Sinai Says: The tragic tale of the Jewish Hungarian fencer

Attila Petschauer was one of many great Jewish European athletes who perished at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

attila petschauer 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
attila petschauer 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Attila Petschauer was nothing short of a national hero in Hungary.
Born in Budapest in December 1904, Petschauer was one of the world’s greatest sabre fencers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Petschauer first rose to national fame at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. The Jewish fencer claimed a silver medal in the individual sabre and a gold medal in the team sabre, winning an amazing 20 of 20 matches in the competition.
He went on to win gold medals at the World Championships in 1930 and 1931 in the team event, as well as individual silver medals at the Worlds in 1926 and 1930, and bronze in 1925, 1929, and 1931.
At the Los Angeles Games in 1932, Petschauer, who was dubbed “the new d’Artagnan”, once more helped the Hungarian team to a gold medal in team sabre, cementing his place, together with his fellow Jewish teammates Janos Garay, Endre Kabos and Sandor Gombos, as an Hungarian sporting great.
In fact, the Hungarian Jewish community included many sporting giants, with Jewish athletes taking home 48 Olympic gold medals between the start of the modern Games in 1896 and 1964, more than double of that of the American Jewish community during the same period.
Even with the limited information available about Petschauer’s family history, it is pretty safe to say that his parents were Hungarian patriots.
Naming their son Attila after Attila the Hun (406-453), who invaded Europe and lived in a region which included the present-day Hungary, suggests that they were proud Hungarians and that they had hoped their son would have a bright future in the country.
That was indeed the case until Hungary under the rule of former Austro-Hungarian admiral Miklos Horthy began passing a series of anti-Jewish measures in emulation of Germany’s Nurnberg Laws in 1938.
As well as the new laws, Jews were also called to serve in “labor service”, although as a celebrated sportsman, Petschauer was accorded a special “document of exemption”.
However, during a routine check in 1943 while he was out walking, he realized he had left some of his identification papers at home and soon after he was deported to a labor camp in the Ukrainian town of Davidovka.
Hungay wasn’t actually occupied by Nazi Germany until March 1944, but it had become increasingly pro-Nazi and Pro-Fascist in the years leading to the Holocaust and its Jews would suffer, although Horthy did resist German pressure to allow the deportation of the Jews to the camps.
After Hungary was occupied in 1944 and the government of Dome Sztojay was installed, Adolf Eichmann quickly set up his staff and proceeded rapidly in rounding up the Jews. Thanks to the enthusiastic help of the Hungarian authorities it took less than eight weeks to deport 437,402 of Hungary’s Jews, with almost all of them being sent to Auschwitz.
Petschauer was already murdered by then.
At Davidovka, Petschauer, who had worked as a journalist after his retirement, recognized a friend from the past, Hungarian military officer, Kálmán Cseh, who had represented Hungary in the 1928 Olympics in the equestrian competitions.
According to Olympic champion wrestler Karoly Karpati, who witnessed the event, Petschauer called out to Cseh, who immediately turned to one of the camp guards and told him to “make things hot for the Jew.” Karpati, who defeated the German champion to win a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Games, never forgot Petschauer’s horrendous death.

“The guards shouted: ‘You, Olympic fencing medal winner . . . let’s seehow you can climb trees.’” Karpati recalled. “It was midwinter andbitter cold, but they ordered him to undress, then climb a tree. Theamused guards ordered him to crow like a rooster, and sprayed him withwater. Frozen from the water, he died shortly after.” Petschauer wasmurdered on January 20, 1943. He wasn’t the only Jew fromthe triumphant Hungarian sabre teams of 1928 and 1932 who perished inthe Holocaust.
Garay was killed at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, withKabos dying on November 4, 1944, the day before his 38th birthdaywhen an explosives truck he was driving for the Hungarianunderground exploded and sank into the Danube River.