Ghosts laid to rest as Hitler’s Berlin stadium hosts Jewish games
European Maccabi Games begin in city’s Olympic Stadium, notorious for Nazi links
Berlin’s Olympic Stadium: German authorities admit they were nervous about holding such a large event at such a notorious site.
Nothing ever went Hitler’s way at Berlin’s irredeemably Nazi Olympic stadium. The dictator wanted the stone monument, built for the 1936 Olympic Games, to show off to the world the superiority of the so-called Aryan “master race”. Instead, to head off a looming international boycott, he was forced to lift his ban on Jewish participants and then look on as African-American athlete Jesse Owens took home four golds.
Now, seven decades after the end of the second World War and half a century after West Germany established diplomatic relations with Israel, some 2,300 Jewish athletes and their supporters will banish the ghost of Hitler for good from the stadium when they take it over for the 14th European Maccabi Games. Organisers of the event in Berlin see it as a daring and timely gesture of reconciliation to the city where where the extermination of Europe’s Jews was planned.
“There were a lot of people who said that they would never in their lives step again on German soil and we have to respect that,” said Alon Meyer, president of Maccabi Germany. “But we are a new generation ... and the question of guilt is long resolved.”
Participants from 37 countries will compete in 19 different disciplines from the familiar badminton, triathlon and swimming to other categories of activities including bridge and chess. Only Jews are allowed participate, though many outreach sporting events are planned.
The German authorities admit they were nervous about holding such a large event at such a notorious site. “This is the stadium where the Olympic games were exploited by Hitler,” said German interior minister Thomas de Maizière. “But to hold a Jewish sporting event like the Maccabi Games on this site is a good, important message.”
Events get under way on Tuesday evening when German president Joachim Gauck attends an opening ceremony at the Waldbühne amphitheatre, also part of the Third Reich Olympic complex. Any lingering Nazi ghosts were exorcised from here in 2007 when Barbra Streisand played a sold-out concert.
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“It makes me sad every euro we have to spend on security . . . but Munich 1972 is something we don’t want to experience again,” said organiser Alon Meyer.
To aid security, all participants will be housed in one hotel, the kitchen of which has gone kosher until the games end on August 5th.
Berlin’s growing Jewish community has embraced the games as a chance to show that life in the German capital is about more than remembering the Holocaust and defending themselves against flashes of anti-Semitism.
“This a good chance to show how things have developed,” said Gianni Miller, a Berlin footballer participating in the games. “It’s a matter of pride to show one’s own homeland.”
The Maccabi movement began life in 1921 in Karlsbad and now has 450 clubs spanning the world, with 400,000 members. The first European games were held in 1929 in Prague and the first world games three years later in Tel Aviv, where they are still staged every four years. The organisation’s name is derived from the so-called Maccabean Revolt of Judean rebels against a ban on Jewish ceremonies in 167 BC.
As well as sport and cultural events the European Maccabi organisers hope to set a world record during the games this Friday, when they have asked all participants to join them for the Kiddush prayer ceremony that begins the sabbath. Organiser Oren Osterer said: “The idea that, seven decades after the Shoa, we can set a Jewish world record in Berlin gives us goosebumps.”