Table-tennis champion retires his game but not his memories

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When Ping-Pong whiz Allan Herskovich performed his last exhibition game in a 30-second TV commercial, he was a southpaw stand-in for a right-handed actor.

The producer, filming the ad for a Chicago-based sporting goods store, asked Herskovich to use his right hand while zinging shots to his opponent, Shoni Aki. But the 77-year-old three-time world champion put his foot down.

"I'm left-handed," says Herskovich, who won his laurels while representing his native Yugoslavia. "I didn't switch hands."

The cameras filmed him from the chest down, and the resulting footage shows Herskovich's hand and the face of the actor for whom he was standing in. This no doubt presented a challenge to the postproduction crew editing the film, since the 5-foot-10-inch athlete was, by his own description, "scrawny" while the actor was "chubby."

Now, three years later, the El Cerrito retailer tends to his electric-shaver shops and speaks of table-tennis tournaments in the past tense.

"I can make exhibitions," he says. "I cannot compete."

Age slows down the reflexes, he explains. "You need speed," he says, describing the table game involving a hollow ball, paddles and net that was invented by an American company in the 1920s. "You need to be a fast thinker." Who knows where the ball will land next — "left, right, short, low, whatever — it's so darned fast!"

His avocation spanned 63 years, beginning in his hometown of Zagreb. Young Adolf Herskovich (he changed his first name when he moved to the United States) took up the game called Ping-Pong for the sound the ball makes as it ricochets off a paddle, shoots through the air and lands on the table. A member of the city's Jewish Athletic Club, he also played soccer and gymnastics. He was so good at table tennis that he became Yugoslavia's second junior champion at the age of 16.

Before World War II, he represented his motherland in three world championships: in 1937 in Baden, Austria; in 1938 in London; and in 1939 in Egypt.

"My life in Yugoslavia was very good," he recalls.

Then in 1940, "the Germans came," he says, "and table tennis was not important.

"My life was important."

His father and sister died at Auschwitz shortly before the war ended. His youngest brother died when German soldiers beat him severely and threw him off a mountain.

"My mother was lucky: She died just before it started," he says. "It's terrible to say it's lucky she died earlier, but it's true."

Herskovich and three other brothers fled as far as the Adriatic Sea but were arrested in Italy and imprisoned in several camps, including Ferramonti di Tarsia in the province of Cosenza, before being liberated by American troops in September 1943.

His older brother died in the bombing of Lanciano the following spring on Herskovich's birthday.

Weighing less than 100 pounds as a result of his incarceration, Herskovich went to work staging table-tennis demonstrations at USO shows in the southern Italian town of Bari.

"I remember a striptease dancer" who performed her act right before the Ping-Pong demo at one of these shows, he says with a laugh. Hers was a tough act to follow. The audience was full of young men in their 20s who were "hungry for whatever," who while watching the Ping-Pong game hollered, "Bring on the woman."

At war's end he found himself living in Rome, and representing Italy at three more Ping-Pong tournaments: 1948 in London, '49 in Stockholm and '50 in Budapest.

The Israeli team asked him to join in 1950; he did, but stayed only a few months before moving to New York, and from there to the Bay Area.

He worked in the electric-shaver department at Macy's from 1952 to 1957 before opening his own business on Macdonald Avenue in Richmond. Today he and his wife, Dorothy, with their two adopted sons, Emanuel Eliazer (named after Herskovich's two brothers) and Joel, run shops in San Leandro, Richmond and Walnut Creek.

In the living room of his comfortable home in the El Cerrito hills, Herskovich empties a wrinkled paper bag onto a polished wooden table.

As several postcards and letters pour out, the blue-eyed, gray-haired Herskovich pulls out an old Yugoslavian passport bound in tattered red cloth. Right in the middle of one page, among the passport's many stamps, is the imprint of a Nazi swastika.

He bears no ill will toward the Italians who incarcerated him; in fact, he praises the humane way they treated him.

As he revisits the unfathomable events of 50 years ago, Herskovich acknowledges he's "tremendously Jewish, a yeshiva bocher [boy]. But I cannot understand why this happened."

He displays a large sheet on which are photocopied several small pictures of relatives lost in the Holocaust.

And he throws himself into his war stories. For instance, he explains that he shared not only a given name but also a birthday with Hitler.

At the dawn of his 24th year, which came soon after the Germans had invaded Yugoslavia, in April 1940, the young athlete and his friends met in a restaurant. They all sang, "Happy birthday, dear Adolf," and a group of Germans present cheered, thinking it was Hitler's birthday being honored.

"I stood up and looked them in the eye and said it wasn't for Hitler. It was for me."