Holocaust Memorial Day 2020: Stopping the Past Becoming the Future

A coxed four from the Berlin Jewish rowing club ‘Ivria’, pictured in 1935. It is likely that all five men would have been killed in the following 10 years. Picture: Herbert Sonnenfeld / Jewish Museum Berlin.

26 January 2020

By Tim Koch

Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, 26 January, marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I make no apologies for once again referring readers to my piece marking Holocaust Memorial Day 2015, A Poignant Piece of Rowing History: Jewish Rowing Clubs in Nazi-Germany. In the introduction, I wrote:

(From) perhaps the end of the nineteenth or beginning of the twentieth century until 1938 there were numerous Jewish rowing clubs active in Germany…. 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.

Three years later, in 2018, I produced Remembering the Jewish Rowers of Kalisz. For many hundreds of years, Poland had one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, numbering over three million. Kalisz, 260 km west of Warsaw, was perhaps a microcosm of the Polish-Jewish experience through the centuries and its Jewish rowing club, KW30, was a small part of this. In 1939, most of Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany and, within six years, 700 years of history was wiped out by the murder of 90 percent of all Polish Jews.

Oarsmen belonging to the Jüdische Ruderclub Werder (from near Potsdam) pose in happier times. Nowadays, the Star of David that the rowers proudly displayed on their shirts reminds us of the yellow star that the Nazis forced all Jews to wear.

I later wrote:

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 – such as Anne Frank.

I began by saying that I make no apology for urging readers to visit or revisit these posts; in the five years since I first posted Jewish Rowing Clubs in Nazi-Germany, not only anti-semitism but a general intolerance of those of different nationalities, races and religions has increased worldwide. It has become increasingly acceptable to dismiss people who are apparently different from ourselves. Where will it end?

A famous poem by the German anti-Nazi pastor, Martin Niemöller, this sited at the Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts (often wrongly attributed to a better-known member of the German resistance, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Picture: Wikipedia.

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