The Olympic Games are a major event with a global appeal. We are taking this opportunity to remember athletes who were subjected to Nazi persecution. Many Olympic athletes were among them. They too had cause to fear for their lives – if they did not conform to the Nazis’ racist worldview, if they did not want to cooperate with the regime, or if they engaged in resistance.

Persecuted athletes

As the 2020 Summer Olympics open in Tokyo, we will be remembering a number of athletes who were victims of Nazi persecution. Many former Olympians from many different countries who did not conform to the Nazis’ racist worldview had cause to fear for their lives.

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1936 Winter Games

Authoritarian states make use of their position as hosts of the Olympic Games to demonstrate their strength and exploit the event for propaganda purposes, as history shows. We spoke to Alois Schwarzmüller about the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. He explains: “There was an obvious gap between the Olympic idea and National Socialist ideology.”

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The top female athlete Lilli Henoch

We are remembering the ten-time German champion Lilli Henoch, one of the most important female track-and-field athletes of the 1920s and a trailblazer for society’s recognition of women’s sport.

© Private archive Martin-Heinz Ehlert
© Private archive Martin-Heinz Ehlert

Ten-time German Champion

Lilli Henoch was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, on October 26, 1899. In 1918, her passion for sport took her to Berlin, where she trained as a member of the track-and-field division of the Berlin Sports Club (BSC) from 1919 on and became ten-time German champion in the disciplines #shotput, #discusthrow, #longjump and the 4 x 100 meters relay between 1922 and 1926. Alongside this, she studied as a gym teacher and orthopedist at the Prussian College for Physical Exercise.

When the Nazis seized power, her sporting career virtually came to an end due to her Jewish background. Despite Lilli being appointed the head of the women’s section of the sports club in January 1933, her exclusion from the BSC followed in the fall of 1933. She worked as a gym teacher at a Jewish elementary school and put together a handball team at the “Jewish Gymnastics and Sports Club 1905,” which was one of the best in Germany within Jewish sport.

“Un-German boxing”

In 1920s Germany, boxing matches evolved into huge sporting events that enjoyed a great deal of media attention. Professional boxer “Rukeli” Trollmann was among the audience’s absolute favorites. He became the German light heavyweight champion in 1933, but the Nazis stripped him of the title a few days later for spurious reasons. They bullied Rukeli because he was a Sinto – but also because of his modern and “un-German” fighting style.

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The multitalent Otto Herschmann

We remember Otto Herschmann, who won the silver medal in 100-meter freestyle swimming at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The Jewish Austrian sportsman was not only a talented swimmer, he also won second place with the national sabre fencing team at the 1912 Olympics.

Otto Herschmann. Copyright: Yad Vashem

A life for sport

Soccer, rugby, car racing, tennis – Allan Muhr was successful in many different sports at the beginning of the 20th century. Born in America, he supported the French Army as a volunteer ambulance driver during both World Wars – until the German occupying forces captured him in 1943 and took him to the concentration camp.

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Basketball legend Ralph Klein

We are remembering basketball legend Ralph Klein: a German Jew and Holocaust survivor, Israeli national hero, and coach to the German national team. 

Ralph Klein was born in Berlin on July 29, 1931. He and his two older siblings Ruth and Tibor came from a Hungarian Jewish family. His father owned a furniture factory. In 1939, the family fled from Nazi Germany back to Budapest, yet their persecution continued there too. His father was imprisoned by the fascist militia, before being deported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1944. His sister survived the camp. His mother, Tibor, and Ralph succeeded in reaching one of the safe houses established by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, thus escaping deportation.

© Foto: DBB-Archiv

From player to coach

Ralph Klein’s sports career began in Israel. The photo on the left shows him in 1960 as part of the Israeli basketball team (back row, third from right). In 1977, as coach, he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to victory in the European Cup. From 1983, Klein coached the German national team. The photo below shows him instructing the players.

After the end of the war, Ralph began playing basketball. However, Jews also faced antisemitism under totalitarian communism in post-war Hungary. The Klein family therefore decided to emigrate to Israel in 1951. This is where Ralph’s meteoric rise in basketball began: he joined Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1952 and soon became one of the young nation’s first sporting idols.

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