Berlin Nazi-built stadiums host Europe's biggest Jewish sports event

Jewish athletes arrive to compete in European Maccabi Games, hosted by Germany for first time

Seventy years after the end of the second world war, stadiums built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics are to play host to Europe’s biggest Jewish sporting competition.

More than 2,000 Jewish athletes from 36 countries are arriving in Berlin to take part in the European Maccabi Games, which feature 19 events, including badminton, basketball, chess and volleyball. The games, hosted by Germany for the first time, start on Tuesday and run until 5 August.

“It is a special joy for us that the [games] are taking place in Germany for the first time,” said a statement from Joseph Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “Jewish athletes demonstrate that we Jews are a part of Europe, we belong to Germany – and we won’t let anybody take that away from us.”

Joachim Gauck, the president of Germany, will officially open the games on Tuesday evening at a ceremony at the Berlin Waldbühne, an open-air stage originally built for the 1936 Olympics. Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, which was also built for the Nazi-era competition, will host many of the events involved in the games.

Adolf Hitler watching the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Adolf Hitler watching the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images

There will also be a series of friendly games under the banner “Let’s Play Together”, in which Jewish participants will play against non-Jewish athletes and celebrity teams in sports such as basketball and hockey.

The 1936 Olympics took place three years after Adolf Hitler became German chancellor. Nazi authorities barred all German Jews, or people with Jewish ancestry, from competing, with the exception of fencer Helene Mayer, who competed even though her father was Jewish.

“Where Jewish athletes were excluded from the Olympic Games in 1936, thousands will send a message for tolerance and openness and against antisemitism and racism this summer,” the European Maccabi Games organisers said in a statement.

A volunteer plays with a ball outside the Berlin Olympic Park during preparations for the 14th European Maccabi Games.
A volunteer plays with a ball outside the Berlin Olympic Park during preparations for the 14th European Maccabi Games. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Russ Snipper, who is competing in the tenpin bowling contest for the Great Britain team, said that being able to take part in the Maccabi Games in Germany was a “phenomenal opportunity”.

“It obviously has greater significance because of the location of this event, for Jews to be in Berlin … it’s a massive statement for us and Germans,” he told the Guardian.

“We’ve been able to reflect on our own experiences but it’s more prevalent being here and being at the centre of everything, from a historical perspective,” Snipper added.

He said the 1936 Olympics were often referred to as the “Nazi Olympics”, but he preferred to think of them as the “Jesse Owens Olympics”, referring to the black US track and field athlete who is said to have irked Hitler by winning four gold medals.

Jesse Owens competes in the 100m final in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Jesse Owens competes in the 100m final in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Photograph: Roger Viollet Collection

The first European Maccabi Games took place in 1929 in Prague, but were soon discontinued with the rise of the Nazis.They resumed in 1959 in Copenhagen. In 2011, Vienna hosted the games, marking the first time Jewish athletes had competed on the former territory of Nazi Germany.

The event marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel . Alon Meyer, the president of Maccabi Germany, said he hoped it would “do justice to the historical dimension”.

“We want to set a mark internationally and show that Judaism in Germany has found its solid place, that it is vital and diverse, and that it is an accepted part of the country. To sum it up in one word: normal.”


Louise Osborne in Berlin

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