Article by Marvin Hier And Abraham Cooper published in The Hill
7 April 2021
“Freedom is not a gift from Heaven. It must be fought for every day,” said Austrian Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal. He knew from personal experience. By the end of World War II, the Nazis had murdered 89 members of his family. On May 5, 1945, Wiesenthal was too weak to greet U.S. soldiers who entered Mauthausen Concentration Camp, so he crawled from the barracks and collapsed into the arms of a GI. “I could not take my eyes off the American flag,” he recounted. “Each star was, for me, a symbol of freedom, of everything good that had been taken from us.”
This Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day – which begins at sunset today and ends with a Days of Remembrance commemoration on Thursday – presents many pressing issues, including surging anti-Semitism. Jews in the U.S. and Canada are the No. 1 target of hate crimes. There is a growing memory deficit about the Holocaust, which opens the floodgates for denial, deflection and appropriation of the symbols of the Nazi murders of 6 million Jews.
Should the lessons Holocaust still matter anymore? More than ever, the ugly truths of the Shoah speak to choices challenging all of us.
In 1936, the world decided the only way to wean Adolf Hitler from his racist dogma and visceral hatred of Jews was to have their athletes march before the Führer at the Berlin Olympics. An ounce of Olympic love was better than stoking Hitler’s anger. But in reality, the road to hell that was the Holocaust ran through those Olympic Games, paved not so much with good intentions, but rather, with self-delusion.
Hitler came to see the Games as a way to camouflage Nazism’s diabolical evil, and gain personal prestige and time to build military might. In his book, “Hitter’s Games: The 1936 Olympics,” Duff Hart-Davis details the process that led to Hitler’s ‘36 triumph.
The chairman of the German Olympic Committee was Dr. Theodor Lewald, who lobbied throughout the 1920s for Germany’s return to the Olympics. In 1932, Germany was given the ‘36 Games. As Duff-Hart writes, that same year Hitler labeled the Olympics “an invention of Jews and Freemasons” and “a play inspired by Judaism, which cannot possibly be put on in a Reich ruled by National Socialists.” Then Hitler took power and Lewald found himself threatened with dismissal for the sin of having a Jewish grandparent.
Hitler changed his tune about the Olympics, but not about Jews. On June 2, 1933, Dr. Bernhard Rust, minister of education, ordered Jews to be excluded from youth and welfare groups. To their credit, three American committee members – Gen. Charles Sherrill, Col. William May Garland and Commodore Ernest Jahncke – demanded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) threaten to withdraw unless Germany guaranteed that Lewald would retain his office and that discrimination against Jewish athletes would be revoked. So, Nazi officials made Lewald their front man to lie to the world that all Olympic rules would be obeyed and that German Jews would not be excluded from the national team.
Everyone knew it was a cruel joke. A U.S. diplomat in Berlin described Lewald’s pronouncements as a “screen for the real discrimination taking place.” The truth was that neither protests nor resolutions had any effect on the Nazis, and they made no secret of their disdain for Olympic ideals.
As recounted in Robert Weisbord’s “Racism and the Olympics,” Bruno Malitz, sport leader of the Berlin Storm Troops, wrote: “There is no room in our German land for Jewish sports leaders and their friends infested with the Talmud, for pacifists, political Catholics, pan-Europeans and the rest. They are worse than cholera and syphilis, much worse than famine, drought and poison gas.”
To calm growing protests, Avery Brundage, America’s leading proponent of the Games, was forced to make a “fact-finding tour” of Germany. Right on cue, the Nazis announced that 21 German Jewish athletes had been nominated for Olympic training. But by then the vicious anti-Semitic campaign was so obvious that Brundage could only say that participation in the Olympics would not necessarily signify support for the Nazi regime. Armed with the promise that no Jewish athlete would be excluded, Brundage returned home and persuaded the U.S. Olympic Committee to commit to the Games.
Twelve days after Brundage left, seven German Jewish athletes nominated for Olympic trials were dropped from tryouts. All German athletic associations were forbidden to have contact with non-Aryans. That rule was summarily applied to 38-year-old Black wrestler Jim Wango, who beat one white wrestler after another. Julius Streicher personally to put an end to Wango’s career, saying it was “an appeal to inferior people, to subhumans, to put a Negro on view and let him compete with white people.”
That incident alone should have put an end to the Berlin Olympics, but it didn’t. Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, president of the IOC, visited Hitler in October 1935 and told The New York Times there were no grounds for removing the Games. When told that Chicago’s Lake Shore Swimming Club, in Berlin for a match with Germany’s Olympic team, found entrances to municipal baths plastered with slogans saying “Jews Not Wanted Here,” he replied that he was interested in the situation during the Olympics and not in past history.
Hitler won that war without firing a shot. At the start of the 1936 Winter Olympics, his Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels stated: “We desire in these weeks to prove to the world that it is simply a lie that Germans have systematically persecuted the Jews.” It was a lie the world wanted to believe.
Today, there are new roads paved with good intentions. It appears, for example, that advisers to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have studied the road to the 1936 Olympics with regard to the potential reboot of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that the U.S. is ready to pursue. Perhaps our diplomats should do the same.
On the 85th anniversary of Hitler’s triumph, on Yom Hashoah, the U.S. Olympic Committee should demand that the IOC move the 2022 Olympics from China to a democratic Asian country. Don’t China’s suffering Uyghur Muslims deserve that much? Such a gesture would yield a gold medal befitting our athletes and our values.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Center’s associate dean and global social action director.