Why Gymnastics Was the Hardest Hit Olympic Sport in the Holocaust

In my last article I talked about the abnormally high death rate of Olympic gymnasts during the Holocaust. This begs the question, why?

The pre-World War II era of gymnastics is an era can be described as the “political era” of gymnastics history. In this era of gymnastics clubs and societies were quite common. But there was a twist, many of these gymnastics institutions blurred the line between a sports organization and a political organization.

In the United States gymnastics clubs/societies called Turnvereins sprang up all across the country. Turnvereins were about promoting physical fitness and the sport of gymnastics, but also had a strong emphasis on promoting German-American identity and culture. In Czechoslovakia a similar gymnastics society existed by the name of “Sokol.” In the aftermath of World War I Sokol became a powerful tool to promote unity in a newly independent multi-ethnic country. It also kept the civilian population physically fit and improved the military preparedness of the country.

European sports history in the late 1800s and early 1900s is filled with examples of sports leagues being used as a tool to mask an underground political movement. One notable example of this occurred in Ireland in the buildup to the Irish War of Independence. But the most infamous example of all was Nazi Germany.

Gustav Flatow (Top Row 3rd from Left)

You can’t recount Hitler’s rise to power without mentioning the SA, the faction of Nazis that wore brownshirts and were known as the Storm Detachment or Sturmabteilung. The SA was initially called the “Gymnastic and Sports Division” to elude authorities as to what it really was, a paramilitary wing of a political party. Gymnastics wasn’t just enshrined in the name of a key Nazi institution, but would go on to be an important sport in Nazi sporting culture. Gymnastics traces its roots to ancient Greece, but modern gymnastics originated in 19th century Germany.

Due to its German roots, the Nazis emphasized gymnastics both in the form of encouraging participation as well as promoting gymnastics in propaganda. Gymnastics was seen as one of the purest forms of Aryan sport. Among men, gymnastics was the second most popular sport after soccer. But among women, gymnastics was by far the most popular sport. Women’s participation rates in gymnastics were higher than the next six most popular sports combined. Gymnastics was the best example of a sport managing to overcome stigma against female participation in sport that existed in 1930s Europe. When both genders are combined, gymnastics had the highest participation rate of any sport in Nazi Germany.

It has been speculated that there is a connection between gymnastics being strongly embedded in Nazi ideology, and the high death rate of gymnasts in the Holocaust. Did the Nazis specifically sought out the murder of Jewish gymnasts to rid “their” sport of a Jewish presence? Allon Sinai of the Jerusalem Post stated the following:

“It is believed that Jewish gymnasts were many times the first to be rounded up by the Nazis as their excellence in what the Germans considered the purest of sports dispelled their belief in the supremacy of the Aryan race.”

It is most certainly possible that this was the case, if not probable. But like other examples of atrocities, most of the evidence available can be found in the atrocities themselves and not the actual planning of it. I found some evidence suggesting the Nazis specifically sought out Olympic gymnasts, but nothing that can establish a strong, proven link. I would cite Jerusalem Post’s “it is believed” commentary as the best way to describe it.

Perhaps the real reason gymnasts had such a high death rate in the Holocaust comes down to two key issues. The first is that gymnastics originated out of Germany. The closer a country was geographically to Germany, the more likely it was to have a strong gymnastics base in the decades before World War II. These were also the same countries that came under Nazi occupation during World War II.

Alfred Flatow (Center)

Of the 22 Olympic coaches, gymnasts, and alternates that were killed in the Holocaust, 12 of them were Dutch. Two more (the Flatow cousins) were Germans who had escaped to the Netherlands prior to the outbreak of war. They were then caught after Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands during World War II. The high rate of gymnasts from the Netherlands who died in the Holocaust is reflective of what happened to the country as a whole which saw its entire Jewish population devastated. Among them, Anne Frank who along with her family had fled to the Netherlands from Germany prior to the start of World War II.

The second reason why Jewish gymnasts had such a high death rate in the Holocaust is that only in a sport where Jewish gymnasts were having so much success to begin with, could the sport so be hit so hard by the Holocaust. Jewish gymnasts were strongly represented when men’s gymnastics was held for the very first time at the Olympics in 1896, and again when women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) made its debut at the 1928 Olympics.

The Nazis tried to erase the Jewish people from society, they failed. The Nazis tried to erase the Jewish legacy in gymnastics, they failed. In the period immediately following the Holocaust, Jewish gymnasts dominated WAG. The Soviets were led by a Jewish duo named Maria Gorokhovskaya and Galina Urbanovich. They were two of the finest gymnasts in the history of WAG and I did a 3-part series on each gymnast as well as the era of anti-semitism they defied.

Link To: Gymnastics Bios #3: Galina Urbanovich
Link To: Gymnastics Bios #4: Maria Gorokhovskaya
Link To: The 1952 Soviet Team and Anti-Semitism

Amazingly, Gorokhovskaya and Urbanovich weren’t even the best Jewish gymnasts of their era. That honor goes to Holocaust survivor Agnes Keleti of Hungary. She eluded capture by authorities thanks to a set of false papers and survived Nazi occupation. Agnes is one of just four WAGs who have ten or more Olympic medals and is actually third in the Olympic medal count behind only Latynina and Caslavska when medal color (silver vs bronze) are used as tiebreakers. Symbolically, the most successful era of Jewish WAG came immediately following the Holocaust.

Jewish gymnasts would have success in the following decades. Soviet WAG is one of the most successful dynasties in sports history. Jewish gymnasts were part of it from the start in 1952 (Gorokhovskaya and Urbanovich). Jewish gymnast Elena Shushunova was the USSR’s last Olympic All-Around champion when it competed under its own flag in 1988. And in 1992 when the Soviet team competed for the final time under an Olympic flag, another Jewish gymnast by the name of Tatiana Lysenko won its final Olympic medal. Jewish gymnasts were well represented at both the beginning and end of the most famed dynasty in WAG history.

And then there is Hava Nagila, the iconic song frequently associated with Jewish culture that has become one of the most popular songs in WAGs. Three of the last six Olympic champions on floor have used it at some point in their careers. Among them, Aly Raisman who is herself Jewish and has six Olympic medals. In recent times, it is American gymnast Grace McCallum who has already been named to two World Championship teams before her 17th birthday that is carrying on the tradition of Hava Nagila. There is also Gabby Douglas who doesn’t frequently discuss her Jewish background but does have some connections to Judaism, while Lilia Podkopayeva has recently spent her time coaching at a Jewish community center.

1928 Dutch Gymnastics Team

Germany has made sure to honor and remember this story. German Gymnastics has an award for excellence known as the Flatow Medal. It was named after a pair of cousins who had been two of Germany’s finest gymnasts who had been murdered in the Holocaust. Winners of this award include Epke Zonderland, Kim Bui, Katja Abel, and West Germany’s top gymnast of the Cold War era, Anja Wilhelm. But the Germans took things one step further.

The stadium Germany used for the 1936 Olympics survived World War II and continues to function as one of the most notable stadiums in Europe. The stadium has seen significant changes over the decades. One of them being the renaming the road which takes vehicles directly to its entrance. It is now called Flatowallee which translates to Flatow Boulevard in English.

The structure that had once been used as the centerpiece of Hitler’s plan to use the 1936 Olympics to showcase Nazi ideology and demonstrate Aryan supremacy, now has a piece of it renamed in memory of two Olympic gymnasts who were murdered during the Holocaust.

Link to Part I: Gymnastics and the Holocaust

Gustav Flatow (1900)

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