Tag Archives: Berlin Olympics

My Olympics

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.

“Heil Hitler!”

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.

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Filed under Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity

My Father, The Jewish Athlete

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


Filed under European Jewry, Jewish identity