BERLIN — The Maccabi Games, dubbed the Jewish Olympics, opened Tuesday at the Berlin site of the 1936 “Nazi Games” in what one community leader called “a triumph of good over evil.”
A record 2,300 athletes from 36 countries have come to the German capital which for the first time hosts the 10-day contest in disciplines from football, swimming and fencing to chess, bridge and bowling.
Visitors from Europe, Israel, the Americas and Australia hailed the event — held 70 years after the Holocaust — as a symbol of reconciliation and an affirmation of Jewish life in Germany.
The games are being staged in the Olympic Park near the stadium where Adolf Hitler opened the 1936 Summer Games that barred Jewish athletes and aimed to showcase “Aryan” athleticism.
Despite some criticism of the venue, “this is exactly where these games should be held,” said World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder.
“It is said that the best way to overcome a terrible event is to go back to where it happened, to show yourself that you can return, and to prove to everyone that you can endure and move on.
“I believe this is true not just for Jews, but for Germans as well.”
Lauder stressed that “this represents a triumph of good over evil. And with each triumph, we move the world forward.”
‘Hand of reconciliation’
More than 500 young athletes from 24 countries on Monday 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.
“We remember all the lives that were extinguished,” said Lauder, stressing however that in the post-war era Germany has become “one of Israel’s strongest allies.”
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.”
This year marks half a century since the then-West Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations.
“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.”
Germany’s Jewish community, reduced to a few thousand after WWII, has grown again to some 240,000.
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.