Games to be held in Berlin for first time since Holocaust, a chance to show world Jewish life in bloom
Seventy years after the fall of the Third Reich, its memory still resonates on the bleachers of Berlin's Olympic stadium. The stadium, built on Hitler's orders for the 1936 Olympics, is still best remembered for its swastika flags surrounding a Nazi-saluting crowd. But at the end of this month, the same hallways and benches will be filled with thousands of Jewish athletes from all over the world, gathering in Germany's capital for the 14th European Maccabiah Games.
“When I entered the stadium for the first time a year and a half ago, even I wondered if it's right to host the games here,” admitted the president of Maccabi Germany, Alon Meyer, speaking to i24news. “I still get goosebumps when I imagine what happened here, who stood here and what they were shouting. It's unbelievable. But now we are returning to the very same place and saying, 'you have failed, we are the ones who won.'”
For him, the games are finally returning to the place where it all began. “The first Maccabiah games, in Europe and in Israel, were organized from Berlin. Even when the Maccabi headquarters moved to London, its president was still German,” he says. The Jewish sports clubs in Germany were reopened in 1965, and four years later Germany participated again at the Maccabiah in Israel. But hosting the games sooner was out of the question for the local Jewish community.
This reasoning was enough to quiet those who initially were troubled by the idea of having the Maccabiah in “Hitler's stadium”. In the end, only one thing remained taboo: the torch relay – a tradition introduced by the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics for propaganda purposes. Instead, the Maccabiah's organizers decided on a different historic homage. The torch will be carried into the stadium by motorcycle riders, making their way from Israel through Europe, just like the bikers who spread the news of the first Maccabiah in Israel (then Palestine) in 1932.
For the riders - some of them noted Israeli personalities - this will be the pinnacle of a 22-day journey through Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. During the ride, which will be captured in the documentary film “Back to Berlin”, the bikers will explore their own personal family roots in Europe, as well as the current situation of the Jewish communities there.
“The Maccabiah represents Jews who are proud to be Jewish, who show strength and refuse to be victims, and for many of the communities in Europe, to meet Jews like that is a completely different experience,” says the film's director, Catherine Lurie-Alt.
But these aren't the sides of the story she wishes to highlight when speaking of this with Germans. “It's a sensitive subject. We are describing the film simply as a recreation of the original bikers' journey, a straightforward and joyous story,” she added. “'Back to Berlin' means we are coming back as victors. It's a moment of conciliation and redemption.”
Meyer also knew that showcasing the right narrative was key to getting the authorities' support. “The politicians also want this to be a successful ceremony, they have an interest in presenting Jewish lives in Germany, but still I needed to sell this in order to convince them to allocate funds. I reminded them that having journalists write how great the Maccabiah games were is good PR for all of Germany, as well as for its Jewish community.”
The German interest in self-promotion was also used to address one of the biggest challenges of the Maccabiah: funds for security purposes. “We aren't worried the games would trigger an anti-Semitic spike, but we are concerned about them becoming a target for terror attacks,” Meyer stressed. Initially, he says, Berlin's authorities didn't offer adequate financial support, but the suggestion that the security will be lacking because of insufficient funds, was enough to turn the situation around.
“We might not enjoy the same budgets four years from now, since getting people to acknowledge the importance of this is becoming harder with time,” said Meyer, expressing his concern. “We are trying to make sure people won't forget what happened here, but every new generation prefers to deal less and less with Germany's history.”
“If the Maccabiah Games take place here again in 30 years, it will be completely different,” he continued. “The Holocaust would be historically too far already and nobody will be left to tell his story. But now, the people coming here – some of them descendents of those who were forced to flee Germany – have a chance to get closure. Now is the perfect time to have the Maccabiah in Berlin.”