Agnes Keleti, in her mid-90s, performs a split in front of young Hungarian gymnasts in Budapest in 2016. (Photo/JTA-AFP-Getty Images-Peter Kohalmi)
Agnes Keleti, in her mid-90s, performs a split in front of young Hungarian gymnasts in Budapest in 2016. (Photo/JTA-AFP-Getty Images-Peter Kohalmi)

98-year-old Holocaust survivor and 10-time Olympian still an icon in Hungary

BUDAPEST—When journalists ask Agnes Keleti about her health, she smiles and slowly extends her right hand in apparent gratitude for the question.

Keleti yanks anyone who is foolish enough to grasp her hand with enough force to throw them off their balance.

Then she replies: “I’m fine, thanks. Yourself?”

Agility, defiance and humor are traits that helped Keleti, 98, survive the Holocaust in hiding and become Hungary’s most successful living athlete.

According to the International Olympic Committee, she won five gold, three silver and two bronze medals as a gymnast in the 1952 and 1956 Summer Games — all after she reached the relatively ripe age of 30. With 10 medals total, although one source says she won 11, she is the second-most decorated female Jewish Olympian of all time, behind only swimmer Dara Torres, who won 12 over five Olympics from 1988 to 2008.

Keleti, who left Hungary in 1957 and lived in Israel, is now celebrated as a national hero here in Budapest, where she returned three years ago to be with one of her two sons. Keleti leads a comfortable life in a central apartment that she shares with a female caretaker.

“I have a good life here. I feel at home,” Keleti said after lighting the Olympic flame on July 30 at the European Maccabi Games, a quadrennial Jewish sporting event that was held recently in Budapest. The last competition was in 2015 in Berlin, Germany.

Keleti is entitled to a monthly stipend of $13,000 in accordance with a law that compensates Olympic athletes proportionately to the number of medals they won.

She is interviewed regularly on national television here and invited to official events. A giant portrait of her adorns the side of a building in Budapest alongside those of other living Olympic champions.

She didn’t always feel this secure.

Keleti has dementia that impacts her short-term memory, but has not changed her positive outlook and cheerful disposition. Nonetheless, she did recall leaving Hungary in 1957 because “there was a lot of anti-Semitism.”

“It wasn’t a good atmosphere to be Jewish, even for a star athlete,” she said.

Growing up in a well-to-do family, Keleti delighted her parents with musical talent that emerged at age 3 and led her to become a gifted cello player. Her athletic capabilities emerged at 4, when her father taught her to swim during a vacation near Lake Balaton.

“My father had two girls, and he raised me like a boy,” she said.

The outbreak of World War II, when Keleti was 18, halted her athletic development.

She survived the Holocaust thanks to falsified identity papers, pretending to be from the countryside and having little education.

She worked as a maid (“I was strong and I worked hard. Nobody asked questions,” she recalled) at an estate and later at a munitions factory. Keleti’s mother and sister were saved by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Her father and uncles were murdered at Auschwitz.

Keleti, born in 1921, resumed her training as a gymnast in 1946, but a broken collarbone during training kept her out of the 1948 London Olympics.

Four years later she won her first Olympic gold medal, in the floor exercise, at the 1952 Helsinki Games. Keleti was 31 and competed against athletes 10 years younger. She also won a silver and two bronze medals.

That would have been a respectable pinnacle for the career of any professional athlete.

But for Keleti, it was merely the warm-up to her spectacular performance at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. At 35, competing against gymnasts half her age, she collected four gold medals and two silver.

“I drove myself hard,” Keleti said in reply to a question about the secret to her success. “I drove the girls I taught hard, too,” she added, referencing her years as the head coach of Israel’s national gymnastics team. “It’s the only way to get performance. Being nice and motherly doesn’t do it.”

Sergiusz Lipczyc, an Israeli former professional boxer who attended the Maccabi Games, recalled watching Keleti motivate her trainees at the Wingate Institute near Netanya in the 1960s.

“She was a tough cookie,” he said. “I remember her correcting one girl’s exercise by saying in front of everybody, ‘Don’t open your legs like that. It’s not nighttime just yet.’”

Two years shy of a century, Keleti still has a sharp tongue that makes it challenging to find suitable caretakers, her younger son, Raphael, said.

“It took a while to find someone who was emotionally unshakable,” he said.

Dismissing him with a wave of her hand, his mom said, “Never mind him. You’re not here to interview him. Direct your questions to me.”

In retrospect, Keleti said the girls she trained were too young and that the teenagers competing internationally today are a crucial two years younger than they ought to be for their own physical and mental health.

“The girls begin too early in life and the exercises they do are too straining,” she said. “It’s become a circus. Training needs to begin at 16 and the earliest competing needs to happen is at 18.”

Keleti is credited with essentially founding the national gymnastics team in Israel. She said her arrival there was largely circumstantial.

While competing in Melbourne, the Red Army quelled an anti-communist uprising in Budapest. Keleti filed for asylum and stayed in Australia, where Zoltan Dikstein, a former teacher from the Jewish Gymnasium in Budapest, looked her up and persuaded her to attend the 1957 Maccabi Games in Israel.

The country was so poor and Keleti’s sport so undeveloped that she had to bring her own bar and rings.

Her arrival was a rare feather in the cap of Maccabi organizers and the Israeli media couldn’t get enough of Keleti. Her stardom helped secure her teaching position at the Wingate Institute, where she trained several generations of gymnasts.

It was in Israel that she met her late husband, Reuven Shofet, with whom she had two boys.

“I grew up knowing my mother was Wonder Woman,” Raphael said. “She ran the household, she taught us music, helped with our homework, cooked meals so tasty that all the neighbors’ kids wanted to stay for dinner. Oh, and in her spare time she was an international and local celebrity who traveled to coach athletes at the Olympic Games. No biggie.”

In 2017, she won the Israel Prize, the Israeli government’s highest civilian distinction, in the sports category.

Keleti still was able to perform a leg lift and a split that year, but she said her skin has since become too thin to safely attempt such feats now. The problem is keeping her from exercising for the first time in her life.

“But who cares,” she said. “There’s more to life than sport.”

JTA

Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent