Sinai says: Otto Herschmann among great Jewish athlete Nazi victims

A two-time Olympic medalist, Hershmann was a proud Austrian who during the Holocaust was murdered at the Sobibor Concentration Camp in Poland.

April 30, 2014 01:05
3 minute read.
Otto Herschmann

Otto Herschmann. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Otto Herschmann was a proud Austrian.

A two-time Olympic medalist who went on to become the president of the Austrian Olympic Committee, Herschmann was a national hero.

But like millions of other Jews in the dark days of the Holocaust, Herschmann was betrayed by his homeland.

Born in Vienna on January 4, 1877, Herschmann won his first Olympic medal as a swimmer at the 1896 Athens Games, the first Olympics of the modern era.

He claimed a silver medal after finishing in second place in the men’s 100-meter freestyle event. In 1896, all the swimming events were held in the open sea, with Herschmann and the other swimmers competing in the Bay of Piraeus.

The start line was marked by two buoys, with a red flag at the shore acting as the finish line. He clocked a time of 1:22.8 minutes, finishing a mere 0.6 seconds behind Hungarian Jew Alfred Hajos, and was welcomed by a large crowd on his return to Vienna.

Herschmann’s love for sport went far beyond competing.

In 1904 he wrote the book “Winer Sport” and he was named as the president of the Austrian Olympic Committee in 1912.

Herschmann served as president until 1914 and was then president of the Austrian Swimming Federation from 1914 to 1932.

After taking part in the individual sabre fencing event in the 1906 Olympics, he won his second medal at the age of 35 in the 1912 Stockholm Games, taking a silver once more, this time as part of the Austrian sabre team.

Herschmann remains one of the few athletes to have won medals in more than one sport at the Olympics, and is the only known sportsman to have claimed a medal while also serving as the president of his national Olympic committee.

Widely regarded as one of Europe’s top authorities in sport at the time, he visited the US in 1913, examining the country’s sports system in Boston, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago. His visit was well documented in the local press, including in the Boston Globe and New York Times, with Herschmann lauding the US for its sporting prowess.

“We used to have the idea in Europe that if a man was a natural athlete it wasn’t necessary for the trainer to devote much attention to him and that the only men who needed any amount of coaching were men who had only the appearance of athletes and no skill whatever,” he was quoted as saying in the Clinton County Times on December 19, 1913.

“But we have learned, through bitter experience, in the last two Olympic meets, that we were wrong, and that the American system of training every athlete all the time was the only right way.”

Herschmann went on to promise that the 1916 Games would be a different story, with the Clinton County Times claiming he had offered to double the salaries of several of the American coaches he had met during his visit in order to lure them to Austria.

Herschmann, who was also a doctor of law, was 61-years-old when Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938.

It is unclear how close Herschmann was to Judaism, but many Holocaust victims, including Austrians, didn’t even consider themselves Jewish. They thought they were completely assimilated in their countries and believed their Jewish ancestry had lost all significance. That may have been true at certain times in history, but the Second World War changed all of that.

The fact they were born to Jewish parents may not have meant anything to them, but it ultimately led to their death, often in unimaginable cruelty.

Despite once being an Austrian hero, Herschmann was not spared. He was arrested in Vienna in 1942 and was deported to the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. Herschmann was murdered in June 1942, most likely being gassed to death.

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