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Bold Strokes

The three brave Viennese Jewish swimmers who boycotted Hitler’s Olympics

Marc Tracy
August 19, 2011
Hedy Bienenfeld modeling a swimsuit.(Lilith)
Hedy Bienenfeld modeling a swimsuit.(Lilith)

Nextbook Press author Deborah Lipstadt wrote a letter to the Times yesterday calling attention to the 1936 Summer Olympics, famously held in Berlin during Hitler’s rule. She notes, first, that an American track coach pulled two Jewish runners who would have almost certainly helped the United States secure the gold in the 400-meter relay; and, second, that some Viennese Jewish swimmers refused to compete.

Lipstadt points us to this essay (PDF) in the latest Lilith, a great read. The Hakoah Vienna Sports Club, we learn, was founded in 1909 in response to an “Aryan clause” (yes even back then) and to promote Max Nordau’s “muscular Judaism.” In 1924, Hakoah’s Hedy Bienenfeld “dove into the Danube canal and breast-stroked to first place in the annual, five-mile Quer durch Wien [‘Across Austria’].” And three Hakoah swimmers who were chosen to compete for Austria in the 1936 Games elected instead to boycott them. “Austrian officials swiftly retaliated by issuing a ban that forbade the three women from competing ever again and stripped them of their medals.” The three women refused to travel to Vienna in 1995 to accept the Austrian government’s formal apology.

The essay is a wonderful reminder of how sports can prove a venue for bravery and even for politics. Also, there is plenty of gossip and sex, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.