Racing Before Hitler

My memories of athletic life as a Jewish teenager in Germany during the tumultuous 1930s.

Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

May 4 2017
About the author

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, WeimarA History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, was released in 2015 by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

It’s not so common for people in their forties or fifties to start rereading the books they read at thirteen or fourteen. But it’s quite common for them to revisit and regale friends with their early sports achievements and those of others that they may have witnessed first-hand. “Those were the days, my friend. . . .”

The habit is pronounced not only in circles that sophisticated intellectuals look down on but among such allegedly superior types themselves. Nor is it confined to those fortunate enough to have enjoyed a “normal” youth. It was no less prevalent among the generation of Jews who, like me, grew up in Germany or elsewhere in Central Europe during the tumultuous 1920s and 30s—and certainly among my own colleagues, friends, and close contemporaries.

Much later, and throughout the decades beginning in the 1960s when I was living in London, I always looked forward to the pleasure of a visit from Abraham Ascher, the distinguished historian of Russia at the City University of New York. Like me, Abe was a native of Breslau and almost exactly my age, so I knew for certain that he had stopped first not at the British Museum but in Highbury, mecca to Arsenal Football Club fans. Of similar disposition was the Berlin-born historian Peter Gay of Yale, though I forget the name of his favorite British team. In the annals of British Zionism, Chaim Weizmann, destined to become Israel’s first president, may have had no great feeling for soccer, but his biographer Jehuda Reinharz, a former president of Brandeis University, has a deep knowledge of its history and its significance for other Jews in, especially, Central Europe, and above all of the exploits of the renowned Westphalian club known as Schalke 04.

At a luncheon before he became U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger’s curiosity was sharply piqued when he discovered that I not only had a certain command of history and politics but also knew which sports club went by the nickname “1860 Munich” and could even talk intelligently about the exploits of Heinrich Stuhlfauth, the legendary goalie of Kissinger’s own hometown team, Spielvereinigung Fuerth. I also remember having a long debate at Dulles Airport with the world-class French political thinker Raymond Aron, a tennis fanatic and brother to a player once considered among France’s leading champions—and this at a time (the 1920s-30s) when France was a tennis superpower, boasting the likes of René Lacoste, Jean Borotra, and the other two members of France’s “Four Musketeers.” On the Parisian amateur front in those same days, a young Estonian-born devotee of tennis named Michael Josselson, later to become a consummate intellectual entrepreneur, had a regular partner in the composer and writer Nicolas Nabokov (cousin to Vladimir); in postwar Berlin, the two would give birth to the Congress for Cultural Freedom.


The great sports issue preoccupying me and many of my teenage generation was the case of Gretel Bergmann. This young Jewish lady from Laupheim in southwest Germany, who had equaled the previous German record in high-jumping, was at first invited by the Nazi regime to represent Germany in the 1936 Olympic Games. But at the last moment the invitation was withdrawn.

Some brief background. In 1912, a decision had been made in favor of Berlin as a site for the Olympic Games. Then World War I intervened, and the decision was put on indefinite hold. It was only owing to the initiative and personal contacts of Theodore Lewald, the German representative of the Olympic Committee, that the original decision was reinstated and the games could take place, infamously, under Nazi auspices in 1936. And even then there were complications as some Nazi fanatics discovered that Lewald had a Jewish grandmother and demanded his removal. When his many personal friends in the U.S. made it clear that “no Lewald, no Olympic games in Germany,” the complainers were forced to capitulate. (As for the grandmother in question, Fanny Lewald, she is very much a story unto herself, which I have rehearsed in an earlier essay in Mosaic.)

Back to Gretel Bergmann. In 1936 she had a good chance of winning a gold medal, but precisely for that reason there were fears lest Hitler be compelled to shake the hand of a Jew. Hence the withdrawn invitation. In the event, the Olympic gold in the high jump was won by a German named Dora Ratjen. Soon afterward, however, it was discovered that Dora was really Heinz, a man or, to be precise, an intersexual (that is, one whose sexual anatomy doesn’t seem to fit the typical definition of either female or male). Such cases have been reported quite frequently in connection with the Olympics: examples from the period include the Polish American track-and-field champion Stella Walsh and the Press sisters (it should have been the Press brothers) from the Soviet Union. Some were allowed to keep their medals, but others, like Dora Ratjen, were not.

As for Bergmann, after emigrating from Germany she won the British competition in the high jump and after entering the United States became a champion in both the high jump and the shotput. She worked as a medical assistant in New York, married a Dr. Bruno Lambert, and according to recent information still lives in Queens aged 103.


To return to my own story: my hour of athletic glory came in 1936 under rather unexpected circumstances. A Mr. Lachmann, who lived in my hometown, was a legend as a boxing trainer and locally famous for having put to flight a gang of three men bent on robbing his pawnshop. Even young Aryans would make their way to our training site, under cover of darkness, to benefit from his tutelage. On one evening I was chosen as a sparring partner for an Aryan boxer by the name of Miner. I was fifteen; he was twenty-one and immensely more experienced. But he committed an unforgivable boxing error and I caught him as he was standing on one foot. He was down for only a second or two, leaving me in dread of a ferocious pummeling. But Miner was a gentleman, acknowledged his error, and allowed me to survive the evening. Later that year he went on to the Olympics and won a bronze medal in the featherweight division. Our little scene had been witnessed by perhaps a half-dozen youngsters but somehow became more widely known, greatly if somewhat undeservedly enhancing my local prestige.

Another success of mine, if similarly clouded, occurred a year later in a swimming contest, another of my non-specialties. In the 50-meter breaststroke I came in first and was rewarded with a silver-plated clock on which my exploit was duly inscribed. Unmentioned was that only two of us were competing in this category and that my rival had actually bested me by several seconds but was disqualified through a technical fault, having touched the wall of the pool with only one hand instead of the prescribed two while turning.

Then, moving from swim meet to track meet, there was the day, also in 1937, when I represented my school in the 10 x 100-meter relay race in Breslau’s enormous stadium—in front of Adolf Hitler. Or was it Goebbels? I’ve found no way to check this, though in the late 1950s I did happen to encounter another participant in that day’s grand events. His name was Blumenfeld. Standing outside the Golders Green tube station in northwest London, we studied each other for several minutes before I seized the initiative and spoke first. Yes, it was he; we took great joy in our meeting and exchanged phone numbers but Blumenfeld soon emigrated to Australia and no subsequent meeting ever took place.

Recently, while rummaging through ancient issues of the weekly issued by the Breslau Jewish community, I was unable to find any references to intellectual exploits of mine but did come across a different sort of mention from the spring of 1938, the last year a Jew could graduate from a Nazi-controlled high school like mine. Among the individual listings of graduates’ names, in the space reserved for comments by teachers, one well-meaning instructor suggested that I stood an excellent chance of becoming a competent sports coach.

History dictated otherwise.


After emigrating to Palestine in late 1938 and spending a year at the Hebrew University, I moved to a kibbutz where, on guard duty to prevent Arab cattle from grazing in Jewish fields (and vice-versa), I rode a horse. A fatal acquisition: the animal was old, grayish, and evil-smelling, and it attracted countless tics that had to be removed every evening and morning. It also ambled at an exceedingly slow pace, and could be induced to gallop only by turning it home toward the stable.

For the Arab villagers among whom I worked, the quality of the man’s horse mirrored the status of the man. As a consequence, my own status was shamefully low. Fortunately, though, I was able to raise my equestrian spirits through the good offices of a friend of mine in Jerusalem, Dan Vittorio Segre, who hailed from a landowning family of Piedmontese Jews. Dan, who went on to teach at various universities and to write many books, including the autobiographical Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, kept a fine horse, which I was occasionally permitted to ride.

By way of a confession, here is a final anecdote from those years in Palestine/Israel: in actuality, my favorite sport was neither soccer nor boxing nor swimming nor running nor horseback riding. It was throwing the javelin. When I emigrated to Palestine, I took one with me. At a party many years later, I overheard a person who like me had once lived in the Rehavia section of Jerusalem mocking the strange habits of the immigrant German Jews in that neighborhood. One of these Jews, he said, was a madman whom he had occasionally observed throwing the javelin. The owner of that weapon, he speculated, must have been under the delusion that in the Palestine of the 1940s, hunting was a sport pursued with antediluvian arms.

In the words of that infinitely bittersweet song, Russian in its musical origins, its lyrics reworked in English by the Jewish New Yorker Eugene Raskin, and made famous by the Welsh singer Mary Hopkin:

Those were the days, my friend,
We thought they’d never end,
We’d sing and dance forever and a day.
We’d live the life we choose,
We’d fight and never lose.
Those were the days, my friend,
Those were the days.

More about: Adolf Hitler, History & Ideas, Nazis