BERLIN — Over 2,300 Jewish athletes from 36 countries marched Tuesday in the opening ceremony of the 2015 European Maccabi Games in Berlin, in a poignant first since the Second World War.
The launch of the games, often referred to as the “Jewish Olympics,” took place at the Waldbüche, an amphitheater constructed for the 1936 Olympic Games and originally named the Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne — the Dietrich Eckart Stage — after Adolf Hitler’s mentor and the founder of the Nazi Party, Dietrich Eckart.
Eckart was the editor of the anti-Semitic periodical “Auf gut Deutsch” and a major influence on the young Hitler. Both were imprisoned after the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, but Eckart was released due to ill health and died shortly thereafter. Hitler dedicated the first volume of Mein Kampf to Eckart, and had the amphitheater flanking the Olympiastadion named in his honor.
But the tone struck by Germany of 2015 was radically different.
Tuesday’s opening festivities followed a memorial ceremony for the victims of Nazi Germany at the Olympiastadion complex next door. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas told athletes, their families and dignitaries from Germany and abroad that “for much too long… real victims (of Nazi Germany) were forgotten,” and that in the years leading up to the 2015 games “this has finally changed.”
“Today Jewish life is once against flourishing in Germany,” he said, with the main stadium of the 1936 Olympic Games, from which Jews were banned, in the background. Germany was determined to “fight anti-Semitism with the utmost resolve” and give it “zero tolerance,” he vowed.
Pointing to Germany’s shift, he paid respects to Jewish female high jumper Gretel Bergmann, who, despite setting a national record, was banned from competing in the 1936 games because she was Jewish. “Hitler robbed her of Olympic victory,” Maas said, “but now there’s a street named after her in Berlin.”
While this week’s competition is officially titled the European Maccabi Games, participants hail from around the globe, representing 36 countries on six continents. They will be competing in 19 sports, from bridge to water polo. The largest delegation by far is the home team, with nearly 400 German Jewish athletes competing.
Berlin Police matched the number of athletes in attendance, standing guard at virtually every corner in the amphitheater for Tuesday’s opening event. After the whole assembly of athletes from around the world marched into the stadium — the German one entering last — police officers stood solemnly at attention as the German national anthem played.
In light of a rise in neo-Nazi threats, Berlin Police have ramped up security around the competition’s venues, including the Olympiastadion complex and an east Berlin hotel complex where Maccabi Games functions are hosted. Private security guards round out the police presence.
German newspaper Zeit Online also reported Monday that the potential threat of Islamist attacks has prompted organizers to caution athletes against wearing Jewish head coverings in “sensitive areas” of the capital.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the “historical and political significance” of holding the games in Berlin which, she said in a statement, “not only strengthen the identity and sense of belonging within the Jewish community, but also offer opportunities for encounters and dialogue between Jews and non-Jews alike.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called the Maccabi Games “a triumph of good over evil.”
“Here we are, 70 years since the concentration camps were liberated and the true horror of the Nazis was realized, at the stadium Hitler built, to celebrate the Jewish European Maccabi Games,” Lauder said Tuesday.
“It’s about time,” a German foreign office official said.
On Monday, more than 500 athletes from 24 countries visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin, part of the Nazis’ machinery of death that claimed six million Jewish lives.
They met Holocaust survivors at the camp, which was built while the Olympics were held nearby, and attended a memorial service led by a rabbi.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said earlier that “the fact that Jewish athletes have decided, 70 years after the Holocaust, on Berlin as the venue for their games is anything but a given.
“We are proud and grateful for this vote of confidence.”
The games also coincide with the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations between Israel and Germany.
“It is an improbable success story that was only possible because Israel has offered us the hand of reconciliation, and because Germany has faced up to its responsibility for the Holocaust,” said Steinmeier.
“In the place of hatred and violence, we have built over the years a unique friendship and sense of familiarity.”
The Maccabi movement emerged in the late 19th century when Jews were routinely excluded from European sports clubs and events.
The first European Maccabi Games were held in Prague in 1929. Since 1969, they have been held every four years, alternating with the Maccabiah Games in Israel.
AFP contributed to this report.