Hoopla reigns as Jewish Olympics open in Austria

vienna, austria  |  The symbolism was unmistakable.

Four thousand Jews stood just a few hundred yards away from the spot where a quarter-million Austrians cheered Hitler in March 1938 as he announced Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria.

This time, however, the Jews had come to celebrate, as athletes from around the world gathered July 6 for the lavish opening ceremony of the 13th European Maccabi Games, slated to run through July 13.

It was the first time the Games — the so-called Jewish Olympics for Europe — have been held in a German-speaking country since 1945, and Maccabi officials said the crowd made up the largest gathering of Jews in Vienna since the Holocaust.

“Here we are on the other side of the street from where Hitler declared he would destroy the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Carlos Tapiero, the deputy director general of the Maccabi World Union. “We’re saying, ‘No! We’re here.’ ”

 

The U.S. team parades past Vienna City Hall during the July 6 opening ceremony of the European Maccabi Games. photo /jta/ruth ellen gruber

The three-hour opening ceremony included screen projections showing Hitler and the destruction of the Holocaust as well as prewar Jewish life and postwar rebuilding in Europe and Israel. The event took place in front of Vienna City Hall, the Rathaus, not far from Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, where Hitler spoke in 1938.

 

“We can’t forget the Vienna that was the city of Theodor Herzl, nor can we forget the Vienna of the Nazis,” the speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, told the crowd. “It’s a festival of the victory of the Jewish spirit over Nazi extermination.”

Amid cheers, fanfare and flag waving, some 2,000 athletes paraded in the opening ceremony. They came from 37 countries in Europe, the Americas, Israel, central Asia and Africa.

The delegations were dressed in colorful team uniforms — the Scottish team wore kilts — and ranged in number from the more than 200 (Germany) to one (Guinea Bissau). The 115-member U.S. team included two 80-year-olds, John Benfield of Los Angeles and Arthur Figur of New Rochelle, N.Y., who had escaped Vienna in 1938 as children and were returning to swim for the U.S. team in the over-35 classification.

“I’m doing really a symbolic swim,” Benfield, a professor emeritus at the UCLA Medical School, said. “I’m not a competitive swimmer, but when I heard that the European Maccabi Games were being held in Vienna, I knew it was something I needed to do.”

“It’s a symbolic return to a country that could have annihilated me if I hadn’t escaped,” Figur added.

The Maccabi sports movement, Tapiero noted, began as part of an ideological effort to build a “new Jew” in response to anti-Semitism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The aim was to enable Jews to use their bodies, not just their brains, to prove their excellence. The focus today has shifted somewhat, Tapiero said.

“The ethos of excellence in sports changed when the world changed,” he said. “We don’t have to prove our excellence there. The ethos now is the social aspect.”

The idea of the games is not just to play sports or celebrate, but to foster Jewish identity and community.

“Our motto is building Jewish pride through sports,” said Ron Cramer, president of Maccabi U.S. “It’s an amazing way to engage young people. They think they are just coming to a sporting event, but it’s much, much more.”

It’s also an opportunity for young Jews to meet each other; participating athletes exchanged team pins, email addresses and Facebook info.

“I’m making many new friends from other countries,” said Benny Abramov, 14, of the Austrian basketball team. “If you’re in a hotel with 2,000 other athletes, it’s a new feeling.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.