Berlin Olympics fencing Games Jewish Life & Religion Notebook Olympics Sports

When Jews Ruled the Fencing World – Tablet Magazine

When Jews Ruled the Fencing World – Tablet Magazine

On the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the ladies’s fencing medal ceremony witnessed three medal winners with Jewish backgrounds. Ilona Elek, a Hungarian, gained the gold medal. Helene Mayer, a German, gained the silver. And Ellen Muller-Preis, an Austrian, gained bronze. All of them stood collectively atop the medal platform. It ought to be famous that each one three ladies have been half-Jewish and none of them thought-about themselves Jewish. This denial made no distinction to the Nazis, nevertheless, who deemed them to be Jewish. A photograph of the ceremony exhibits Mayer, the silver medal winner, standing on the rostrum and giving the Nazi salute.

Mayer’s weird gesture created consternation and quite a lot of remark. She was born in 1910 to a Jewish father and a Lutheran mom. Though her doctor father was lively in Jewish organizations, Helene and her two brothers have been raised in a secular residence and she or he attended a Christian faculty. Earlier than Hitler’s coming to energy, Mayer had been certainly one of Germany’s most beloved athletes. She gained her first German foil championship in 1924 when she was 13. By 1930, she had gained six German championships. She gained a gold medal in fencing on the age of 17 on the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Representing Germany, she gained 18 bouts and misplaced solely two. Engaging and vivacious, she was a fencing star and Germany’s most dazzling athlete.

Mayer’s father died in 1931 and her mom and brothers remained in Germany. After she competed for Germany within the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics—ending in fifth place—she determined to remain in California as an trade scholar at Scripps School. When Hitler got here to energy, her trade was terminated, as was her membership in her hometown fencing membership. Returning house to Germany appeared unattainable, so she completed her research at Scripps and took a job educating German at Mills School in Oakland, California, the place she might additionally proceed fencing. Nonetheless, she accepted an invite to compete for Germany within the 1936 Berlin Summer time Olympics. This was organized by Avery Brundage, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee. He satisfied Germany to let one German-Jewish athlete onto the German staff to quiet American requires a U.S. boycott of the video games. (In line with German regulation, Mayer was a mischling, a German of combined Jewish and Aryan blood.) Mayer was the one German athlete from a Jewish background to win a medal that yr.

Regardless of profitable a medal, she was not celebrated on her return to Germany. The Nazi authorities barely tolerated her. Joseph Goebbels, the federal government’s minister of propaganda, instructed the German press to not make any feedback relating to Mayer’s non-Aryan ancestry. After the 1936 video games, she by no means competed within the Olympics once more. She returned to america and have become a citizen in 1940. She gained the U.S. ladies’s foil championship six occasions from 1937 to 1946. She was additionally world foil champion in 1937.

Mayer moved again to Germany in 1952 and married an previous pal. She died of breast most cancers in 1953. She was inducted into america Fencing Affiliation Corridor of Fame posthumously in 1963. In 2000, Sports activities Illustrated named her the best fencer of the 20th century.


American Jews usually have heard about Jewish-American athletes similar to Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg in baseball, Sid Luckman and Benny Friedman in soccer, and Benny Leonard and Barney Ross in boxing. However they know virtually nothing concerning the historical past of excellent European Jewish athletes earlier than WWII. Jewish Olympic fencers introduced their house nations fame and worldwide recognition, and introduced honor to themselves and the Jewish individuals.

Younger Jews have all the time seen collaborating in sports activities as a way of integrating and gaining acceptance amongst their non-Jewish friends and inside the bigger society. This held true for Jewish college college students in Germany, Austria, and Hungary in the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Solely there, fencing and dueling with swords turned the Jewish college students’ sports activities of selection. They did so as a result of fencing was thought-about a path to climb the social ladder. As well as, dueling towards non-Jews was a method for Jews to point out their mettle and provided a way to defend Jewish honor, particularly in a time of rising anti-Semitism.

Even Theodor Herzl, the founding father of political Zionism, enthused about fencing. As a journalist, Herzl wrote articles about fencing duels between Jews and French anti-Semites within the late 19th century. Herzl himself as soon as provided to duel a Viennese anti-Semite. He was not bluffing. As a toddler, he had been educated to make use of a sword and fought a duel as a part of his initiation into Albia, a German scholar dueling fraternity. Herzl believed that “a half dozen duels would very a lot increase the social place of Jews.”

Due to widespread anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish college students have been excluded from many college fraternities and athletic associations. Consequently, they created fraternities and sporting golf equipment of their very own. Their dueling often happened inside the confines of the Jewish surroundings. However as soon as they engaged in competitors with non-Jews, they achieved a popularity as fierce duelists. As a consequence of their capacity and competitiveness, numbers of Jewish fencers turned champions of their nations and within the Olympics. Olympic fencing competitors was a way by which younger Jews might categorical their patriotism and love of nation and a method to present the world that Jews might compete with non-Jews on the highest degree and win. In reality, Jewish athletes have gained extra Olympic medals for fencing than for some other sport.

The primary Jewish fencing Olympic medal winner was Siegfried “Fritz” Flesch (1872-1939), who fenced for Austria. He gained a bronze medal within the saber competitors on the 1900 Summer time Olympics in Paris. His was the primary of 35 Olympic fencing medals, 17 of them gold, gained by Jewish fencers from 1900 to 1936.

The subsequent Jewish Olympic medal for fencing was gained by an Englishman, Edgar Seligman (1867-1958). Seligman was born in San Francisco to German mother and father. After his mother and father moved to London, he turned a naturalized British citizen. A gifted artist by career, he competed in 5 Olympic Video games as a member of the British fencing workforce. He was the one man to win the British fencing championship in three fencing divisions: the epee in 1904 and 1906; the foil in 1906 and 1907; and the saber in 1923 and 1924. He first competed within the 1906 Intercalated Video games, held in Athens to resume curiosity within the Olympic Video games. The British workforce gained the silver medal. Seligman competed once more within the 1908 Olympic Video games in London, the place he and his teammates gained the silver medal within the staff epee competitors. 4 years later, Seligman captained the British fencing workforce on the Stockholm Olympics. He competed in three occasions and gained one other silver medal within the workforce epee competitors. Though Seligman competed in 4 extra Olympics—1920, 1924, 1928, and 1932—he by no means gained one other medal.

Hungarians had all the time taken satisfaction in being descended from saber-wielding mounted warriors. For a Jew to develop into a saber champion was to satisfy a fantasy of acceptance. The primary Hungarian Olympic champions have been Jews who excelled in saber fencing, probably the most Hungarian of martial arts. Within the 1908 London Olympic Video games, 4 Hungarian-Jewish fencers—Dezso Foldes, Jeno Fuchs, Oskar Gerde, and Lajos Werkner—gained a gold medal within the staff saber competitors. Fuchs additionally gained a gold medal within the particular person saber competitors. He turned the primary Hungarian Olympic champion in fencing. Along with his gold medals, Fuchs (1882-1955) gained 22 particular person matches within the 1908 and 1912 Olympic Video games.

Edgar Seligman (proper) (Photograph courtesy Wingate Institute for Bodily Schooling and Sports activities Archives)

Within the 1908 Olympics, two French Jews, Alexandre Lippmann and Jean Stern, gained the gold medal for the staff epee competitors. Within the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Foldes, Fuchs, Gerde, and Werkner as soon as extra gained group gold medals for the fencing and staff saber occasions. Fuchs gained a gold medal within the particular person saber competitors and Werkner gained a gold medal within the fencing competitors. Two Belgian Jews, Gaston Salmon and Jacques Ochs, gained gold medals for the fencing and workforce epee competitors. Albert Bogen of Austria gained a silver medal for the fencing and staff saber competitors, Ivan Osiier of Denmark gained a silver medal for the person epee competitors. Otto Herschmann of Austria gained a silver medal for the fencing and group saber competitors.

After WWI, fencing turned virtually an obsession amongst Hungarian Jews. From 1920 to 1936, Hungarian-Jewish fencers gained 11 Olympic medals. The Hungarian-Jewish prominence resulted from a variety of elements. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had suffered defeat within the conflict. As a consequence, Hungary misplaced virtually two-thirds of its territory and greater than half its inhabitants. Earlier than the conflict, the nation’s inhabitants numbered over 18 million. In 1920, the inhabitants of the brand new Hungary numbered eight million. Earlier than the warfare, the Jewish inhabitants numbered 911,227. After the struggle it numbered 473,000. And starting in 1920 violent anti-Semitism erupted in Hungary and it turned the primary nation in Japanese Europe to introduce anti-Jewish laws: a 1920 quota on Jews in universities. This new state of affairs spurred Jews to point out their braveness and show their loyalty and patriotism to the brand new Hungary. Fencing turned their means to take action.

Hungarians related the game of fencing with braveness, virility, masculinity, and honor. Since Jews sought to exemplify these qualities, they took to fencing and dueling with swords with unprecedented zeal. Fencing turned virtually an obsession amongst Hungarian Jews and have become a key a part of their efforts to determine with and be accepted by the nation’s ruling courses. The victories of Jewish fencers within the Olympics offered the Jewish group with satisfaction and served as a way to show its braveness and valor to the Hungarian public. The Hungarian-Jewish press repeatedly articulated the contributions of Jews to Hungary, giving particular consideration to Jewish victories within the Olympics. Hungary’s non-Jewish press additionally famous the Jewish victories and lauded the Jewish champions as representatives of the Magyar virtues of bodily agility and energy. Many Jewish journalists wrote for Hungary’s newspapers, in order that they doubtless have been among the many most vociferous of those that praised the Jews.

Within the 1928 Amsterdam video games, three Hungarian Jews—Janos Garay, Sandor Gombos, and Attila Petschauer—gained gold medals for the workforce saber competitors. Petschauer additionally gained a silver medal for the person saber competitors. Within the 1932 Lake Placid and Los Angeles video games, Petschauer and Endre Kabos of Hungary gained gold medals for the workforce saber competitors. Kabos additionally gained a bronze medal for the person saber competitors. Within the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Kabos gained gold medals for particular person saber and group saber competitions. In these video games, the three feminine fencing medal winners and Kabos, all of whom had Jewish backgrounds, took residence 5 of the eight fencing medals.

Kabos was absolutely acutely aware of the symbolism of competing within the capital of the Third Reich. Earlier than the video games, he wrote an article within the Hungarian-Jewish newspaper Egyenloseg (Equality), during which he stated that Jewish athletes have a psychological handicap. “We’ll go to a spot to show our power and skill the place our Jewish brothers are thought-about one other race, not people created by God, even dangerous, they usually get a remedy in response to this painful notion.” He concluded by saying that the Hungarian-Jewish Olympians “will struggle not just for common Hungarian nationhood and Hungarian delight in Berlin however we, Jewish sportsmen, should and need to present the picture of Jewish energy and advantage.”


5 Hungarian-Jewish Olympic champions didn’t survive the warfare. Lajos Werkner died in Budapest in November 1943 on the age of 60. Oscar Gerde died within the Budapest ghetto in October 1944. Janos Garay, who gained a gold medal within the staff saber within the 1918 Amsterdam Olympics and a silver medal for group saber on the 1924 Olympics, was deported and murdered within the Mauthausen focus camp.

The Hungarian gold medalists Attila Petschauer and Endre Kabos suffered comparable fates. Petschauer was born in Hungary in 1904 and was a fencing prodigy earlier than his teen years. His father named him Attila after Attila the Hun, an intrinsically gentile identify. Within the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, he gained a silver medal within the particular person competitors and a gold medal within the workforce saber occasion, profitable all 20 of his matches. When the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, Petschauer was deported to a labor camp within the Ukrainian city of Davidovka. Throughout a lineup of prisoners, he was acknowledged by a army officer who had been his good friend in Hungary. This didn’t save him. His former good friend instructed the guards to taunt Petschauer. The guards shouted: “You, Olympic fencing medal winner, let’s see in case you can climb timber.” It was midwinter and bitter chilly, however the guards ordered him to undress then climb a tree. The amused guards ordered him to crow like a rooster and sprayed him with chilly water. Coated with ice from the water, Petschauer froze to dying. His life and dying have been dramatized within the 1999 movie Sunshine, starring Ralph Fiennes.

From left: Endre Kabos, Attila Petschauer, Helene Mayer (Pictures: Wikipedia)

Endre Kabos (1906-1944) was born in Hungary. He started fencing as a teenager after he acquired a fencing outfit as a birthday current. By the 1930s he had grow to be one of many world’s biggest fencers. Along with his 4 Olympic gold medals, he gained a number of gold medals as a person and as a part of Hungarian groups in European fencing competitions. Throughout WWII he was interned in a basic labor camp. In June 1944 he was despatched to a labor camp for Jews. He additionally taught some German military officers using saber fencing. He later was transferred to Budapest the place he transported meals and provisions for prisoners within the camps. On Nov. four, 1944, he was on a bridge that German troopers have been getting ready to blow as much as forestall it from being utilized by the advancing Purple Military. He was killed when a munitions truck he was driving exploded because of a pipe bomb. In 1986, he was inducted into the Worldwide Jewish Sports activities Corridor of Fame.

Dezso Foldes (1880-1950) was the one Hungarian-Jewish Olympic champion who survived the warfare. After the 1912 Olympics he left Hungary for the USA. He opened a medical clinic for the poor in Cleveland, Ohio. He died in Cleveland in 1950.

The Hungarian-Jewish fencers liked Hungary. They believed that their victories within the Olympics introduced honor and glory to their homeland. In the long run, their Olympic medals and achievements didn’t save them. They suffered the identical destiny as different Jews.


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