European Maccabi Games 2015: Nazi-built stadium in Berlin to host 'Jewish Olympics'

Athletes from 36 countries will compete in the austere, stone amphitheatre built for Hitler's 1936 Olympics

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The Independent Online

It might have been a throwback to Nazi Berlin as more than 2,000 athletes filed past a grim statue of “Germania” into an austere, stone amphitheatre built for Hitler’s 1936 Olympics.

They were there to witness the lighting of a symbolic flame, heralding the start of a major sporting event. Yet this time there was one major difference: all the participants were Jewish.

The ceremony marks the start of the European Maccabi Games: an athletic competition also known as the “Jewish Olympics” that dates back to 1929. The Games opened in Berlin for the first time - and significantly, on the site used 79 years ago by Hitler to stage an infamous Olympic Games from which he sought to ban all Jews.

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A man wears a Kippa at the so-called 'Maifeld', a place used by Nazis for mass rallies (Getty)

“Berlin is the city in which the Holocaust had its beginnings,” said Alon Meyer, president of Maccabi Germany. He said the choice of Berlin was both a gesture of German-Jewish reconciliation, 70 years after Holocaust, and a signal that Jewish life was now back and flourishing in Germany. “I am glad that we now have another Germany,” he said.

Mr Meyer admitted that he had faced stiff opposition to Berlin as a venue from older Maccabi supporters, some Holocaust survivors. But he said that most of Maccabi’s 400,000 members worldwide favoured the idea. “The younger generation won in the end. We will remember the Holocaust but we will then look forward to the future of Jewish life in Germany.”

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The Olympic torch is carried into the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1936 Games in Berlin (Getty)

Athletes from 36 countries are taking part in the event, which involves 19 sporting disciplines ranging from football to fencing. But while organisers stressed the importance of looking to the future, it was difficult to ignore the past.

With the revamped 1936 Nazi Olympic stadium less than half an mile away, and against a backdrop of granite pillars topped with huge gold Hitler-era eagles, Maccabi sportsmen and women played preliminary football. Many did their best to ignore the surroundings.

“We are not so much interested in history,” David Altschuler, 25, a football player from Denmark, told The Independent. “We have come here to see Berlin, to meet other Jewish sportsmen and women and to enjoy ourselves.” For Sofia Pavinskaite, a Lithuanian swimmer in her early thirties, the choice of Berlin seemed intimidating. “We lost most of our families as a result of the Holocaust. Lithuania’s Jewish community is down to about 3,000 people as a result. We prefer not to think what the Germans did.”

 

But Samantha Cohen, 31, a tennis player from Mill Hill, London, thought otherwise: “As soon as I heard that the games were going to be held in Berlin, I knew I had to be there and I knew it would be epic,” she said. Ms Cohen said her recent discovery that she had lost several relatives in the Holocaust made her presence in Berlin especially important. Like many German participants, she said the games showed that Jews had returned to Germany.

But painful memories of the slaughter of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics ensured that security at the Maccabi games - named after an ancient Jewish leader who defended his country from Greek rule - remained high. Most athletes are being put up in the city’s large Estrel hotel complex in the eastern half of the city, with the building made into a fortress, under round-the-clock police guard.  

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Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Games (Getty)

German politicians said they regretted the “draconian but necessary” security measures. Yet they coincided with a vitriolic anti-Maccabi campaign, conducted on the internet by German neo-Nazis. “These games have nothing to do with sport, they are just pro-Jewish propaganda – sickening!” wrote one blogger.

A growing number of Jews have made their home in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In 1990 there were just 6,000 Jews living in the German capital.

Today, as a result of reunited Germany’s open-door policy towards Jewish immigrants, that number has risen to more than 50,000 - most of them from Russia - and Germany is now home to one of the fastest growing Jewish populations in the world.