So prominent were Jews in fencing in the first half of the 20th century that Jewish fencers won Olympic medals for Austria, France, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, and Britain. Robert Rockaway explains:
Young Jews have always viewed participating in sports as a means of integrating and gaining acceptance among their non-Jewish peers and within the larger society. This held true for Jewish university students in Germany, Austria, and Hungary during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only there, fencing and dueling with swords became the Jewish students’ sports of choice. They did so because fencing was considered a path to climb the social ladder. In addition, dueling against non-Jews was a way for Jews to show their mettle and offered a means to defend Jewish honor, especially in a time of rising anti-Semitism.
Even Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, enthused about fencing. As a journalist, Herzl wrote articles about fencing duels between Jews and French anti-Semites in the late 19th century. Herzl himself once offered to duel a Viennese anti-Semite. He was not bluffing. As a child, he had been trained to use a sword and fought a duel as part of his initiation into Albia, a German student dueling fraternity. Herzl believed that “a half-dozen duels would very much raise the social position of Jews.”
Because of widespread anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish students were excluded from many university fraternities and athletic associations. Consequently, they created fraternities and sporting clubs of their own. Their dueling frequently took place within the confines of the Jewish environment. But once they engaged in competition with non-Jews, they achieved a reputation as fierce duelists. As a consequence of their ability and competitiveness, numbers of Jewish fencers became champions in their countries and in the Olympics. Olympic fencing competition was a means by which young Jews could express their patriotism and love of country and a way to show the world that Jews could compete with non-Jews at the highest level and win. In fact, Jewish athletes have won more Olympic medals for fencing than for any other sport.
This is true not only of Jewish men. In the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, the gold, silver, and bronze medals went to women fencers—Hungarian, German, and Austrian, respectively—who had a single Jewish parent, although none considered herself a Jew.