'They were mowed down like all the other Jews of Europe'

The Jewish Olympians among Hitler’s victims

Largely forgotten, at least 30 Jewish Olympians were murdered in the Holocaust, often displaying uncommon heroism in the face of death

Jewish Olympians murdered during the Holocaust included, from left, Lilli Henoch, Attila Petschauer, Victor Perez and Eddy Hamel. (Public domain)
Jewish Olympians murdered during the Holocaust included, from left, Lilli Henoch, Attila Petschauer, Victor Perez and Eddy Hamel. (Public domain)

A century before Aly Raisman and Or Sasson, the Jewish people had gymnast Judikje “Jud” Simons from the Netherlands, and boxer Victor “Young” Perez of France.

Simons and Perez were among several dozen Jewish Olympians and world champions murdered during the Holocaust, along with most of their spouses and children. The doomed athletes hailed from all over Europe, and competed in everything from chess to skiing and fencing.

During the 1920s, Jews sometimes constituted large portions of Olympic teams — as in the Netherlands, where Jewish women were synonymous with gymnastics. At the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin, at least 13 Jewish athletes from several countries earned medals despite rampant harassment and efforts to ban them.

Athleticism was a point of pride for Jews throughout Europe, particularly where they contended with overt anti-Semitism. In combat sports like boxing and fencing, Jews could dismantle anti-Semitic stereotypes with their physical prowess, shattering social barriers and what historians have called the wimpish self-image of European Jewry.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics have been dissected for decades, but the fate of Jewish Olympians received scant attention until Agnes Grunwald-Spier published her 2016 book, “Who Betrayed the Jews?” The work included information on 30 Jewish Olympians killed in the Holocaust, some of whom gave up their freedom to share the fate of loved ones.

One of these heroes was renowned skier Bronislaw Czech, who represented Poland in three Olympic Games and later ran one of Poland’s top downhill skiing schools.

Bronislaw Czech, an Olympic skier and instructor murdered during the Holocaust (public domain)
Bronislaw Czech, an Olympic skier and instructor murdered during the Holocaust. (Public domain)

When the Nazis began implementing the Final Solution, Czech’s fame worked against him. At age 32, he was arrested and among the first prisoners sent to Auschwitz. There, he was offered freedom in exchange for training German youth in skiing, but refused the proposal. Czech died in Auschwitz, and dozens of streets and schools are named for him in Poland today.

Another world champion targeted for his prowess was the Tunisian-born Victor “Young” Perez, a French Jewish boxing star. In 1931 he became the youngest flyweight world champion in boxing history, having won numerous French championships. None of this mattered when Perez was denounced in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz.

“At first the SS let him train so that he could fight in a show fight for their entertainment against a member of the SS,” wrote Grunwald-Spier. “After that, he was treated like all the other prisoners and he was forced to participate in boxing matches for the amusement of the Nazis. By 1945 Victor had survived 140 bouts in 15 months and won 139,” she wrote.

Victor 'Young' Perez, a Tunisian-born Jewish boxer murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau (public domain)
Victor ‘Young’ Perez, a Tunisian-born Jewish boxer murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Public domain)

The young champion’s life ended on the death march from Auschwitz, in January of 1945, when Perez died at age 33.

A Jewish Olympic fencer targeted for his athleticism was Attila Petschauer, who won team Olympic medals in 1928 in Amsterdam and in 1932 in Los Angeles for Hungary. While imprisoned in the labor camp Davidovka in Ukarine, he was singled out by guards who had been informed of Petschauer’s fame.

“[A witness] saw the guards tell Attila to take off his clothes and climb a tree and crow like a rooster,” wrote Grunwald-Spier. “As he crowed they sprayed him with cold water which froze and eventually he fell off the tree. They took him back to the barracks but he died a few hours later,” she wrote of the incident.

No exemptions for Olympians

According to Grunwald-Spier, the 30 murdered Jewish Olympians in her book “were all successful sportspeople who had been proud to represent their country. Their country had been proud to bask in their glory.”

“However, when the Nazis were implementing the Final Solution, that was of no significance and they were mowed down like all the other Jews of Europe,” author Grunwald-Spier told The Times of Israel last week.

Among interwar Europe’s most patriotic and versatile Jewish athletes was Lilly Henoch, who rose to prominence in Germany with the Berlin Sports Club, which was one-quarter Jewish in the 1920s. Her specialties included hockey, handball and long-jumping, and she was the go-to captain for several team sports. Had Germany been allowed to participate in the 1924 Olympics, Henoch might have earned several medals, having set world records in discus, shot-put, and the 100-meter relay.

German Jewish athlete Lilly Henoch (left) plays handball for the Berlin Sports Club (public domain)
German Jewish athlete Lilly Henoch (left) plays handball for the Berlin Sports Club. (Public domain)

Henoch’s athletic versatility and ability to earn Germany medals meant nothing in 1933, when she was dismissed from the Berlin Sports Club. Ironically, she had been named chair of the club’s women’s section just two weeks before Hitler became chancellor.

In September of 1942, Henoch and family members were deported from Germany to Riga, where they were murdered by an Einsatzgruppen mobile killing unit later that year. Henoch was 43, and her murder took place some distance from the millions of Germans who would have known her name or recognized her face from news reels and newspapers.

Of the Olympians killed in the Shoah, quite a few were from the Netherlands. In that country, Jewish women helped take home numerous medals for gymnastics, including at the 1928 Olympics held in Amsterdam.

One top Dutch Jewish gymnast was Judikje “Jud” Simons, who helped the team earn a gold medal in 1928. After the team’s win, Simons and her husband ran an orphanage in Utrecht, where they lived with their own two children. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the family was given a chance to escape deportation to the death camps, but Simons and her husband refused to leave the orphans.

The 1928 Dutch women's gymnastics team, half of whose members were Jewish (public domain)
The 1928 Dutch women’s gymnastics team, half of whose members were Jewish. (Public domain)

On March 3, 1943, the entire family and dozens of children from the orphanage were gassed at Sobibor — seven months after orphanage head Janusz Korczak had accompanied his charges from the Warsaw ghetto to their deaths at Treblinka, in a parallel story-line.

In her book, Grunwald-Spier documented the shared fate of several Dutch Jewish women from the 1928 Olympic women’s gymnastics team, deported with their husbands and young children to Sobibor where more than 200,000 Jews were killed. Also murdered at Sobibor was the team’s Jewish coach, Gerrit Kleerekoper, along with his wife and daughter.

Ajax, the Jews and Holocaust memory


Numbered among those killed by the Nazis are also several Jewish Olympian footballers — or, soccer players — hailing from countries such as Germany, Poland and Romania. The best remembered Jewish footballer to die in the Holocaust, Eddy Hamel, was not technically an Olympian, but the New York-born athlete who grew up in Amsterdam had a singular impact on the sport in his country.

Eddy Hamel, the first Jew to play for Amsterdam's Ajax club (public domain)
Eddy Hamel, the first Jew to play for Amsterdam’s Ajax club. (Public domain)

In 1922, Hamel became the first Jew and the first American to play for the legendary Ajax Football Club. For eight years, he was the pride of Jewish Amsterdam, refusing to hide his Jewish or American roots.

Twelve years after retiring from Ajax, with the Netherlands under Nazi occupation, Hamel was arrested and sent to do hard labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. After four months, he failed a work “selection” and was sent to the gas chambers.

Following the war, Ajax became associated with Jews, some of whom returned from the camps to watch games still held in the old stadium, close to where they grew up. Jews no longer lived in the neighborhood, but the team became “Jewish” by association with the dead neighborhood, and — later, in the 1970s — by a new generation of Dutch Jews who joined Ajax as players, company employees and shareholders, not to mention masseuses.

In recent years, Ajax fans’ use of Jewish symbols and chants has drawn rebukes from rival teams’ fans, some of whom wish the same fate upon Ajax that befell its first Jewish player, Eddy Hamel, in the Holocaust.

The anti-Jewish sentiment is expressed with chants about Auschwitz, and by choruses of hissing to represent the gassing of Jews. The surge of anti-Semitism at Ajax games prompted Dutch Jews to stay home in recent years, and Ajax officials to water-down the team’s Jewish flavor, considered a provocation.

Europe’s great inter-war Jewish athletes, many of whom became Olympians and world champions, embodied the fallaciousness of Nazi racial propaganda about Jewish bodies and cultural proclivities.

These Jewish sportsmen came from every corner of the continent, and participated in every sport available to them. In doing so, some became early targets for Hitler’s regime, and — during the genocide — targets for ruthless camp guards seeking to break their spirits.

Jewish Olympians Attila Petschauer (left) and Andras Szekely, both murdered in the Holocaust (public domain)
Jewish Olympians Attila Petschauer (left) and Andras Szekely, both murdered in the Holocaust. (Public domain)

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