The status of gymnastics being the Olympic sport with the highest death rate in the Holocaust is something that is not widely known amongst gymnastics fans. There have been a couple of sites that have covered it in some detail, but they focused mostly on one small component of this story while leaving the rest untold.
There are three components to this story.
The first component is the 1928 Dutch women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) team that won the team gold medal at the 1928 Olympics. The coach of that team along with four of its gymnasts were murdered in the Holocaust. This is the part of the story that is the most widely known.
The second component is the lesser known detail of what happened to their family members. All five members of the 1928 team were killed alongside their spouses and children. Knowing the competition was slated to be held outdoors, coach Gerrit Kleerekoper came up with the innovative idea of having the team train outside regardless of weather to make sure the the gymnast were prepared for any condition. He was murdered alongside his wife and children who were ages 18 and 14.
The team itself was younger than their coach. When World War II broke out they had only just started family life. The four gymnasts were murdered alongside their husbands and children. The children were ages 10, 6, 6, 5, 3, and 2.
And then there is the final component to this story that is the least known of all. Men’s artistic gymnastics (MAG) was hit even harder than WAG. Three members of the 1928 Dutch MAG team were also murdered in the Holocaust along with four members of the 1908 Dutch Olympic MAG team.
Czechoslovakia lost three Olympic gymnasts, all of them highly decorated. Ladislav Vacha was a 3x Olympian who won five Olympic medals in his career. Vacha didn’t die in an extermination camp but from complications stemming from torture he endured after being interrogated by the Gestapo. Frantisek Pechacek was not only an Olympian, but had won the All-Around (AA) title at the 1922 World Championships. And finally Jan Gajdos who was another AA Champion winning his title at the 1938 World Championships as well as the gold medal on floor. Gajdos went to two Olympics in his career and would have been a 3x Olympian if not for missing the 1932 Olympics due to the Great Depression. In the case of Gajdos, he was subjected to a death march that he initially survived, but his health was so severely damaged he died shortly afterwards.
At the very first Olympics in 1896 Germany had the famed Flatow cousins. Gustav Flatow won two gold medals. Alfred Flatow won three gold medals and a silver medal. The 1896 Olympics was the only time the AA wasn’t contested in MAG. Had it been held there is a high probability Alfred would have won it. The cousins were both murdered in the Holocaust.
Hungary lost 1912 Olympic silver medalist Gyozo Halmos. Italy lost 1908 Olympians Gino Ravenna and Paolo Salvi. Paolo was a 2x Olympian who won a gold medal in each Olympics he attended. His career is particularly noteworthy as he lost two Olympics to World War I and could have been a 4x Olympian. Janez Porenta was a 2x Olympian who won a bronze medal for Yugoslavia and was executed by Italian forces.
There’s also the case of Nicolaas Moerloos of Belgium. He was a 2x Olympian in two different sports, gymnastics and weightlifting. He won a silver medal in MAG. Moerloos died as a member of the resistance movement and I couldn’t verify whether the circumstances of his death occurred in a way that violated the Geneva Convention. In the end 17 Olympians in MAG died during World War II. Of those 17 Olympians, 13 died in extermination camps, another three were killed under circumstances that constitute a war crime, and the final case was Moerloos.
Gymnasts account for 30% of all known Olympians who died in the Holocaust according to the OlyMadMen database. The next highest sport was fencing at 15% and after that it is a tie between swimming and world athletics (track and field) at 8% each. Gymnastics was by far the hardest hit Olympic sport in the Holocaust.
In Part II I discuss why all of this happened. Why was gymnastics the Olympic sport that lost so many of its World Champions and Olympic medalists? What made gymnastics different from other Olympic sports of the era that caused its death rate to become so tragic?
Link to Part II: Why Gymnastics Was the Hardest Hit Olympic Sport in the Holocaust