing her fate, and that of almost all of the children.
It is believed
that Jewish gymnasts were many times the first to be rounded up by the Nazis as
their excellence in what the Germans considered the purest of sports dispelled
their belief in the supremacy of the Aryan race.
Four months after
Simons’s death, Helena Nordheim, later Helena Kloot- Nordheim, born August 1,
1903, was gassed on July 2, 1943, at Sobibor, together with her husband,
Abraham, and their 10-year-old daughter Rebecca.
On the exact same day at
the exact same place, Kleerekoper, born February 15, 1897, also died together
with his wife, Kaatje, and their 14-year-old daughter Elisabeth. His 18-year-old
son Leendert died at Auschwitz on July 31, 1944.
The life stories of the
gymnasts are largely unknown, but their tragic end is one we mustn’t
Anna Polak, later Anna Dresden- Polak, born November 24, 1906,
died July 23, 1943, at Sobibor, together with her six-year-old daughter, Eva.
Her husband, Barend, died at Auschwitz on November 30, 1944.
Agsterribe, later Estella Blits- Agsterribe, born April 6, 1909, died on
September 17, 1943 at Auschwitz, together with her six-yearold daughter Nanny
and two-yearold son Alfred. Her husband, Samuel Blits, died on April 28, 1944,
The only Jewish gymnast of the triumphant Amsterdam team to
survive the horrors of the Holocaust was Elka de Levie, whose story of survival
remains untold. She died on December 12, 1979.
For over five decades, the
fates of Simons, Nordheim, Polak and Agsterribe remained a mystery.
death at the hands of the Nazis may be irreparable, but at least they are no
longer forgotten. Now it is our responsibility to ensure that their memory, and
that of all those who perished in the Holocaust, never