By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)
I didn’t think I had remembered. Or perhaps it was something I had wished to forget over the many years since it had happened.
But then the sight of the five interlocked Olympic circles, the flag-bearing gymnasts marching into the crowded spectator-filled stadium, the familiar melody of the Olympic hymn sounding through the television screen brought back a long-forgotten memory best not remembered.
In the summer of 1936, Berlin experienced an uncommon heat wave not usually felt in this temperate European zone. Earlier that late spring, as an eight-year old, I had suffered a heat stroke while playing in the school yard. As a consequence I was forced to spend the many days until summer vacation at home, dizzy and nauseous, lying on the bed in my darkened, spinning room, with a wet cloth covering my head.
Like everyone else in the city I hoped to be well again by the time August came around.
Then the much-awaited Olympic Games were to start in Berlin. The capital city was looking forward to become the site of a world event.
I had the fervent wish to be a part of it. To walk through the avenues flagged so splendidly with the banners of the Olympiad and Germany, its host country. To be in the crowd welcoming the many top sports champions from all over the world. To see them perform, perhaps. To witness their receiving the medals for which they had all struggled so hard.
How I would manage to achieve my dream I did not yet know. Nothing in the real Germany of the day favored the daydreams of a small Jewish child.
And yet…hadn’t I heard of things loosening up in the anti-Jewish world around me? Even from the hushed sound of voices in my parents’ living room rumors reached me that most of the fashionable restaurants in town were starting to remove the signs in their front windows, signs that spelled out Jews Not Welcome. “Even Dobrin and Kempinsky are among them,” I heard them mention two of Berlin’s top cafes. Many friends of my parents looked for every possible sign that the icy spirit of Hitler’s Germany was thawing before the eyes of the world.
Not many days later the sob-filled telephone call of my father’s secretary informed us that he had been arrested right within his office and that we had better not expect him home that evening because she assumed that he was taken right to prison. She had no idea what the charges were.
It took my mother several days of frantic investigating to discover that the charges were “bicycle theft” and were brought by an unknown party.
This type of “denunciation” had become a standard procedure in our day. Anyone with a grudge was using it to get “even” for an unknown slight. Especially if it was against a Jew.
However, it seemed particularly ridiculous in the case of my father. Even I knew that he hardly needed to stoop to such a crime. While we still lived in Hannover, prior to moving to Berlin, he had been a successful businessman driven by a chauffeur; my mother, a fashionable, artistic lady whose household had included a cook, cleaning maid, and a laundress. Why then, bother with such a lowly accusation?
A clue emerged a few days later when my mother received a letter from the police. She opened it with shaking hands, only to drop it with an outcry of horror.
“You are hereby informed to report immediately to the Olympiastadion in Grunewald where you are required to help in the construction of the “Reichssportfeld” by doing Feld-Arbeit clearing the grounds for the upcoming Olympic Games.
“This action is required in reparation for the charges incurred by your husband’s prison sentence and subsequent costs borne by the German government.
I, of course, had not the slightest idea what all this meant. All I knew was that at last we, my mother and I, would be traveling to the site of my dreams, the Olympic Stadium in the Grunewald. And I was overjoyed!
Every morning of that summer of 1936 my mother and I boarded the U-Bahn (subway) at our stop in Charlottenburg and rode to the end of the line in the Grunewald Forest. Since no one was at home in our family, my mother was forced to take me along every day of her work. Each day she carried a sandwich for me and a bottle of water, plus a sunhat and appropriate clothing for me to wear during the heat spell. After all, I had already experienced one sunstroke.
This area was to be the future home of Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics. It had been designated long before, in 1912, by the International Olympic Committee.
The First World War had prevented any games from taking place. In 1933 when the Nazis came to power, the party decided to make the most of the tremendous propaganda occasion by using the Olympic Games as a showplace for the upcoming progressive world of the Third Reich.
The plan was the construction of the Reichssportfeld, a huge arena that was expected to take two years to build.
One of the sites included in the field was the Waldbuehne, an amphitheater with the capacity to seat 25,000 people.
It was this location which would require the labor of my mother and the many other women who were forced to convert the area into a showplace.
I had no idea of any of this when we arrived for work the first day.
With other women who had shared the train ride we climbed up the subway steps. A huge rock-strewn field of weeds awaited us at our destination.
I held my mother’s hand with one hand and carried my sandwich bag and a book with the other. We were met at the top by brown-clad SA men who registered us and turned us over to matrons who led us to a nearby cabin. There the women changed their dresses into more appropriate attire for the work ahead. Before each person left the cabin she was handed a rake and a hoe.
I do not remember any other children present. My mother settled me into an available chair, said that she would check on me whenever she could, and told me to be good.
And then she stepped outside into the burning sunlight and was assigned a stretch of the large field.
I could see her from my chair inside, although she was out of reach of my voice. In the stuffy heat of the cabin I saw my pretty mother chipping away at rocks or bending down to pull out the weeds she had loosened. It was an unreal, nightmarish view I wish I did not have to witness. It may well be the reason I have tried to forget this episode for a major part of my life.
So began each long, hot day, boring and tiring and far from my dreams of the Olympic experience. It was not until the sun began to set that the hoped-for hour of going home arrived.
August 1 arrived, and with it the opening of the 1936 Olympiade.
It was a time before television brought events into every home. I was not able to view the grand episodes I had hoped to see.
Eventually I saw pictures of the rock-strewn weed-filled field, which was now a lush green carpet terminated by a beautiful amphitheater named the “Dietrich Eckhard Buehne.” Another area of the terrain housed the special box of honor where Adolf Hitler greeted his guests. Everything was grand and splendid and politically motivated. The “Fuehrer” was shown bursting with pride, just as another evil dictator named Vladimir Putin would posture unsmilingly in a similar situation in another country many years later.
The sound of the Olympic Hymn in 2014 brought it all back. How little things have changed!
Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.
One response to “My Olympics”
Ellen, as I was reading your piece, I was thinking – this needs to be a book for young people. When I got to the end and read about you, I felt grateful that this is what you are – a writer for young people. Thank you for sharing your very difficult experience.