A Jew, a Czech, an officer and an Olympian &mdash no joke

Any story about Jewish athletes begins, more often than not, with “Did you hear the one about …”

In other words, a joke. And Helen Epstein has heard them all. But she can’t help wondering — when did it become so funny to spread Nazi propaganda?

In a San Francisco presentation last week, the author of “Children of the Holocaust” and six other books displayed a hideous Nazi caricature of the “prototypical” Jew: a sallow, boney, pot-bellied, knock-kneed, bespectacled, bearded ninny.

Needless to say, that’s not what Kurt Epstein looked like.

Helen’s father was a strapping 6-foot-1 officer in the Czechoslovakian army who twice represented his nation in the Olympics: in Amsterdam in 1928 and in the infamous Berlin Nazi Games of 1936.

In fact, Kurt Epstein had several Jewish teammates on that 1936 team, and Jewish athletic clubs — many of which regularly bested the top European teams, thrived throughout Europe. So while you’ll be lucky to find more than a few Jews in, say, an NFL huddle, the Nazi’s claim of Jewish physical weakness doesn’t sit well with the Epstein family photo album.

During her Thursday, March 16 talk, “I showed a picture of Kafka, who became a ‘prototypical’ Central European Jew,” said Epstein, a resident of Lexington, Mass. “He lived in coffee houses, he was neurotic, asexual, an indoor person.

“But Kafka was none of these things. He liked to sunbathe nude, go swimming in the nude and go hiking” — presumably with clothes on.

By Nazi standards, a Jewish water polo star was counterintuitive. The game was invented in Scotland as a form of aquatic rugby and, despite the grace of its participants, is a mind-blowingly violent and physical game. While most people wouldn’t think of a sport with the word “polo” in the title as brutal, they can’t see what goes on underwater (and neither can the referee). The action can be exceedingly rough.

And while Kurt Epstein’s Jewish teammates opted to boycott the Nazi Olympics, he went, proudly, as a Czechoslovakian and a Jew, feeling the best way to take on the Nazi propaganda was to take on the Nazis.

While he got the chance to do that in the pool, when the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia in 1939, he was quickly deported to a concentration camp. First it was Terezin (which had been his military garrison in his army days), then a fortuitously brief, two-day sojourn at Auschwitz before he was packed off to a Polish labor camp.

Epstein’s fantastic physical shape and athlete’s will probably helped him survive the war; he emerged as a 90-pound walking skeleton and, at 41, was about as old a survivor as you could find, his daughter said.

After his harrowing war experience, Kurt Epstein received a hero’s welcome from his surviving, non-Jewish teammates and was voted onto the Czechoslovakian Olympic committee, a high honor. But a communist takeover of his homeland did what the Nazi invasion couldn’t — convince him to leave. Along with his wife and 8-month-old Helen, he immigrated to New York City in 1948.

There, he continued to raise his family in a manner ill-befitting a Jewish stereotype. After Sunday school, the Epsteins were far less likely to eat bagels and drink coffee than whisk off to the country for hiking or swimming.

So those jokes Helen Epstein was talking about — she takes them personally. There were many, many Jews in Europe and elsewhere who excelled athletically. But there were far, far more Jews who were slaughtered in World War II, so, understandably, prewar leisure activities have been somewhat obscured.

If ever a graduate student or researcher wanted to study the subject, Epstein, whose talk was co-sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Holocaust Center and the Northern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, said she’d happily turn over her father’s archive to help paint a truer picture of Jews’ place on the athletic fields.

“Rethink your stereotypes if you’re Jewish,” she said. “There are plenty of people in the world who stereotype Jews. We don’t have to stereotype ourselves.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.