27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day in the United Kingdom. It is a national commemoration day dedicated to remembering those who suffered under the Nazis in The Holocaust and also the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 is ‘Keep the memory alive’.
Tim Koch writes:
It was a listing on eBay that first made me aware of what I initially assumed was a ‘one off’ phenomenon – a German Jewish rowing club of the 1920s. A dealer in historical Jewish artefacts based in Israel listed a generic sports trophy, a bronze statuette, awarded in 1929 to ‘BRC (Berliner Ruder Club / Berlin Rowing Club) Helvetia’ the winners of a Jungmann – Vierer (Young Men’s Fours) race. The listing explained that the Helvetia was a rowing club for Jews and was based in Berlin prior to the 1939 – 1945 War. It also gave a website link to the search facility for things held by the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Naturally, it is in German, but I typed in the word ruderclub (rowing club) and entered an almost forgotten world.
I found that from perhaps the end of the nineteenth or beginning of the twentieth century until 1938 there were numerous Jewish rowing clubs active in Germany. They were mostly based in Berlin (where one third of German-Jews lived). I have found few references to Jewish clubs existing outside of the German capital. Attempting to research these clubs has been a frustrating experience as there is little online information and what does exist is mostly in German. ‘Google Translate’ is useful but limited. What I have produced is probably full of inaccuracies and misunderstandings and certainly is nowhere near ‘the whole story’. However, rather than remaining in obscurity, I think it is important that some version of the story of the Jüdischer Ruder-Clubs should be made more widely known. That they existed at all before 1933 is interesting; that they continued to exist (and for a time grow) in the first five years of Nazi rule, 1933 – 1938, is difficult to comprehend. Worldwide, a huge effort has and is been made to ensure that all aspects of Jewish life that were wiped out by the Holocaust are not forgotten and this is my small and no doubt rather inadequate contribution to this.
I should first attempt a very brief historical context. In the early twentieth century there was a sharp rise in the number of Jewish sporting clubs in Europe, particularly in Germany. This can be largely attributed to the influence of Zionism, the philosophical and political movement to establish a Jewish homeland in the historic Land of Israel. In The History of Zionism (2003), Walter Laqueur says that the idea of promoting physical education was first mooted at the second Zionist congress in 1898. He continues, ‘The great emphasis put on physical education, traditionally neglected among the Jewish communities, was part of the Zionist campaign to normalise Jewish life.’ This ‘Muscular Judaism’ sought both to counter assimilation and to dispel negative stereotypes. According to Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (edited by Nicosia and Scrase, 2010) by the 1930s, three-quarters of those in Jewish sports clubs in Berlin were members of Zionist sports organisations.
However, not all Jews engaged in sport were Zionists or members of exclusively Jewish clubs. Between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries some European states had granted Jews full citizens’ rights. Ironically, several Germanic states led the way in this and the result was a great amount of assimilation of middle class Jews in particular into civil society. Sport was particularly closely involved in this dual process of emancipation and assimilation. Many German Jews were patriots who loved their cultured country and some had served the Fatherland in the 1914 – 1918 War. In an article entitled “Sports in Germany 1898 – 1938”, the online Jewish Women’s Archive says:
Sport became a way for the ‘assimilated’ Jewish community to end its marginalization and publicly demonstrate its social status and aspirations.
According to Arnd Krüger of the University of Göttingenin in a provocatively titled paper in the summer 1999 Journal of Sport History, “Once the Olympics are through, we’ll beat up the Jew’ German Jewish Sport 1898 – 1938 and the Anti-Semitic Discourse”, before 1933 there were more Jewish athletes in the regular German middle class or workers sports clubs than in the Jewish organizations.
Of course, there was and always had been ‘informal’ anti-Semitism in Germany and Jews were still ‘unofficially’ excluded from many organisations, sporting and otherwise.
By July 1932 the Nazis were the largest party in the Reichstag and Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933. Ironically, the Nazis’ rise to power gave the membership of Jewish sports clubs a big boost as Jews who were forced out of ‘mixed’ clubs swelled their ranks. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive:
When the National Socialist party seized power, sport was immediately made to conform to the new ideology. Without being compelled by legal regulations or by order of the authorities, gymnastics and sports organizations made the decision to exclude Jewish members, a measure that was carried out with unprecedented ruthlessness…. However, Jews were still able to participate in sports in the Jewish sports organizations, and there was a marked increase in the membership of the (Jewish athletic clubs). Despite the many restrictions and increasing emigration, between the end of 1933 and 1935 membership in the (two main governing bodies of Jewish sports) rose from approximately 10,000 to 22,000 (in the main Zionist body) and from 7,000 to 18,5000 (in the main non-ideological body). In consequence, the sporting activities of the clubs grew, and in many types of sport regular competitions and championships were organized in addition to the sports festivals.
However, according to Arnd Krüger in his Journal of Sport History article, membership of the ‘mostly Berlin based Jewish rowing movement’ peaked by 1934 even though, after the Nazis took power
….communist and socialist worker sports clubs were persecuted but the Jewish clubs were left untouched at first. The persecution of those clubs was not well organized, especially in the beginning of the Nazi regime.
The exclusion of Jews from ‘mixed’ or predominantly ‘Christian’ sports clubs was not, however, universal and the ‘Welle Poseidon’ Rowing Club seems to have been one of the honourable exceptions. Heide Fiehring writes that when in 1935 the Nazi authorities demanded that the club expel its Jewish members, it was the Christian members that ‘in an act of solidarity’ left so that it could continue as the Jüdischer Ruder-Club (JRC) ‘Welle-Poseidon’. Until it was finally closed in 1937 or 1938, the club flag had the added inscription ‘JRC’ in feint pencil, ‘so as not to provoke others’.
Revived by some non-Jewish members after the war, the Welle Poseidon club still exists today. Its website contains a news item about a reunion in 2001 of three Jewish men (Gary Matzdorff then from Los Angeles, Hans Liffman then from Florida and Wolfgang Neubauer then from Santiago de Chile) who rowed at the club before 1939.
The men say how important the club became to them as everyday life got worse for Jews in the 1930s. In 1938, the Nazi authorities confiscated the clubhouse at Grünau and the JRC Welle Poseidon had to move to a little island, the Bullenbruchinsel. Though the terrain was ‘unkempt and boggy’ and rowing outings were limited with each one having to be logged with the authorities, Gary Matzdorff remembered the island as ‘his best time’ and how his whole family, including his grandmother, escaped to the seclusion of the place as much as possible. Asked about his feelings on returning, the 83-year-old Hans Liffman said ‘If you have lost family in Auschwitz, you can no longer have feelings’.
The history section of Welle Poseidon’s website says that Jewish members who escaped Nazi Germany helped their old club mates to follow them and also to establish themselves when they arrived in their new country. In the imperfect words of Google Translate, ‘for decades they sat regularly in USA, South America, Africa and Australia to the blue-white-red flag club together’! When the article was written in 2001, there were still reunions of old Welle Poseidon members taking place in New York. Much archive material (in German) relating to Welle Poseidon exists online on the Center for Jewish History site in the papers of Leo Leab.
Of over eighty rowing results from my search of the Berlin Jewish Museum’s website, most were not of the Helvetia club recorded on the eBay trophy but were of photographs of another Jewish rowing club in Berlin, the ‘Ivria’, founded in 1910 and based in Friedrichshagen. Its origins may have been in a student fraternity but ultimately it seems that it became an open Jewish club.
This link brings up over seventy photographs of the Ivria in 1935, recording its on and off water activities.
There is a reference to the Zionist aspect of the Ivria club in an obituary of Hans Herzog, initially a Berlin lawyer who was active in the Zionist movement. It says that Herzog helped found the Ivira ‘before 1914’ and that an important feature of the club was ‘the mixed membership of young academics and young businessmen (which helped) spread the idea of Zionism in Germany beyond the student fraternities’. The obituary also says that the Ivria boats flew the blue and white flag of the Star of David, later adopted as the flag of the State of Israel. However, as the picture below shows, use of this flag by rowing clubs was not exclusive to Ivria.
The Berlin Jewish Museum’s German website also has references to another Jüdischer Ruderclub, the ‘Oberspree’ and its small English language site pictures a very nice club trophy. The website for the Center For Jewish History contains a memoir of the Oberspree written by Irene Liebenau Zeckerbraun and Jerry Liebenau in 1995:
The Rowing Club ‘Oberspree’ was founded in 1905. It was so named because it was located along the upper part of the river Spree in Ober Schoeneweide about eight miles south-east of Schoeneberg…. The club had a membership of fifty men and their families…. (The) facilities were simple and functional….. For sleeping purposes there were two long sheds offering beds and bathroom facilities. The houses were well equipped and comfortable enough to allow families to spend a night or two as desired. The main building was also constructed basically, housing a kitchen and large assembly room for meetings and socialising…. Outside the main hall was a large grassy area where one found tables and chairs… It was here lunchtime as well as ‘coffee and cake’ time were pleasantly spent. The lawn extended directly to the water’s edge where people could bathe or just lie in the sun. The swimming area was separated from the boat launching area by a wooden dock…. In 1937, the name of the club was changed to ‘Jüdischer Ruderclub Oberspree’.
It was never formally disbanded. As we left Germany in November 1938, it was still in existence and intact. What happened to it – the property or the wonderful boats and equipment – was never known. No one returned after the war and, after the (Berlin) wall went up, it was in Russian territory and not accessible…… The last known member, Gustav Segal, passed away in 1992. If there are children who fondly remember the joys of Oberspree, they have not made their presence known…. Enclosed are pictures and memorabilia of the club since its inception. Unfortunately we have no record of the names of many members. Hopefully, through the pictures, we have been able to share with you the nostalgia we feel for the Oberspree.
As I have already indicated, information on Jewish rowing clubs outside of Berlin is difficult to find. However, in the Rosalie Unger Collection on the Center for Jewish History site, there is a 1990 letter from Dr. Harvey P. Newton who recalls that his father, Max Neustadt, together with his friend Leopold Rosenbaum, founded the ‘Breslauer Touren Ruder Club’ for Jews in 1909 (Breslau was then part of Germany, it is now called ‘Wrocław’ and is part of Poland). The Nazis made them change the name to the ‘Judischer Touren Ruder Club’ and it eventually closed when the City government would no longer rent them the land that they needed to get access to the Oder River.
Reaching the count of four Jewish rowing clubs in Berlin (Helvetia, Welle Poseidon, Oberspree, and Ivria), I thought that I had probably reached the final number. However, I then found this German language article in the 26 September 2014 online version of Berliner Zeitung. It is about the former boathouse of the Berliner Rudergesellschaft Undine – which was about to be demolished:
Berlin loses another piece of its Jewish history…… On an old photo you can see…. how beautiful this villa on the Grünauer Dahme Road… once was… In the basement there was room for seventy two boats with sixteen changing rooms for rowers…. Once there were eight Jewish rowing clubs in Köpenick, a local phenomenon that probably did not exists anywhere else in the world.
It is astonishing to find that just in Köpenick (a borough of Berlin situated at the confluence of the Dahme and Spree rivers) there were eight Jewish rowing clubs. It is clearly a subject that needs a lot more research – preferably by someone who reads German. In his book on the University of Washington Crew that won the Olympic Eights in 1936, The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown writes about Köpenick, where the Olympic rowers were housed, and the fate of one of its Jewish families (pages 332-334 of the 2013 British paperback edition). He covers the effect on Jewish rowers of the Nazi’s rise to power on page 217.
Between 1933 and 1939, more than half of all German Jews fled the country. According to a 2002 online edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in 1934 a group of Jewish rowers left Berlin and incredibly, in a story worthy of Hollywood, took their boats with them:
The history of the (Haifa Rowing Club) originates in Berlin…. There were several Jewish rowing clubs in the city and its surroundings, most prominent among them the Ivria Club and the Hebrew Students Club. As the Nazis stranglehold on power in Germany began to develop in 1932 and the Jews started to fear the oncoming gloom, one of the prominent rowers of the time, Prof. Fischer, came to Israel on a fact-finding mission. Two years later, he and Prof. Martin Hoenig organized a Jewish rowing team that was supposed to be heading for a regatta in Barcelona. However, it was, in fact, a group of rowers escaping to Palestine. They arrived in Haifa with their boats where they found a hut and set up the Haifa Rowing Club.
This link to Haifa’s Hebrew language website has some wonderful pictures of the club’s early days.
The inevitable end of sporting activity by Berlin’s Jews is recorded by the Jewish Women’s Archive thus:
After the (1936 Berlin) Olympic Games, the National Socialist regime no longer paid any heed whatever to opinion abroad. The Jewish sports movement was given only a brief ‘period of grace’, although this, too, was marked by further restrictions. With the pogrom of November 9th and 10th 1938 (Kristallnacht), any remaining sporting activities in Jewish clubs came to an end. The Jews were no longer fighting for athletic distinction; their everyday lives were now determined by their fight to survive.
It is difficult to understand why that, until the end of 1938, there were still Jews in Germany engaging in sports such as rowing. Perhaps it provided some temporary escape from what was happening all around. Maybe it was an attempt by the most assimilated and integrated of Europe’s Jews at trying to continue with life as it once was. In June 2012, David Horovitz wrote in the Times of Israel:
Jews of pre-Nazi Germany had only gained their emancipation a few generations earlier. As they struggled to make initial sense of their crumbling reality, the first restrictions imposed by the Nazis were perhaps understood, misunderstood, as a relapse, a possibly brief return to relatively recent darker times, rather than a catastrophic collapse of civilized values, a decline into genocide.