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.
Thanks. Never knew all this activity took place. Be well. I look forward to your posts.. Bob Madden
An absolutely stunning piece of history; many thanks. We don’t know how lucky we are. Ian Layzell (rowed in Kingston on Thames back in the Sixties)
Thanks. Just the sort of quality article I’ve come to expect on HTBS.
One translation website says Ivria is from hebrew meaning ” from the other side of the river “.
My Jewish Grandparents met and courted at a Berlin rowing club in the early 1930’s. I don’t think they ever rowed to any competitive level, and it was more an opportunity to meet unchaperoned. I think that rowing was seen as modern and exciting because it defied stuffy Victorian convention. Mind you it was well pre-lycra !
During the winter, the same lakes used for rowing froze, and skating provided another welcome opportunity for meeting the opposite sex.
My Grandparents married in ’36 and settled in England, so escaping the Shoah.
Thank you all for you kind comments. The post has attracted an above average number of views and generated a lot of Twitter traffic. Initially, I was worried that producing something that links something as important as The Holocaust with something as minor as rowing history could be considered crass. I continued for two reasons. If any part of what the Nazis tried to erase forever is actually forgotten, it is a victory for them. Also, as something as terrible as genocide is impossible for most of us to comprehend, our only chance of some understanding is to relate it to things within our own experience. For example, we cannot conceive of the deaths of six million people but we can empathise with the loss of one person, Anne Frank.
I intend to continue my researches on this subject, perhaps producing a printed work. Any personal information (such as that from Chris) would be most welcome. Chris, could you contact me at tim(dot)koch123(at)gmail(dot)com. Also, if there are any German speakers out there who would like to help, please e-mail me.
So much enjoyed this article. Interested particularly in the part about Haifa RC; my late father-in-law was stationed in “Palestine” during the war, in Haifa I think, and as part of R&R found himself part of a scratch 4+ put together by the Army to participate in some local races. Although he’s no longer here to ask, I have more than a little suspicion that it had something to do with Haifa RC. How amused he would have been to find that he’d been rowing in a “liberated” boat …
Wow!!! Thank you so much for writing this, I’m so glad I found it. The link you provided to the Challenge Trophy in the Oberspree rowing section was my grandfather’s. The other link you provided right after includes a photograph that we had never seen before that has my grandfather in it.
Wow! My dad is in one of those pictures and I’ve never seen that picture before. Would love to correspond with you if you’re interested. My dad and I have sent his medals to the Jewish museum in Berlin. My email is
Sorry for being a little late to this excellent post. Anyway, one reason why there don’t seem to have been any other Jewish rowing clubs in Germany beyond Berlin may be that Jews were well integrated into the sport of rowing early on. Unfortunately, this changed dramatically during the most horrible period of German history.
My rowing club, the first German club beyond the sea shore (only Hamburg and Kiel have older clubs) was founded in Frankfurt in 1865. Jews were full members pretty much from the start. A year before our foundation, Jews had obtained full citizens’ rights in the then still independent city of Frankfurt (invaded by Prussia in 1866). The first club, inspired by British rowers on the river Main, Frankfurter Ruderverein von 1865 (FRV), had an active member called S. Fri(e)dberg, almost certainly a Jew, in 1869. He is depicted in the first photograph of the club members of that year.
Also in the same year, the club was given a boat by Baron Rothschild. In 1875 „Frau Dr. Ickelheimer“, probably Cecile, née Kopp (1857 – 1936), under the name of her husband Dr. Nathan Ickelheimer, a co-founder of Frankfurter Zeitung, became a supporting member. Maximilian Goldschmidt, later Baron Goldschmidt-Rothschild, was a supporting member in 1876 and a member of the 20th anniversary committee in 1885. In 1879, the prominent lawyer Dr. jur. Georg Julius Friedrich „Fritz“ Friedleben (1853–1920), became a member. He was of Jewish descent and became chairman of the club in 1880. And there were many more Jewish members …
Another prominent example was Heinrich Lismann, an active rower from 1897, FRV chairman 1906-1909 and honorary chairman afterwards. In March 1933, just weeks after Hitler’s rise to power, the banker resigned as chairman of the Frankfurt Regatta Club, a post he had held since 1918 – “freiwillig” (of his own free will), as the FRV Club magazine of April 1933 claimed (and thanked him for his great services). Astonishing as that may appear at first sight, it was probably true, as often Jewish members left prominent postions as they did not want to hurt their sports clubs in what at first may have looked like an only transient period of radical politics. Heinrich Lismann was born in Frankfurt on 21. September 1870 and died in Richmond, USA in 1950. Early in 1933 the gentlemen’s rowing clubs associated in the DRV immediately adopted the anti-Jewish Nazi law excluding people defined as Jews by the regime from public service and hence even from sports clubs. Ludwig Landmann, the mayor of Frankfurt, Jewish by the defintion of the nazis, also stepped down in March 1933. He emigrated to Holland in1939, where he went into hiding and undernourished died of ill health on 5 March 1945.
You mention Anne Frank in your reply above. There is some very sad irony in this for our club. Although she is known for her diary written in Amsterdam, she was born in Frankfurt, her tragic story today making her the most famous native of our city. Though she herself probably never rowed due to poor health, her older sister did. Margot Frank was born in Frankfurt on 16 February 1926 and, like Anne, died under horrible circumstances from exhaustion and illness in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in early March 1945. Before the family went into hiding, she had rowed in Amsterdam and a medal she won with her team in Zaandam in September 1940 is part of the Anne Frank Museum collection. See http://www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/Exhibitions/Temporary-Exhibitions/Margot-zusje-van-Anne/Margot-Frank-items/Margot-what-does-he-enjoy-doing/
In fact, Michael Frank, the grandfather of Anne and Margot was an active member of FRV, as we in the Club have only realized lately when writing up our history on the occasion of our 150th anniversary. I found the name „Frank, Michael, Wechselmakler“, on members lists published only in 1900 and 1901 (and only preserved in the City archives). The broker Michael Frank was born in Landau/Palatinate (about 100 miles south west of Frankfurt) on 9 October 1851. In 1886 he married Alice Stern, and they had four children, with Otto Frank, Anne’s father among them.
Our blog http://150jahre.frv1865.de/ also relates these parts of our club history in greater detail (in German only).
I should be happy to help you find out more on Jewish rowing in Frankfurt and Germany. Once again, thank you very much for writing this post and your brilliant blog.
sorry, forgot to tick the boxes …
Thank you for that very interesting contribution. Please contact me: tim (dot) koch123 (at) gmail (dot) com.
You mention that Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, was an enthusiastic rower, as was their grandfather. Another inhabitant of the attic was also a rower, the dentist Fritz Pfeffer was a member of Berlin’s Undine Jewish Rowing Club:
Your wonderful article makes the subject all the more poignant, by stepping back from the almost incomprehensible scale of the holicaust or the just liberated camp photos to a time when they were individuals, laughing, playing, training and socialising along the rivers, bringing them alive again in the minds eye and through their photos, making us reflect on their passions, hopes, dreams for the future and their families and friends. I do hope an almost encyclopaedic book on the subject, full of photos of every club, full of hundreds of social and rowing pictures of integrated and non-integrated clubs, the social history, the personal stories and the history can be published, that perhaps in an index or table even tracks their or their descendants fate be that forced emigration or obliteration and what happened to their clubs, buildings and boats. No doubt some masters and PhD research grants could be organised to bring a few research students on board to accumulate information in each region where a university is based to gather the mass of information needed?
Best of luck with the start of this very touching process.
Where did you get the photo of my grandfather’s rowing club the Undine? It was founded by Alex Friedlander and designed by his cousin Siegfried Friedlander – if you have any further information or images please could you contact me? Info@mygenesearch.com Thanks! Noam (Friedlander)
Hi Tim, I came across HTBS yesterday while searching for my father’s rowing club in Berlin, Undine. You’ve done an excellent job pulling together all this information. My father rowed with the club in the late 20’s to the early 30’s. I have some of his medals from 1930, 31 and 32 regattas. He left for Guatemala in 1936 which is where I was born. I emigrated to the US and settled in Pittsburgh, PA where I have been a member of the Three Rivers Rowing Club for a couple of decades as happy sculler. I will gladly send pictures of the medals to your email address. Please confirm it is still active.
Best regards, Daniel J. Rochmann
Hi Daniel! My grandfather Alex Friedlander founded the club! I’d love to hear from you! Please email me on email@example.com! I was also a rower btw, in fours and eights… Best wishes, Noam
There was another Jewish rowing club in Germany – Ruder-Club Viadrina Stettin, https://polska-org.pl/8589015,foto.html
The boathouse was fired on Kristallnacht.