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Yad Vashem Marks the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics with Two Online Exhibitions Commemorating Jewish and non-Jewish Athletes

22 July 2021

Gymnast Estella Agsteribbe was one of five Jewish women to participate in the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928. She was a trailblazer not only as Jewish athlete, but also as one of the first women permitted to compete in gymnastics at the global sports event. In September 1943, Estella and her two children were murdered shortly after arriving at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp – simply because they were Jewish.

In the spirit of the upcoming Olympic Games set to open tomorrow in Tokyo, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, is promoting two online exhibitions to commemorate both Jewish and non-Jewish athletes during WWII. The first exhibition, entitled "Jews and Sports before the Holocaust: A Visual Retrospective," utilizes images and artifacts to portray different sporting events and competitions in which Jews participated. This exhibition features the personal stories and images of Jewish athletes before the Holocaust, including champion boxer Victor Perez, the Hapoel Football team from Poland, and the Hakoach Vienna Hockey team competing at the Bar-Kochba International Sports Games in 1937. 

"For generations, Jewish athletes, both men and women, competed in different sporting events, some of them participating and even winning medals in the Olympics," remarked Dana Porath, Director of the Digital Department in the Communications Division at Yad Vashem. "The Jewish athletes who are making their way to Tokyo to participate in the Olympic Games, which were delayed from summer 2020 to now due to the global health pandemic, are only the latest in a long-standing tradition."

Another remarkable story included in this unique exhibition is that of cousins Gustav and Alfred Flatow, who represented Germany at two Olympic Games. "Despite their status as world-class athletes, their Jewish identity condemned them to an all too familiar fate and they, too, were murdered during the Holocaust," Porath reflected.

Sports often served as a bridge between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, resulting in friendships and comradery formed between these two societies. During the Holocaust, some of these bonds would prove beneficial in helping save Jewish athletes, when their non-Jewish counterparts bravely risked their own lives to rescue their Jewish compatriots from Nazi persecution – often at risk to their own lives. The second online exhibition "The Game of their Lives" tells the stories of those brave individuals, non-Jewish athletes recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. The inspiring accounts of a dozen valiant men and women are highlighted in the exhibition – most notably the rescue stories of world-renowned Italian cyclist champion Gino Bartali, Olympian swimmer Margit Eugénie Mallász, and Czechoslovakian soccer player Martin Uher. These stories truly embody the Olympics spirit of "social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."

"These two unique exhibitions are part of Yad Vashem's ongoing efforts to curate content that is both meaningful and timely," concluded Porath. "At a time when the world's attention is focused on the athletes competing in Tokyo, we are able to share the faces and inspirational stories of Jewish and non-Jewish athletes from the time of the Holocaust."