Jewish Olympians

Posted on August 8th, 2016 by

This weekend I read an article in the Washington Post entitled “Sorry, Rio, but London and Beijing have ruined Opening Ceremonies for everyone” making an invidious comparison between past Olympic spectacles and the relatively more modest evening in Rio de Janeiro.  It got me thinking about how this event went from an international amateur competition to a major made-for-tv extravaganza.

One turning point was David Wolper’s production of the 1984 LA Games complete with John Williams’ theme music and a visit from a flying saucer.  An earlier, and much darker turning point, were Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games and the beginnings of the games as an expression of national “virtues.”  If you go back further, the games were a much more modest affair.

I turned to Paul Yogi Mayer’s book, Jews and the Olympic Games, for some insight into Jewish participation in the early modern Olympics.  Put the words “Jewish” and “Olympics” in the same sentence and the likely rejoinder is champion swimmer Mark Spitz.  Some may have memories of the tragic loss of Israeli team members at Munich and movie goers may still recall Harold Abrahams, the British runner whose story became Chariots of Fire.  But in fact, according to Mayer there have been Jewish medalists in every Olympics since the revival of the modern games in Athens in 1896 and in every summer Olympics at least one Jewish gold medal winner.  Historically, swimming is only the second highest sport for Jewish medalists.  What’s number one?  Fencing, go figure.  He calculates 47 medals in total in fencing – from Austrian bronze-medalist Siegfried Flesch in 1900 to Russian gold-medalist Sergei Sharikov in 2000 (the late Mr. Sharikov won one more bronze medal in 2004 after Mayer’s book was written – American fencer, Sada Jacobson has won three medals since 2004 – moving the current Jewish fencing total to 51 – that’s a lot of swordplay).

American Sada Jacobson won three of the 51 fencing medals going to Jewish athletes from across the globe.

American Sada Jacobson won three of the 51 fencing medals going to Jewish athletes from across the globe.

But of the earliest Jewish Olympians, three stories stood out to me.  The first was Alfred Flatow, a German athlete who captured the first ever gold medal parallel bars and along with his cousin Gustav-Felix Flatow won two of the first team medals for gymnastics in Athens in 1896. In 1903, Alfred helped found of the Judische Turnerschaft, a Jewish fraternity that promoted Jewish participation in sports. He was prominently active in German gymnastics until he “voluntarily” gave up his gymnastics club membership in 1933.  In 1938 the Flatow’s escaped to the Netherlands. Following Nazi occupation of Holland, the Flatows (over the protest of German gymnastics officials) were sent to Theresienstadt.  There Alfred died in 1942; his cousin Felix in 1945.

Myer Prinstein

Myer Prinstein

The first Jewish American to win a gold medal was Myer Prinstein in Paris in 1900.  Myer’s specialties were the triple jump and the long jump.  The Polish born Prinstein was five years old when he came to America.  He was captain of the Syracuse University track team.  In deference to his Methodist school he honored his commitment not to compete in the Olympic final on a Sunday.  His Christian teammate Alvin Kraenzlein did not feel so constrained.  So Kraenzlein took the gold in the long jump and Prinstein had to settle for  a silver (based on his performance in the preliminaries).  Four years later in St. Louis he played for the Irish American Athletic Club (which apparently had no sabbath constraint), took the gold in both the triple jump and the long jump, setting a new Olympic record of 7.34 meters (by comparison, the 2012 long jump winner went 8.31 meters – still Prinstein’s jump would be among the top 35 qualifiers even a century after he made it)

Sam Berger

Sam Berger

The last of the early athletes that attracted my attention was Sam Berger – Olympic gold medalist in Heavyweight Boxing in 1904.  Berger was born in Chicago but raised in San Francisco.  Berger was 6’2″ and 200 lb.  and had won most of his bouts as an amateur in California.  It is not surprising that America won the first boxing gold medal – America was the only country that entered the competition!  Berger was not able to turn his Olympic success into a comparable professional career.  A disastrous fight in 1906 ended his quest for a pro championship.  He would later serve as sparring partner for Jim Jeffries as he prepared for his challenge to Jack Johnson. He evidently did much better as a businessman than as a boxer, parlaying his interest in his brothers’ clothing store into $1 million by the time he died in 1925.

So when you are watching this year’s competitors in Rio, like gymnast Aly Raisman and fencer Eli Dershwitz, know that they are a part of a very long tradition.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Compared to What?

Posted on July 13th, 2016 by

It goes without saying that America has had more glorious “4th of July” weeks than in 2016.  Rather than fireworks, our eyes were riveted on gunfire – grisly videos of both citizens and police under attack.  In the midst of this cauldron of hatred and fear we lost two major voices that had railed against silence in the presence of inhumanity: Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel and Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist, Sydney Schanberg.  It only compounded our sense of loss.

I noticed that the events of the last ten days have also sent people scrambling for historic comparisons.  I have seen articles in several major media sites comparing current events to those of the late 60s.  For me this isn’t a historic era, but rather part of my lived experience.  I chose to escape the constant drumbeat of awful news for an hour going into the basement to sort through my memorabilia from college.  Among the posters for anti-war rallies and flyers for protests of every kind I ran across a school newspaper from my freshman year at GW.  It’s banner headline screamed of the violence that came to campus 45 years ago.  My recollection is that I locked myself in my room, covered my windows with masking tape, and still found myself coughing from tear gas after our dorm was subjected to gas canisters dropped from helicopters.

The Hatchet

The Hatchet

But in shuffling through the papers I also discovered another unexpected (and timely) perspective.

In all the chaos of the last week, the passing of Judge Abner Mikva on July 4 received modest coverage.  But for me it was a significant event.

Readers of my blog posts know that I grew up on the South Side of Chicago at a time when Mayor Daley (the first Mayor Daley) and the “machine” ran not only the city itself but all political representation of the city.  Chicago may be the “second city”, but it takes a backseat to no one in the category of political corruption.  In the 1960’s we were represented in Congress by Barratt O’Hara – a machine politician who was a Spanish-American War veteran and who had served as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois during WWI.  There is nothing like a first political infatuation and at age 14 I went door-to-door for Abner Mikva as he attempted to fight the machine.

Mikva lost.  But in a rising tide of anti-Vietnam War sentiment, he finally made it into office in 1968 and when I entered college at George Washington University I went to Capitol Hill to volunteer.  They assigned me to the addressograph machine – an essential tool in the era before mail merge software.   The job itself was not that exciting but I spent a fair amount of my free time pursuing my interests as a political junkie – running from office to office collecting signatures of the famous legislators of my youth.

As I grew older, I lost much of my ardor for political activism but I continued to admire Congressman and then Judge Mikva from a distance.  Mikva eventually became Chief Judge of DC Court of Appeals in the 1990s (the position now held by my classmate Merrick Garland).  He would encourage a young man named Barack Obama to enter politics and eventually receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of achievements.

A newsletter specifically for high school students.

A newsletter specifically for high school students.

So there in the box with my political autograph collection (including Eugene McCarthy’s on the back of a hastily grabbed West Point application) – I found this newsletter from Abner Mikva directed at high school students.  I may have saved this from my days working the addressograph machine.

The newsletter's final paragraph.

The newsletter’s final paragraph.

I turned to the back page and my jaw dropped.  It reminded me that 45 years ago when many of thought our nation was doomed and the future had never been darker – we were wrong and Abner Mikva was right: “compared to what?”

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Wiesel and Memory

Posted on July 5th, 2016 by

Elie Wiesel was a “master rememberer”. He used the painful recollections of his youth to paint a vivid portrait of the most extreme inhumanity, in terms that would move all but the coldest hearts. He spent most of his adult life looking backward to offer the rest of us a clearer view of the moral path ahead.

With his passing on Saturday, I searched my own memories – reading Night in my senior year in high school, listening to an interview with Wiesel on TV – and then I asked the question, “is there anything in the collections of the Jewish Museum of Maryland concerning Elie Wiesel?”

A quick on-line search brought me to the files of Louis L. Kaplan. Dr. Kaplan, who had an incredible 40 year career as president of Baltimore Hebrew University (1930-1970), also carried on correspondence with Elie Wiesel before and after his retirement. That correspondence became part of the Kaplan papers that were accessioned by JMM in 1994. In addition, when we received the archives of Baltimore Hebrew University in 2009 there were a number of photos and articles related to Wiesel added to our collection.


This early photo of Wiesel and Kaplan appears to date to 1973 when the author was promoting his book The Oath. JMM 2009.40.5074

 Wiesel and Kaplan crossed paths again when Wiesel served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in the 1980s. Kaplan at the time was an advocate for the construction of a memorial here in Baltimore. I ran across a photocopy of a letter from Kaplan to Wiesel that I found intriguing:


JMM 1994.205.266

I need to confess that I was initially puzzled about what Kaplan meant by your “absence understood by me”. What kept Wiesel away from the cornerstone laying ceremony for the Holocaust Museum?

I turned to an excellent history of the USHMM by Edward Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum (2001). Linenthal talks about the tumultuous end of Wiesel’s service as head of the Council planning the Museum. Apparently, there was dissatisfaction in 1986 about the pace of fundraising, project development and decision-making. Wiesel’s philosophy was that the memory of these events was so precious that great caution was merited. He was quoted as observing “We have to be sure of what we are doing, rather than go fast in the wrong direction. We could build something that was the wrong statement and then history would never forgive us”.

With tensions rising, Wiesel decided to resign his post in December of 1986. He was replaced by Baltimore businessman, Harvey “Bud” Meyerhoff. Meyerhoff is given credit for turning around the fundraising and building planning operation, paving the way for the institution to open its doors in 1993. As can be inferred from the Kaplan letter, Wiesel stepped away from public events associated with the Museum from 1987 until the opening ceremony. Still, his vision was a powerful influence on the final outcome and his words on the inaugural day bear remembering:.

Now, a museum is a place, I believe, that should bring people together, a place that should not set people apart. People who come from different horizons, who belong to different spheres, who speak different languages—they should feel united in memory. And, if possible at all, with some measure of grace, we should, in a way, be capable of reconciling ourselves with the dead. To bring the living and the dead together in a spirit of reconciliation is part of that vision.

As we prepare for next year’s Remembering Auschwitz exhibit we will try to live up to Wiesel’s high standard for museums – to be a place that brings people together, united in memory.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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