London Olympics: Bombay boxers and Hebrew basketball players

By Jennifer Lipman, August 2, 2012

Next to the JC's report of French Jewish athlete Micheline Ostermeyer's successes in the 1948 Games, there was a "missing relatives" column. The missing aunts, husbands, friends, came from Warsaw and Riga, Odessa and Lvov. "Last heard from in 1932," read one.

Staged three years after the Holocaust, the Games were a new dawn for the Jew as champion in a more tolerant world. "I found no trace of prejudice," said Chilean fencer Isaac Goldstein. "We were all sportsmen… the atmosphere was fine."

As the JC acknowledged in an editorial, "for too long" the Jews had been seen as "a 'bookish' people, either unable or unwilling to face competition in hardier activities". The Games were an opportunity to challenge that, not least for athletes who had survived Nazi persecution, like Fred Oberlander, who had refused to represent Austria at the Berlin Games of 1936, but who competed for Britain in 1948. Berlin-born racewalker Henry Laskau, who fled his home country on the eve of the Holocaust, competed under the US flag, while survivor Susy Halter swam for Hungary at the age of 19.

In total, 70 Jews, representing 20 nations, went for gold, among them British swimmer Roy Romain and British basketball player Lionel Price, along with six of Canada's basketball team, dispatched from the Montreal Young Men's Hebrew Association. Many departed with medals, including Hungarian Ilona Elek - then 41 - who won gold for fencing, repeating her triumph at the 1936 Games.

US wrestler Henry Wittenberg, a New York police sergeant who later advised the 1972 Israeli team before its fateful trip to Munich, won gold, as did France's Ms Ostermeyer, who took home medals for discus and shotput and broke an Olympic record.

There was disappointment too; despite high hopes, Bombay Maccabi's Israel Monashy, the flyweight boxing champion of West India, "arrived too late" to take part.

"The extensive participation of Jews draws attention to their ability to stand on an equal footing with their fellows in one more department of human activity," said the JC.

In 1948 Dr Ivan Osiier, 60, competed in his seventh games. A Jew who boycotted the 1936 Olympics, he made his debut at the London Games of 1908.

That competition was a chance for British Jews to prove their loyalty, not least the Jewish man who was appointed one of only six Olympic stewards from Wales. A patriotic JC described the stadium as "the greatest structure of its kind… equalled in accommodation for spectators only by the Roman Coliseum". Just 22 nations took part, but Jewish athletes still tried their luck, including in the Dutch team, in which seven of the 20 were Jewish, and the Austrian team, where "coreligionists Eugen Fuchs and Richard Weiss" - a fencer and a wrestler - both gained first prizes.Producer Imre Kiralfy, "an alien Jew" was said to have "wrought for Britain a triumph that has earned her the admiration and homage of her colonies and of the European and the American continents".

Both in 1908 and 40 years later, the JC enthused about the triumphs of Jewish sportsmen. "It is idle to pretend that there is no Jewish significance," it said. "One has but to recall that many of their grandparents in Eastern Europe lived lives in which health pursuits were lacking and the 'ghetto bend' was prevalent, to appreciate the distinct Jewish interest of their athletic achievements to-day."

Last updated: 3:45pm, August 2 2012