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1936: The Nazis
 pg. 99 
  Appearing to be clean, hospitable, and prosperous, Berlin greeted the opening of the Summer Games on August 1. Antisemitic signs and publications were not in view. The German press was instructed to report "non-Aryan" victories without racial commentary. Forty-nine countries sent teams to the Nazi Olympics, which concluded on August 16. They included the United States, where the boycott effort, which tried to deny Nazi Germany the legitimacy that the Olympics conferred, narrowly failed.

Hitler presided over the opening in Berlin's immense Olympic stadium. The ceremony culminated in a newly created "torch run," which brought fire from the site of the ancient Greek Olympic Games to Berlin. Leni Riefenstahl and her film crews were there to capture the pageantry and athletic competition. Her film, Olympia, would win first prize at the 1938 Venice film festival.

Some of Olympia's best footage focused on an African-American athlete named Jesse Owens. Owens had experienced racism in the United States, but at the 1936 Olympics his four gold-medal performances were hailed by critics of the Nazi regime, who argued that Owens's victories refuted Hitler's claim of white superiority.

Embarrassing though Owens's victories were for the Nazis, Hitler and his followers were more than satisfied by their Olympic success. The German team won more medals than any other. Hitler played well the parts of world statesman and beloved national leader. German hospitality persuaded most foreign visitors that the Third Reich's intentions were as peaceful as its economic revival was efficient, its goals as benign as its culture was healthy and vigorous.

At least ten Jewish athletes won medals at the 1936 Olympics, among them Samuel Balter, who played on the American basketball team. For her part, Gretl Bergmann emigrated to the United States, continued her championship career in track and field, and kept her vow never to return to Germany. Other Jewish athletes were not so fortunate. Their fate indicates that the deception created by the Nazi Olympics was colossal and deadly.

Nazi power took the life of Victor Perez, a French Jew who was the world's flyweight boxing champion in the early 1930s. He was murdered at Auschwitz. Lilli Henoch, a world record holder in the shot put and discus, was deported from Germany in 1942. She was murdered and buried in a mass grave near Riga, Latvia. Attila Petschauer, a Hungarian fencer who won a silver medal at the 1928 Olympics, froze to death in a Nazi labor camp in 1943. A German Jew named Alfred Flatow, winner of three gold medals and one silver in gymnastics during the 1896 Games in Athens, died in the Theresienstadt (Czechoslovakia) camp/ghetto in 1942.

Germany's relaxing of anti-Jewish pressure ended soon after the 1936 Games. By the year's end, the antisemitic campaign to drive Jews out of Germany was again in full force.

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Adolf Hitler makes his way to the opening ceremonies of the 11th Olympiad.
Photo: National Archives/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive

African-American Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler by winning four gold medals.
Photo: Archive Photos/New York Times

1936: The Nazis
 pg. 99 
The Holocaust Chronicle
© 2009 Publications International, Ltd.