This year, for the first time ever, the European Maccabi Games were held in Germany—in a Berlin that was thoroughly changed from the Berlin of the mid-20th century. This, at least, was the message being peddled over and over again, in speech after speech championing a city chastened by the lessons of the past and open now to a vibrant Jewish life.
The symbolism of holding an international Jewish sporting event at Berlin’s Olympic Park—built by the National Socialists for the 1936 Olympics, from which Jewish athletes were excluded—was lost on no one. A somber memorial ceremony held last Tuesday evening on the Maifeld, the vast green field in front of the Olympic Stadium, honored the memory of those who were killed during the Holocaust. Margot Friedlander, a 93-year-old survivor who in 2010 returned to live permanently in Berlin after decades of living in the United States, recalled her time as a young athlete in the Maccabi movement, calling sports her passion. She spoke of her brother, a gifted boxer, who was killed in Auschwitz at age 17. “I ask you to take part in these games in memory of my brother and other athletes that didn’t survive,” Friedlander said.
In an interview, Alon Meyer, president of Maccabi Germany and a former Maccabi soccer player, noted the importance of hosting the Maccabi games in Germany while there were still living survivors of the Holocaust, and that “plenty of people outside of Europe can’t imagine that Jewish life in Germany is possible, and I think we could convince them…that Jewish life here in Germany is great, and we are proud.”
Later that evening, at the opening ceremonies held at Waldbuhne, a wooded amphitheater that is part of Olympic Park, the mood was joyful. The more than 2,000 delegates from the 36 countries participating paraded through the amphitheater, carrying their flags and celebrating boisterously. The German delegation—which used to walk into the opening ceremonies carrying the Israeli flag—hoisted their flag high above the crowd. Meyer says that the young generation of German Jews is “proud to be German. I think the generation before was a little ashamed to be German… Four years ago I was head of the delegation for the European Maccabi Games in Vienna, and I asked my trainers and managers, ‘What do you think, do we want to go into the opening ceremonies with blue and white because we are ashamed to wear the colors black, gold and red?’ And they said, ‘No, we are proud of Germany.’ That’s a new generation.”
Meyer touched on one major goal the organizers hope to achieve by hosting the games in Berlin: a public-relations coup for the city and country. “Everybody gets back to his land as an ambassador for Germany,” Meyer said.
The closing ceremonies of the European Maccabi Games take place on Tuesday night.