Tag Archives: Jewish athletes

From the Maccabiah Games to the Olympics

by Craig Darch (Auburn, AL)

Dave Pincus contacted Mel Rosen in late 1976 about coaching the American track and field team at the 1977 Maccabiah Games. The Maccabiah Games, sometimes referred to as the Jewish Olympics, features Jewish athletes from countries around the world competing in all sports. The Games are held every four years in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. Pincus, the American representative for the Games, had the responsibility to select a coach for the track and field team. Pincus, a former track star at Penn State, had followed the success Rosen was having at Auburn and wanted him to coach the American team. “There was a small, but talented group of Jewish track and field coaches in the United States. Mel was the very best.”

Rosen, like most Jews who were interested in athletics, was quite familiar with the Maccabiah Games. Rosen was a friend of Irv Mondschein, track coach at Penn State and head coach of the American team in the 1973 Maccabiah Games. Mondschein’s stories about life in Israel intrigued Rosen. While Rosen was not a religious Jew, he was interested in most secular Jewish topics. Pincus called Rosen to ask if he would coach the U.S. team in Tel Aviv in 1977. “I said yes immediately. It was an honor to go to Israel and coach. I was appointed head track and field coach four times. It was on our first trip when I visited Yad Vashem [the National Holocaust Museum] that the full weight of the Holocaust hit me. I was proud to be a Jew. I understood the purpose of the Maccabiah Games was to give Jews from the United States and other countries an opportunity to learn about their Jewish heritage.”

A few days before the competition, Rosen and his team took a tour of Israel. They visited Masada, the most popular tour site of visiting Jews and the symbol of Jewish survival, and the Western Wall, considered the holiest of the Jewish sites. “To see Jews from all over the world praying together at the Wall—and the contrast between the ultra Orthodox and the Reform Jews from the United States—was an emotional experience for me.” When Rosen stood at the Western Wall, he followed the custom of inserting a written prayer or petition, into its cracks. Rosen wrote two prayers. His first asked for good health for everyone in his family. In his second, he asked to be named Olympic head coach. “I thought, why not, what could it hurt? When I walked away from the Wall, I figured I had done everything I could do to be named head Olympic coach.”

Rosen was named the head track and field coach for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in November, 1989.

Dr. Craig Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University, where he has taught for 32 years. While the Rosen book is his first biography, he has co-authored three college-level textbooks on learning and intellectual disabilities and has published more than 60 research articles for professional journals in the fields of special education and psychology.

This piece is an excerpt from From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen by Craig Darch. It’s reprinted with the kind permission of NewSouth Books. For more information about the book, visit: http://www.newsouthbooks.com

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Filed under American Jewry

London-Munich, No Connection

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

There are 569 miles between London and Munich.
You can get there by
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and American.
The flight takes 1 hour and 9 minutes,
and costs about 240 euros.
Both are modern cities
with busy financial centers.
Both held Olympics 40 years apart
with pomp and pageantry in
opening and closing ceremonies.
England won 4 gold medals in Munich;
Germany won 11 gold medals in London.
At the end of the games in Great Britain, in ’12
all the athletes left via Heathrow Airport.
At the end of the games in Germany, in ’72
not all of the athletes left via Munich Airport.
There are 569 miles between London and Munich,
but between the two cities, there is no connection,
no remembering, no memorials,
just distance,
just 569 miles.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Israel Jewry, poetry

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