Nazi-built Berlin stadium to host 'Jewish Olympics'

2015-07-21 19:59


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Berlin - The opening day of the 1936 Berlin Olympics constituted one of the most lavish celebrations Germany's capital had ever seen.

Despite the professedly peaceful nature of the event, the occasion was rife with military symbolism as Adolf Hitler prepared for conquest and war.

Nearly eight decades later, the very venue that once hosted this elaborate display of Nazi pageantry will accommodate more than 2 000 Jewish athletes competing in the Maccabi Games, a sporting championship held every four years since 1932.

"Seventy years after the liberation from National Socialism... the time has come to show Europe and the world that Jewish life is blossoming here again and that we have become a solid and confident part of German society," says Alon Meyer, the president of Maccabi Germany.

The organisation dates back to the early 20th century, when systematic anti-Semitism in European sport prompted the Jewish community to found its own outlet for competitive athletics.

The choice of Berlin's Olympic Park as a venue for the Games is of particular significance, not least because Jews were banned in 1936 from joining the German delegation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the decision was not an easy one. Several members of the organizing committee - especially those belonging to older generations - were firmly opposed, arguing that as long as there were living Holocaust survivors such an event was unthinkable.

"The younger generation won out in the end," Meyer says.

"When we first viewed the Olympic Park as a potential venue, the Nazi architecture was pretty overwhelming," says Rebecca Kowalski, 32, who is part of the organising committee and will take part in the Games as a member of the German hockey team.

"I can understand those who took issue with the decision. But we recognised the symbolic importance of raising Maccabi flags where Nazi flags once hung. We want to show that we are fearless," she says.


But pervasive concerns about ensuring the security of the Jewish athletes visiting Berlin has placed a spotlight on lingering anti-Semitism in the country that 70 years ago orchestrated the Holocaust.

"It's important for Germany to be confronted with the fact that anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past," says Jan Riebe, an anti-Semitism and xenophobia expert at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation.

A significant part of the organisation's $5.4m budget is being spent on security, according to organisers. The German government is deploying thousands of police officers to the Olympic Park and Hotel Estrel, where the athletes hailing from over 35 countries will stay.

Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Monday acknowledged the contentious nature of the event, saying that the German authorities would go to all lengths to ensure it passes off safely, but adding that "complete security cannot be guaranteed". 

Police say that there have been no concrete threats against the event.

"The security situation is one that we are not unfamiliar with," says Oren Osterer, head of the organising committee. "It's been this way for centuries. But I want to emphasise that this is a young, dynamic event and we are working very closely and successfully with the authorities."

Jewish involvement in organised sports in Germany has had a troubled history, even after the end of WWII. In the 1972 Munich Olympics, 11 members of the Israeli delegation were kidnapped and murdered by a radical Palestinian group.

"We certainly don't want a repeat of '72," says Kowalski. "If anything were to happen, it would be a catastrophe for the German government. But if it goes smoothly, the event could become an important catalyst for change."

Read more on:    nazis  |  maccabi games  |  germany

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