Teaching The Holocaust Using Sports

Teaching The Holocaust Using Sports


While teaching the subject of the Holocaust
must revolve around the historical narrative, we should teach the Holocaust
as a human story, as well. Who were the 6 million victims? If we can
bring the Holocaust down from that unfathomable number, to the story of a single individual,
and another, and another, and give them back their faces, and their names, then we create
empathy, which allows students to understand, that the Holocaust happened to real people. Discussing sports is a great way to do this.
Before WW2, Jews were very involved in sports, as professional athletes, as amateurs, and
as spectators. Just as athletes are cultural heroes today, they were back then, too. Even
people who don’t watch every game, or follow local sports, will still be aware of international
championships, and star athletes. Using sports, makes the point, that the Holocaust
happened in the modern world, a world where there were sports teams stars and cheering
crowds. Sports, bridge the gulf, between the Holocaust as history, and the Holocaust
as a human story. At their purest, sports are supposed to transcend
politics and race, to represent a universal brotherhood of man. The Olympics were created,
to foster goodwill among nations. The Olympic flag, five interlocking rings, represents
this ideal, untainted by divergent political beliefs.The people of the world
are connected just as the rings are connected,
in the spirit of peace. In 1936, the Olympics took place in Berlin.
Hitler had come to power three years earlier. He had already transformed Germany, taking
total control, and setting up the first concentration camps. Jews had been thrown out of certain
professions, their businesses boycotted, and their citizenship, taken away. Germany was
already rearming, planning and preparing, for a future war. But for two weeks that summer,
the Nazi regime manipulated the Olympics in a cynical but dazzling show, to sell a different
image of Nazi Germany to the international community. And to convince the world that
Germany was a proud, and peaceful country. Margareta Gretel Bergmann, was an outstanding
German athlete whose focus was the high jump. At 16, she broke the German record. Two years
later Hitler and the Nazis came to power, and her athletic career was devastated, just
because she was Jewish. It started in 1933, really. But I had very
good friends, of whom I knew that they were members of the Nazi party, since 1928, and,
she was one of my best friends. She didn’t care that I was Jewish, and I didn’t care
that she was a Nazi. She was one of my sports friends, and we got along very well. But then
of course in 1933 everything changed. Like, over night. You were not allowed in any public
place anymore. And the people that you knew, wouldn’t talk to you anymore. Not because
they hated us all of a sudden but, they were all afraid because that was the
way it was. You’ll talk to a Jew and you’ll be punished. In the spring of 1933, I had
belonged to this sports club since I started to go to school. And had won
many medals for them. And when they… In 1933 I got a letter: “You are no longer
welcome here because you’re Jewish. Sincerely yours,” and that was it. That was the end of
my sports career in Germany. Nazi ideology saw history as a racial struggle
between the Germans, the master-race, and the Jews, who they condemned as sub-human,
a kind of anti-race, that threaten not only the German race, but all of humanity.
The Nazis believed that the world’s fate rested upon the outcome of the struggle, against
the Jews. Their first policies inside Germany aimed at marginalising and segregating Jews.
They shut Jews out of certain careers, they chase Jews out of public places, like beaches
and parks, later they strip Jews of their citizenship. The Nazis used violence and economic
pressure to force Jews to leave Germany. Gretel Bergmann was only 18 when she felt
these abrupt changes. The Nazis threw her out of her sports association, together with
thousands of other Jewish athletes. My parents and I decided that I should go
to England and see if I could find a school there. And they had a track and field
club in the school and when I was shown around in the school, they took me down to the gym, they were practicing high jumping – I mean of all things, that was my specialty – and
my eyes started to bug out and the principal said to me, “would you like to do this?”
and I said I would love it. So they found an old gym suit for me and I had to jump barefoot,
nobody could fit my big feet. And that was the first time I had done this in so long,
and I… it was just, it was heavenly. And I don’t think I ever jumped that
well because I was just so relieved, that I was into this again. She became the British
high jump champion, in 1934. My father had come to watch me, I thought.
When we got to the hotel, he told me that the Germans had approached him,
that I had to come back to Germany to be on the German Olympic team. And I said – why should I go
back? I don’t want to go back. And my father said, look, I don’t force
you into anything, but we were threatened. The family, still living in Germany of course,
we were threatened that, if you don’t come back, you have to – you know the consequences,
they can’t guarantee what’s going to happen – so of course I went back. Meanwhile, Germany was preparing to host the
1936 Olympic Games. The world was aware of the mistreatment of Jews in Germany, and many
countries threatened to boycott the Games. Under intense international pressure, Germany
guaranteed that its Jews will be permitted to participate in the Olympics. In an elaborate
fraud, to forestall the boycott, the Nazis pretended that Gretel Bergmann would compete
even though she was Jewish. Gretel was intimidated, and forced to return to Germany and train
for the Olympics. Though she was not even allowed to train in the same stadium as the
non-Jewish athletes. Gretel was outraged, she was driven to show what a Jewish athlete
could accomplish. She tied the German high jump record, one month before the opening
ceremony of the Olympics. But it didn’t matter how brilliant she was. As soon as the
boycott proposal in the US was voted down, and the US Olympic team boarded the ship for
Germany, the Nazis unceremoniously kicked Gretel off the German team. Two weeks later
they expunged her records from the record books, as though she had never existed.
Every night I was thinking, what would happen to me if I do compete, and, do I have to stand
up on that podium and say “Heil Hitler” like all the others? It was a terrible
time for me, I mean psychologic[ally] it was very very rough on me. So when the whole thing
was over, in a way I was, very upset, in another way I was, enormously relieved. All of a sudden,
I didn’t have to worry anymore about these things. Gretel could have won the gold medal for Germany.
The winning jump was the same height Gretel had jumped a month earlier. But it didn’t
matter. As a Jew in Germany Gretel was humiliated, and ostracized. With no future in Germany,
Gretel immigrated to the United States. She won the US championship in 1937 and ‘38.
She married, and raised a family. I just packed my gear to go to another championship,
and a word came over the radio that the war had started in Europe. And I said there are
more important things in this world than high jumping and I quit right then and there. I
didn’t go. And that was the end of my career. Gretel’s story shows the effect, of the
Nazis racist laws, on one Jewish teenager in Germany. Many other German Jews who suffered
from the same racist policies, were either forced to leave Germany, or managed to leave,
in the years before WW2. The story of Gretel Bergmann also raises many questions. What
is the power of ideology, and racism? What was the attitude of the Germans towards the
suffering of their Jewish neighbours? We could focus for instance, on Bergmann’s fellow
German athletes, how did they treat her? Why did nations take part in the 1936 Olympics
even though they were held by a dictatorship, abusive to its citizens? What were the consequences
of the indifference of the world’s nations towards injustice?

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