by Helen Epstein (Lexington, Massachusetts)
When I was growing up in the 1950s, none of my friends’ Dads worked out at a gym, let alone swam laps in a pool. My father did. For nearly two decades between the two world wars, he represented Czechoslovakia in international competitions and two Olympic Games. He also coached and served as a role model for younger Jewish swimmers.
One of three sons of an assimilated Jewish family, Kurt Epstein was born in 1904 in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia. The Epstein boys played at being American cowboys; their parents employed a cook and a nurse, a German tutor and violin teacher.
Sports were an important part of life for Czech children by then– girls and boys, Christians and Jews, children of factory workers as well as children of factory owners learned to swim, skate and row. The Epsteins lived on the Elbe river and, early on, Kurt began to use it.
“Any mood can be improved by a good swim,” my father always said.
But there’s no question that he saw swimming as a response to anti-Semitism. That was one of the reasons he joined his school rowing club, which introduced him to athletic discipline, and its rewards.
Rowing made him an asset to his school and small town and soon Kurt began to think about competitive swimming. He and his friends who swam in the Elbe followed newspaper reports of races in Prague, invested in a stop watch, began to clock their times. Then, they signed up to compete.
According to scholars, Czech Jews, like Jews all over Central Europe, were well-represented among athletes of the 1920s and 1930s. This was largely due to the work of Dr. Max Nordau, who called for a “muscular Judaism” at a Zionist Congress in 1898. Dr. Nordau, a physician and one of Herzl’s earliest supporters, argued that a muscular Jewry had existed in ancient times but over the centuries had been destroyed by ghettoization.
Whether or not Kurt was aware of Nordau’s ideas, he would have been in sympathy with them, and eager to put traditional Jewish stereotypes behind him like most Czech Jews.
In 1924, Kurt took pride in joining the Czechoslovak Army in “It never occurred to me to stay up all night and drink potfuls of coffee like some to try to produce an irregular heartbeat and get a rejection,” he recalled.
He was selected for reserve officers school and posted back to Prague where he played water polo in the Vltava River. Then the Czechoslovak National Swim Club requested that he be furloughed to compete in Barcelona, the first of many competitions he attended from Scandinavia to North Africa.
By the early 1920s water polo was one of the roughest and most popular spectator sports in Europe. It is tempting to ponder the psychology that drew men to such a rough sport. Kurt recalled speculating about it himself whenever his team played against the Hungarians who rarely lost a game.
I once asked why a player was playing so furiously since his team was already winning by two digits. He answered that after the war, each one of Hungary’s neighbors had taken a piece of their land. Therefore it was important at least in sports to score as high as possible.
For my father, the ultimate place to score was at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Whether or not to participate in what would become known as the Nazi Olympics was a hotly debated question throughout the world. The Maccabi ordered all its members to boycott. A Gallup poll indicated 43% of Americans favored boycott and many athletes refused to participate.
Kurt Epstein decided to go. When asked whether he ever regretted his decision to participate, Kurt always said no. He believed sports occupied a higher plane than politics and described the triumph of “the American Negro runner” as he called Jesse Owens, who defied Aryan notions of racial superiority by winning four golds.
Two years later, Hitler annexed what is now the Czech Republic. Kurt was deported to Terezin, then to Auschwitz, then to a small labor camp called Frydlant. There, the prisoners took turns giving lectures to one another on subjects they loved. My father gave one on the Olympic ideal and the importance of amateur sports. He sometimes gave his sports training, along with luck and friendship, as reasons for his surviving Nazism.
When he returned to Prague after the war, he was elected to the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee. When the Communists took over in 1948, he felt that he would not survive a second totalitarian regime and vowed to get out in time “in a swimsuit if necessary.”
He arrived in New York City in the summer of 1948 where, for a decade, he was unable to find steady employment but where he was soon elected Treasurer of The Association of Czechoslovak Sportsmen in Exile in the Western World. Eventually, he was accepted into the ILGWU and became a cutter in a clothing factory in New York’s garment district.
He maintained a correspondence with a network of athletes-in-exile –Jewish and non-Jewish — living in Australia, South America, Israel and Europe, read the sports section of the newspaper every day and never lost his belief in the international brotherhood of sports.
He taught his children how to swim, and I still do.
Helen Epstein is the author of Children of the Holocaust and Where She Came From — the first two volumes of a trilogy about the families of Holocaust survivors — and the biography of Joseph Papp, the American Jewish founder of Free Shakespeare in New York City’s Central Park.
Her website is http://www.helenepstein.com.