Fallen champions: Story of '28 Dutch women gymnastics team

Five of the gymnasts, as well as their coach Gerrit Kleerekoper, were Jewish. Only one of those six survived the Holocaust.

1928 Dutch Gymnastics team 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
1928 Dutch Gymnastics team 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
The 1928 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 Holocaust.
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.
The Netherlands 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 friends.
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 forget.
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.
Estella 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, at Auschwitz.
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.
Their 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 dies.