'Berlin 1936' exhibit a salute to triumph over Nazi prejudice
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were supposed to prove Adolph Hitler's case for Aryan supremacy.
Blacks and Jews, he said, were inferior and had no place in the Games. Athletes trained under his Nazi regime were supposed to crush them.
Instead, some Jews and blacks would go on to re-write the history book by flourishing on the playing field with the hate-filled German chancellor looked on from the stands.
“The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936,” an acclaimed exhibition by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, recounts through photos and other artifacts how athletes dispelled Hitler's racist dogma with their performances. It will be on display at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture during the next four months.
“One of most important things anyone can learn (from this exhibit) is the shared history of the Jewish and African-American communities,” says Joy Braunstein, director of Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh. “It shows that people can overcome adversity and become powerhouses in the world.”
The museums are jointly presenting the 4,000-square-foot exhibit, but it will be shown only at the August Wilson Center. It opens to the public Tuesday.
The exhibit explores issues surrounding the 1936 Olympic Games, including the Nazis' use of propaganda, the intense boycott debate leading up to the opening ceremonies and Jesse Owens' historic performance on the track. It features haunting images of Hitler amid a sea of spectators, flashing the Nazi salute at Olympic Stadium.
Hitler envisioned the Berlin Games as his chance to showcase the merits of his government and his agenda of racial supremacy. He banned Jewish athletes from competing for Nazi Germany, but had no control over whether they or blacks from other countries participated.
“African-American and Jewish athletes were particularly aware of Hitler's ideologies about Aryan superiority ... and wanted to trample them right there in his front yard,” says Sala Udin, interim co-director at the August Wilson Center. “That was a strong motivation for them.”
Many may remember the 1936 Games as those belonging to Owens, the black sprinter-long jumper who captured an amazing four gold medals. But he was far from alone in using his athletic skill to make a point.
Thirteen Jews won medals in Berlin. Most of them comnypeted for other countries in Europe, including Poland and Hungary. Some of them were killed in the years following the games, during the Holocaust.
Seven American Jewish athletes went to Berlin, including Samuel Balter, who played on the gold medal-winning U.S. basketball squad, and Hermann Goldberg, a catcher for the baseball team in the exhibition event. Track athletes Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman were named to the U.S. 4x100 relay team, but were replaced at the last minute by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe.
In all, 18 black athletes represented the United States in Berlin. Connellsville native Johnny Woodruff was one of seven blacks who came home with medals.
Woodruff, then a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, was boxed in with less than a lap remaining in the men's 800-meter run. He had to momentarily slow to a trot to create enough room to get by the pack for the win.
“The real purpose of this exhibit ... is to illustrate that blacks and Jews collaborated in important ways throughout history in the 20th century,” Udin says. “It also gives us a chance to evaluate the condition of our relationship today and the opportunities to continue it.”
“The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936” will be in Pittsburgh until Feb. 28.
Chris Ramirez is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5682.