Jewish, Israeli athletes march into Hitlers stadium for first European Maccabi Games in Germany

Berlin — More than 2,100 amateur Jewish athletes from around the world paraded into a house that Hitler built and made it their own this week, creating a scene unlike any other in sports history.

It was the opening ceremony of the 14th European Maccabi Games in Berlin, and athletes from 36 countries marched into a huge amphitheater on the expansive grounds built for the 1936 Olympics. History has shown that those Olympics were a showcase for Hitler in building his power in Germany as well as covering up from the world’s eyes the persecution of Jews that had already begun.

on the cover Top, from left: Berlin Olympics, 1936 (wikipedia); Jewish American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller (jta-nancy glickman), Hindenburg over stadium (flickr) Bottom, from left: At 2015 Maccabi Games opening ceremony, Israeli team marches into stadium (andy altman-ohr), and crowd shows support (mark susson-maccabiUSA)

But on July 28, the hulking 22,000-seat edifice was taken over by Jewish athletes, coaches and support staff — plus rank-and-file Jews who had been bused in from around the country by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Said to be the largest gathering of Jews in the German capital since World War II, the crowd of 15,000 also included a large number of family and friends of the athletes who had traveled to Berlin from around the world.

Collectively, they symbolically thumbed their noses at Germany’s Nazi past, cheering proudly and loudly as each country’s athletes paraded down the long, steep stairs to the huge stage, as music played and laser lights danced. The 121-member Israeli contingent marched in first, and the boisterous cheering didn’t subside much the rest of the way, though it certainly hit a crescendo when the 376-member German contingent marched in last.

German President Joachim Gauck spoke at the slickly produced ceremony — which featured Matisyahu, European entertainers, dance numbers and a rousing rendition of “Hatikvah” — telling people that while they were not allowed in the Olympic Park eight decades ago, now “you are here” and “we’re very happy that the Jewish community has come together for this.”

Though there were solemn moments, including matter-of-fact accountings of the Nazi legacy and references to the extermination of Jews, the jubilation rarely waned in the 79-year-old Waldebühne facility.

“It gave me chills and made me think: Here we are, walking in the place where Hitler was sitting up high and saying, ‘Hello down zer,’” said Nathan Milgram, 15, a fencer from San Jose and one of nine Bay Area athletes on the U.S. team. “It definitely was a good feeling to walk into an opening ceremony in a place where Jews were not allowed, and where Jewish dreams of the Olympics were denied.”

The 10-day European Maccabi Games are an Olympics-style competition, with most competitors between 15 and 25 years old, though there are several divisions for athletes 35 and older. The teens and young adults are housed in a huge hotel in what was once East Berlin, creating a de facto Olympic village where friendships and frivolity flourish.

The Berlin Olympiastadion was built for the 1936 Olympics. photo/jta-getty images-scott heavey

Four years ago the games were held in Vienna, where an opening ceremony crowd of 4,000 gathered just a few hundred yards from where Hitler announced Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. The Berlin games hold even more symbolic value, for this is the city where the Nazis planned their systematic eradication of the Jews, and where a local Jewish population of 160,000 was reduced to 8,000 by 1945.

There are numerous reminders that the European Maccabi Games are making a profound statement by being held on the Olympic grounds. That includes the centerpiece of the park, the 75,000-seat Olympic Stadium. While not being used for any events during the games due to its cavernous size and the challenges of securing it properly, it continually looms in the background of the nearby soccer fields, tennis courts and swimming pool.

The symbolism also was front and center during a July 28 memorial ceremony in another part of the Olympic Park called Maifeld. With seats for 50,000 facing a huge lawn and the Olympiastadion, it is where Hitler sat to watch athletes (and later Nazi soldiers) parade by. Where, after the Olympics, crowds of 150,000 to 200,000 packed the stands and lawn to hear Hitler speeches and respond with the Nazi salute. And where Hitler hosted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937.

“This field has a high symbolic value,” said Franziska Giffey, the mayor of one of Berlin’s 12 districts and one of many German politicians attending the ceremony. “It’s also where Adolf Hitler walked across the grass and into the Olympic Stadium to open the Olympic Games, starting right from where the [speakers’] platform was today.”

With all of that as a backdrop — as well as the specter of these games coming 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, 50 years after diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany were established, and nearly 30 years after terrorists killed 11 Israeli Olympic athletes — the 2015 European Maccabi Games so far have generated an intense buzz for those involved, and a lot of media coverage around the globe.

“I’ve been involved with Maccabi USA for 15 years. I’ve been to Israel for the world games [Maccabiah] four times. Throughout that time, I had the chance to go to the European games, but it never really struck a chord with me, never made me want to be a part of it. So I’d always declined the opportunity,” said Daniel Kurtz, head of the Team USA delegation.

“But when I had the opportunity to come to Berlin, I couldn’t not go. For me, these games are what Maccabi is all about: a mix of personal, emotional, cultural and athletic.”

The Israeli team (above) marches in the opening ceremony on July 28. photo/andy altman-ohr

The European Maccabi Games experience includes a Limmud Germany learning event, trips to Holocaust memorials and an attempt on July 31 to set a Guinness World Record for the largest Kiddush ever.

For Sienna Drizin, a 21-year-old soccer player at U.C. Davis and part of the U.S. women’s soccer team, the experience has been anything but mundane.

“I just came back [to the U.S.] from a Birthright trip to Israel about three weeks ago, where I went to Yad Vashem, and I learned about all the events that happened in Germany, so it’s making for a more and more real experience for me,” she said. “Being in Israel and now Germany within a month or so of each other, it’s truly amazing. I never could have expected anything like this to happen.”

Team USA men’s water polo coach Dan Leyson, whose late father was on Schindler’s list when he was a 13-year-old boy, was expected to have an emotional reaction at the opening ceremony. But the U.C. Davis head coach said he opted to spend time with his wife and 5-year-old daughter, as a training retreat with his Aggies’ team in Barcelona had kept him away from home since mid-July.

“It’s disappointing to have missed the opening ceremony, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen them,” he said, noting that his twin 3-year-old sons remained in the United States with their grandparents.

Jewish American Olympic sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller train for 1936 Olympics. photo/jta-nancy glickman

Through the first two days, security was tight, with police posted prominently at all athletic venues, and an overwhelming presence of police and privately hired security guards at the larger events, such as the July 28 opening ceremony and a welcome gala a night earlier at the team hotel. According to reports, the cost for security is $5.6 million, or roughly a fifth of the total budget of the games.

Security is a concern at the main hotel, the Estril, which is located in Giffey’s district. “We have a large Arabic and Turkish population, so there was some controversy about putting the athletes’ hotel there,” she said. “But hopefully everything, and I expect everything, will be OK.”

Turkey, a nation that’s not too friendly to Israel these days, sent a contingent of 139, including more than 100 athletes. All are Jews, as Turkey has a Jewish population of approximately 18,000. “We have good athletes, and we always send a big number to the European Maccabi Games,” one of the athletes said.

As for holding the games in Germany in the first place, it wasn’t always an easy sell, said Kurtz, a K-8 principal in the Philadelphia area who volunteers as Team USA manager.

“There was controversy,” he said. “A lot of people felt like being in Germany and supporting Germany was not something they wanted to do, as a lot of people still hold negative memories. But to me it means the exact opposite. It means thousands of Jews — young, strong, athletic, smart and engaging — are standing together and walking through the Olympic Park, past the gilded eagles of the Nazis that are still standing. And saying ‘We are still here.’”

One of the first athletic competitions this week was a men’s basketball contest in the open-age division between the United States and Israel on July 28. With about 80 people in the stands, mostly family and friends of the U.S. team members, the United States cruised to an 89-45 victory.

Ann Stoller  (on motorcycle) hands Maccabi flame to Nancy Glickman on July 28 in Berlin. photo/mark susson-maccabiusa

It was an understandable result, given that the U.S. squad includes a dozen highly fit players in the 18-to-23 age range, many with college experience, and the Israeli squad was made up of just 10 players, all 35 and older. Moreover, one of the Israelis didn’t show up until halfway through the second quarter, perhaps not getting his wakeup call.

“Actually, we were supposed to play in the senior tournament, but they didn’t have enough teams for the 35-and-older bracket, so they put us in with these young kids, and we’re basically just a beer-league team,” explained Israel’s lone standout player, Barak Peleg, 43, a professional in Israel’s first division for 16 years, a former national team player and a pro coach the past five years.

“But the most exciting thing for us is just being in Germany,” Peleg continued. “We are the grandchildren of people who were born here, and some of our relatives died here in the Holocaust.

“It means a lot for us to come here, to bring the Zionist idea to everybody here. And of course to represent Israel on German land. The results really don’t matter. To be together, more than 2,000 Jewish athletes representing the Jewish people on German land means a lot more than basketball.”

Guard Noah Springwater of San Francisco (who played at Columbia) and 6-foot-10 center Jeremiah Kreisberg (who played at Yale and Northwestern, and recently signed a two-year contract with Maccabi Haifa in the Israeli first division) both started for Team USA, which is expected to make it to the final, probably against France or Russia. Only five teams are in the open men’s bracket, so getting to the final won’t be too tall of an order for Team USA.

“For me, these games are personal on many levels,” said Kreisberg, 22, who scored only two points but was solid defensively. Springwater, also 22, had nine points, one of seven U.S. players with eight or more points.

“I have an Eastern European Jewish heritage that includes many past relatives from Germany [immigrants to the United States in the late 1800s]. The name Kreisberg is actually a German and Jewish name. So to be able to represent my German-Jewish heritage in such a momentous event in Berlin is incredibly powerful.

“Secondly, I played in the 2009 Maccabiah in Israel, when we lost the gold-medal game at the buzzer. I still have haven’t gotten over that day, and I’m incredibly motivated at the chance to finally attain Maccabi gold.”

Noah Springwater (left) and Jeremiah Kreisberg help Team USA men’s basketball trounce the Israelis on July 28. photo/andy altman-ohr

The gold-medal game is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 3, the penultimate day of the games. The next day, the youth (17-18) and junior (15-16) men’s basketball championship games will be contested.

Springwater, a psychology major who was interviewing for a job in Michigan two weeks ago, the day before joining Team USA in New York for training camp, is hoping to go out with a bang.

“Basketball is winding down for me,” he said. “I just graduated Columbia, and I didn’t really consider looking into trying to get a [pro] contract or any tryouts [overseas], so this is kind of my last hurrah.”

One major storyline at the opening ceremony was the participation of members of the Glickman and Stoller families. U.S. sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, both deceased, have come to represent the snubbing of Jews in the 1936 Olympics. Aside from keeping one half-Jewish athlete on its squad to mollify the West, Germany famously jettisoned all Jews from its 1936 team, including superstar high jumper Gretel Bergmann. Other nations had Jews on their teams, including at least one for the United States and 13 people of Jewish descent who won medals (six Hungarians).

But the symbolism of Glickman and Stoller’s benching is epic.

By virtue of their speed and better times than some of the other four U.S. sprinters on the 1936 team, Glickman and Stoller were set to be on the U.S. 4×100 relay team, but the day before the event, they were replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe (both of whom were black, by the way, which caused its own reverberation in Nazi Germany, but that’s another story).

Various reasons were given for the change, but the one that has stuck, and which Glickman never stopped insisting was true, was that Avery Brundage, the then-president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and future president (1952-1972) of the International Olympic Committee, gave word to coach Dean Cromwell to bench them. When the United States won the relay — a foregone conclusion — Brundage apparently did not want Hitler to be embarrassed by the sight of two American Jews on the winners’ podium. He also apparently wanted to remain in the Nazi leader’s good graces. Brundage, who had already strongly rallied against a U.S. boycott of the 1936 event, sat next to Hitler at the games and two years later received a contract from him to build a new German embassy in Washington (which led many to put two and two together).

Glickman, who went on to become a famous New York–area sports announcer, returned to Berlin and the Olympic Stadium in 1985, “looked up at the box, at the ghost of Hitler, and yelled, ‘I’m here and you’re not,’ ” recalled his daughter Nancy.

Nancy and a Stoller relative, Ann Stoller, carried a banner in front of the 207-member Team USA delegation when it marched into the opening ceremonies. It read, “We are still here.”

A plan for the two to light the opening torch almost got derailed when there was confusion among Berlin officials, but in the end it all worked out beautifully.

Team USA at the opening ceremony in Berlin. photo/mark susson-maccabiusa

Carrying the lit torch, Ann rode in on the back of a motorcycle that was part of a caravan from Israel. It was the re-creation of a ride in the early 1930s that started in British Mandate Palestine and traveled through Europe as a promotion for the then-nascent Maccabiah Games. Ann handed the flame, which had traveled all the way from Israel, to Nancy, who ignited the huge torch to officially start the games. As she did so, she was wearing her father’s Olympic uniform top from 1936.

“It was the most exciting day of my life by far, and that includes bar mitzvahs and births,” Ann said.

“They could have bestowed the honor by choosing anybody to light the torch,” Nancy said, “but they chose us — and that’s more than USOC has ever done.”

Jed Margolis, the executive director of Maccabi USA, said that like the Glickman-Stoller story, there were many important stories in Berlin and surrounding areas that deserved to be told. That’s why several outings to Holocaust memorials were scheduled for Maccabi Games participants. The first, on July 26, when many athletes arrived, was to Track 17, a memorial on the site of an old Berlin train station.

“It’s where the Jews were taken from Berlin and put on trains to go to Auschwitz [and elsewhere],” explained U.S. youth team soccer player Ethan Glasman, 18, of Pacifica. “I knew, of course, they rounded up the Jews, but it was pretty intense to see the tracks where they shipped them off. It was very eerie, very heavy.”

Ten Team USA members, including Kreisberg, read a short biography of a prominent Jewish athlete who was killed by the Nazis in a death camp, cutting short a promising athletic career.

“That was one of the most amazing off-court experiences I’ve ever had,” Kreisberg said. “Very emotional.” He read a piece about Stella Agsteribbe, a Dutch gymnast who won gold in the 1928 Summer Olympics and was murdered, along with her husband, 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, in Auschwitz.

“Hearing about them, I cried a little bit,” said Sydnie Telson, 21, a member of the U.S. women’s soccer team who also plays soccer at the University of San Francisco. “I actually put myself in their shoes and was thinking about how unfair it was to be robbed of being an athlete, to be robbed of everything, of life. It just broke my heart.”

Another excursion, before the opening ceremony on July 28, was to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, a popular stop for tourists to Berlin since it is just 22 miles north of the German capital. Mostly youth and junior athletes made the trip, 600 from all delegations, including 75 young athletes from Team USA.

“It gave me a numb feeling,” said Milgram, the teenage fencer from San Jose. “I wasn’t necessarily overly sad or overly angry, I was just completely dumfounded — sheer shock. To literally see the place you see pictures of in your textbook is really something.”

Some eight hours later, he was marching with Team USA into an amphitheater that opened the same year Sachsenhausen did.

“I honestly have not had a prouder moment in my life,” he said. “Marching in, I was thinking of my dad [Dan, who in 1997 won a Maccabiah gold medal in fencing in Israel] and all the years I have spent training to get to a place like this. Having a huge crowd watch you walk in and cheer you is just an unbelievable experience.”

“It was really awesome,” said Abbie Faingold, 18, a goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s soccer team who lives in Lincoln, northeast of Sacramento. “I wasn’t really thinking about the Nazi connection or Hitler. For me, it was more about the huge crowd and people chanting ‘USA! USA!’ and representing our country. I was thinking more about that than the past.”

J. managing editor Andy Altman-Ohr is reporting from the European Maccabi Games in Berlin. The games run through Aug. 5. For information or results, visit www.emg2015.de/en.

European Maccabi Games at a glance

What: 14th annual European Maccabi Games, Europe’s biggest Jewish sporting event. Ten-day international competition through Aug. 5. Admission to all events is free.

Where: Olympic Park and nearby venues, Berlin, Germany.

Who: Approximately 2,100 athletes from 29 European countries, including Russia and Turkey, and seven guest delegations (United States, Israel, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Argentina and South Africa).

History: In recent times, held every four years. Started in Prague (1929) and Antwerp (1930), then on hiatus until Copenhagen (1959). The last games in 2011 were in Vienna, marking the first time since World War II that Jews from all over Europe competed on the territory of the former German Reich.

Sports: Basketball, soccer, tennis, badminton, golf, half-marathon, squash, swimming, table tennis, bowling, triathlon, volleyball, equestrian (dressage), fencing, field hockey, futsal, water polo. Other competitions: Bridge, chess.

Divisions: Open, all ages, generally 18-35; Juniors and youth, 15-18; Masters, 35 and up.

Team USA: 175 athletes, the largest U.S. delegation ever at the European Maccabi Games. 20 teams in 14 sports. New York (31), California (30) and Florida (22) have the most athletes.

Follow the results: www.emg2015.de/en or www.maccabiusa.com, or either entity’s Facebook page.

Maccabi primer: Every four years, the World Maccabiah Games (unofficially known as the “Jewish Olympics”) are held in Israel; in 2013, more than 7,000 athletes from around the world participated in the 19th Maccabiah. Also held quadrennially are the European Maccabi Games and the Pan American Maccabi Games, set this year from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Santiago, Chile. The JCC Maccabi Games are held every summer at two or three sites in North America; this competition is for Jewish teens ages 13 to 16 (see story, 2).

Roster of Bay Area athletes

Sienna Drizin • U.C. Davis

As a junior last year, the Las Vegas native, 21, had a great season for the Aggies’ women’s soccer team, plus was on the conference all-academic team. This summer, she took an uplifting Birthright trip to Israel and also mourned the death of her longtime pet ferret, Charles. “He was the love of my life,” says the animal science major.


Hannah Edwards •
Napa

An excellent backstroker with experience in the Junior Olympics, Hannah, 16, could be a major U.S. contributor in Berlin in junior girls’ swimming. Her great-grandfather, Adolfo Wolff, emigrated from Austria to Brazil in the 1920s and was instrumental in starting a Maccabi sports club in Sao Paulo.

Abbie Faingold • Lincoln, Placer County

Abbie, 18, a talented goalkeeper, earned a soccer scholarship to Portland State after starring four years at Lincoln High (30 miles from Sacramento).

She red-shirted last season as a freshman. Her father, San Francisco native David Faingold, was a S.F. police officer for 20 years.

Aaron Gill • Kentfield

Part of Team USA’s medical staff, Gill, 39, was an athletic trainer at Holy Names University in Oakland for four years, and since 1999 that’s been his job at Marin Academy in San Rafael. This will be his fourth Maccabi Games: two in Israel (including one as girls’ volleyball coach) and the 2007 Pan American Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires.


Ethan Glasman  •
Pacifica

During the 2014-15 school year, Ethan, 18, played the Tin Man in a Terra Nova High production of “The Wizard of Oz” and was senior class president. The son of an Israeli father, he teaches Hebrew and excels at soccer, having played all four years in high school. Now he’s part of the Team USA boys’ youth division squad.

Jeremiah Kreisberg • Berkeley

After playing NCAA basketball three years at Yale, the 6-foot-10 235-pounder added one more season last year at Northwestern — while going to graduate school! The 22-year-old former star of Oakland’s Head-Royce School played for Israel in the under-20 European Championships in 2011 and should help lead the U.S. men’s open team to gold in Berlin.


Dan Leyson •
U.C. Davis

Featured in J. last week, U.C. Davis men’s water polo coach Dan Leyson, 45, is the son of a Schindler’s list survivor. But his water polo pedigree is not to be overlooked: The U.C. Davis head coach was a three-time All-American at powerhouse USC, an assistant coach at both UCLA and USC, and an assistant for the U.S. team in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.


Jason Lipton •
San Rafael

Jason, 19, who is competing in open men’s fencing, fences at U.C. Santa Barbara, but his biggest claim to fame so far was going to his first national tournament in 2013 and winning the Division 3 national title in the epee classification. His only Maccabi experience to date was in culinary arts at the 2010 JCC Maccabi ArtsFest in Marin.

Nathan Milgram • San Jose

Nathan, 15, is a rising star in saber (one of three fencing weapons) who has fencing in his blood: His mom, Lisa, was an NCAA star who has coached at Stanford for 16 years; his dad, Dan, won the saber gold in the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Israel; and his grandmother, the late Sherry Posthumus, is a member of the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame.


Noah Springwater •
San Francisco

A 6-foot-3 men’s basketball player, Noah, 22, played in 90 games over four seasons at Columbia University (though he never made a start) after starring at S.F.’s University High. He has definitely earned his Maccabi stripes, winning gold at the 2009 Maccabiah in Israel with the under-16 U.S. team and playing stateside in JCC Maccabi Games when he was 14, 15 and 16.


Sydnie Telson •
USF

A 21-year-old rising senior from Orange County, Sydnie plays on the U.S. open women’s soccer team in Berlin. In addition to her skills as a defender, she showed some fancy footwork to local Hillel officials by starting a Jewish group on the University of San Francisco campus after returning from a 2014 Birthright Israel trip.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.