The Jewish Czechoslovak athlete who insisted on competing in “Nazi Olympics”
Jewish athlete Kurt Epstein played on the Czechoslovak water polo team and represented the country at two Olympic Games, including the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin. Epstein is the subject of a new exhibition set to open at the Terezín Ghetto Museum next week. It has been put together by his daughter Helen Epstein, who previously wrote a book about him entitled A Jewish Athlete: Swimming Against Stereotype in 20th Century Europe. The author spoke to me from her home in the US.
Your father was from Roudnice nad Labem. What do we know about his family background in that town?
“His family was one of the oldest families of Roudnice, which itself is one of the oldest settlements of Jews in the Czech lands.
“There were four of these outside of Prague, and Roudnice was one of them.
“His family were tanners, which is one of the traditional Jewish occupations in Central Europe.
“By the time my father was born his father was one of the most prominent manufacturers in Roudnice; he had a leather factory.
“That factory was in ruins for many years and now there’s a Czech family building a multi-family dwelling on that property.
“And the house that my grandfather built in 1900 is now the Podřipské Museum.”
And you’ve been to Roudnice nad Labem yourself?
“Yes, I was first there after the Velvet Revolution in 1990, and I wrote an article about the trip back for the New York Times Magazine.
“At the time there were offices in my grandfather’s house and a former friend and neighbour of my father’s was still alive, Mr. Paudera, and he took me inside the house and showed me where he used to be invited to my father’s house as a child.”
Roudnice is Roudnice nad Labem, meaning on the Labe, or Elbe. That’s where your father learned to swim, I take it – in the river?
“Yes. My grandmother actually was responsible for his interest in sports.
“She was one of those turn-of-the-century bourgeois women who thought that sports was part of embourgeoisement, becoming part of the middle class.
“She encouraged my father’s interest in sports, so when she went swimming she watched, and she also encouraged him to row, which he took up in high school.”
Your father seems to have had amazing sporting prowess. Can you tell us some of his achievements, some of the sports that he took part in?
“He first started swimming, and then he started rowing in high school.
“But he became a competitive swimmer at the age of 16, when he started reading the times posted by swimmers in Prague.
“In 1920 he co-founded the first swim club in Roudnice.
“Then he went to business school in Prague and in Prague he joined ČPK, which was the Czech swimming club.
“And from there he became a water polo player. He participated in over 50 national competitions and two Olympic games, including the Berlin Olympics of 1936.”
When he was a child was he doing sports with Jewish kids in Jewish clubs, or with Czech children?
“Well, there was no Jewish club in Roudnice – there was no club at all in Roudnice – so when he was a kid he was going to the river, both Jews and non-Jews.
“However, he did tell me that sometimes when he went by himself other kids would throw stones at him because they knew he was a Jew.
“That was one of the reasons that he felt very strongly about participating in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, in defiance of an international and a Czechoslovak movement to boycott the Berlin Olympics.
“Because he felt Jews should be able to prove themselves as athletically competent.”
“Sometimes when he went to the river by himself other kids would throw stones at him because they knew he was a Jew.”
To back up a little bit for a second, what did he tell you about growing up in a Czech town? How was it for the, I presume small, Jewish community?
“It was complicated. He was born in 1904, when Franz Joseph was still the emperor of Austria-Hungary and Roudnice was part of Bohemia, which was a province of Austria-Hungary – and the national language was German.
“His parents spoke German and my father, by the time he was 14 years old, was a citizen of the first Czechoslovak Republic.
“He hated German and was proud of speaking Czech.
“He was caught between this nationalistic Czech fervour, which he took part in – he idolised and idealised Tomáš Masaryk and he saw himself as a patriotic Czech and was a lieutenant in the Czech Army.
“And yet Czech nationalists, number one, threw stones at him when he was a kid, and continued to be anti-Semitic as he grew older.”
“He idolised Masaryk and he saw himself as a patriotic Czech.”
He took part in two Olympic Games, in 1928 and again, as you say, in Berlin in 1936, when there had been a movement to boycott the Berlin Games. Tell us about his experience in Berlin.
“He described all of this in a diary that he wrote, which is part of a book called A Jewish Athlete, which I put together and you can get it on Amazon.
“He said what was amazing in 1936 was that the Nazis sanitised the Olympic village, so there were no swastikas in the Olympic village.
“However, he pointed out that the German athletes stuck together and did not fraternise with the other teams.
“They always marched together in formations and he said they goose-stepped even to the bathrooms.”
You say that Jewish sportsmen are seen as some kind of joke, both by some Jews and by anti-Semites. Why is that?
“I think because Jews pride themselves on their intellectual capacities, and I think even philo-Semites think of Jews as people who are good at anecdotes and people who are solving intellectual issues.
“And they feel that after years of living in the ghetto that Jews are somehow diminished physically.
“The contemporary version of that, of course, is Woody Allen. He is the skinny, intellectual, neurotic Jew.
“And in my travels – because I’m an author I do a lot of travelling – I’m always amazed at how everyone seems to see the Woody Allen Jew, or the Kafka Jew, as the prototypical Jew.
“Whereas being the daughter of a jock [laughs], I’ve always seen Jews as perfectly normal people who come in all sizes, tall and short.
“My father was quite tall, he was quite handsome and he was very, very strong. Water polo is not a game for shrinking violets.”
“So I was always annoyed by this stereotype. However, I am not a person who is deeply interested in sports, despite having had a jock for a father.
“So I didn’t really do anything about it for many years. And then a couple of years ago I decided the time had come and I had an opportunity to put together this exhibit about Jews in sport and about my father.”
“I’m always amazed at how everyone seems to see the Woody Allen Jew, or the Kafka Jew, as the prototypical Jew.”
You mentioned Kafka. Wasn’t Kafka into exercise and his own kind of working out?
“Yes, he definitely was. And he liked to hike and he liked to swim in the nude, but somehow this never comes to the forefront of people’s discussion of Kafka [laughs].
“Today he might have been a vegan.”
Maybe you’ve already answered this question in a way, but there seems to be quite a history of Jews in sport before the Holocaust – why has this been evidently forgotten?
“Before the war there were many Jewish athletes – my father was not an exception.”
“Good question. First of all, there were Jews in the first contemporary Olympics, which were in 1896 in Athens.
“And after that there were Jews in every Olympics and there were many, many hundreds of Central European Jews in athletics, in all kinds of sports – in gymnastics, in boxing, in football, in fencing.
“But of course the Holocaust eradicated a generation of Jews, including Jewish sportsmen.
“And after the Holocaust the combination of totalitarianism in Central Europe and the Jewish looking down on sports as something lesser combine to eradicate the memory of these athletes.
“So both the people themselves and their memory were eradicated because of the second world war.
“But in fact before the war there were many, many Jewish athletes – my father was not an exception.”
After the war, after the Holocaust, your dad returned to Prague and joined the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee – is that correct?
“Yes, he was elected to the Czechoslovak national Olympic Committee.
“He was still regarded as a major swim coach after the war.
“In fact I’m told that the night I was born, in Prague, he was at an Olympic Committee meeting [laughs].”
Your family moved to the States in 1948. Your father was by then in his 40s. Did he continue with sport in some way in America?
“That was a great disappointment for him – he was unable to continue in sports.
“This was a man for whom swimming had been his life.
“And of course in New York City, in Manhattan, where we lived in 1948 to 1975, when he died, there was very little interest in swimming, and certainly no interest in water polo.
“The only place where they played water polo was at the New York Athletic Club, which at the time was ‘restricted’, meaning that it didn’t allow Jews inside its building, let alone as a coach.
“My father actually went there to apply for a job as a coach and he was turned away.
“So what he did was every week he took the subway to Brooklyn, where there was an Olympic-sized pool at the St. George Hotel.
“I remember going with him on the subway to the St. George Hotel.
“There was a synthetic waterfall at one of end of the pool and my brother and I would play at that end while my father would swim laps.”
I gather it was a tough transition for him in general, moving to America?
“It was a terrible transition for my father.
“He spoke no English, he was 44 years old, he had no vocational training – except for his swimming coaching and performance.
“He was the son of a factory owner. Eventually he became a factory worker, in the garment centre in New York City.”
Now you have an exhibition about your father coming up at Terezín. What’s the idea behind the exhibition?
“The idea behind the exhibition is to basically write this generation of Jewish athletes back into history.
“I’m very lucky to have had many, many photographs of my father’s family. This is highly unusual for a family of Holocaust survivors.
“The reason for this is that my father’s teammate, the water polo goalie and engineer Josef Bušek, saved my father’s photographs and also his prayer shawl, in which he was bar mitzvah in 1917.
“And that has become the centrepiece of the exhibit, surrounded by all of these wonderful sports photos and family photos that date back to 1900.”
For more information on Helen Epstein and her books visit http://www.helenepstein.com/.
Kurt Epstein: Citizen of Roudnice and prominent son of the Jewish community
Terezín Ghetto Museum
8. 9. 2022 – 30. 11. 2022