VIENNA, Austria (JTA) — The symbolism was unmistakable.
Four thousand Jews stood just a few hundred yards away from the spot where a quarter-million Austrians cheered Adolf Hitler in March 1938 as he announced Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria.
This time, however, the Jews had come to celebrate, as athletes from around the world gathered July 6 for the lavish opening ceremony of the 13th European Maccabi Games.
It was the first time the Games — the so-called Jewish Olympics for Europe — have been held in a German-speaking country since 1945, and Maccabi officials said the crowd made up the largest gathering of Jews in Vienna since the Holocaust.
“Here we are on the other side of the street from where Hitler declared he would destroy the Jewish people,” Rabbi Carlos Tapiero, the deputy director general of the Maccabi World Union, told JTA. “We’re saying, ‘No! We’re here.’ ”
The games, which were slated to run through July 13, mixed sports, socializing and a heavy dose of symbolism, showcasing Jewish renewal and Israeli success against the backdrop of Holocaust history.
The opening ceremony — three hours of speeches and a song-and-dance spectacle — included screen projections showing Hitler and the destruction of the Holocaust as well as prewar Jewish life and postwar rebuilding in Europe and Israel. The event took place in front of Vienna City Hall, the Rathaus, not far from Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, where Hitler spoke in 1938.
“We can’t forget the Vienna that was the city of Theodor Herzl, nor can we forget the Vienna of the Nazis,” the speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, told the crowd. “It’s a festival of the victory of the Jewish spirit over Nazi extermination.”
Amid cheers, fanfare and flag waving, some 2,000 athletes paraded in the opening ceremony. Aged 12 to over 80, they came from 37 countries in Europe, the Americas, Israel, Australia, central Asia and Africa.
The delegations were dressed in colorful team uniforms — the Scottish team wore kilts — and ranged in mumber from the more than 200 from Germany to a lone woman from Guinea Bissau. The 115-member U.S. team included two 80-year-olds, John Benfield of Los Angeles and Arthur Figur of New Rochelle, N.Y., who had escaped Vienna in 1938 as children and were returning to swim for the U.S. team.
“I’m doing really a symbolic swim,” Benfield, a professor emeritus at the UCLA Medical School, told JTA. “I need to show the Nazis that we’re still around.”
The idea of the games is not just to play sports or celebrate, but to foster Jewish identity and community.
“Our motto is building Jewish pride through sports,” said Ron Cramer, president of Maccabi U.S. “It’s an amazing way to engage young people. They think they are just coming to a sporting event, but it’s much, much more.”
It’s also an opportunity for young Jews to meet each other.
At the Maccabi Games’ venue — a sprawling, state-of-the-art Jewish school, sports and community center that opened in 2008 — athletes exchanged team pins, e-mail addresses and Facebook names.
“It’s the first time in my life that I have been together with so many other Jews,” said Jozef Gurfinkiel, a middle-aged man from Gdansk on the Polish bridge team.
“Girls, girls, girls!” exclaimed Jonathan Dzanashvili, a member of the Austrian basketball team. “It’s very important because we are all here together; we’re like glue. That’s special.”
His teammate, 14-year-old Benny Abramov, agreed.
“I’m making many new friends from other countries,” he said. “If you’re in a hotel with 2,000 other athletes, it’s a new feeling.”
Tapiero noted that the Maccabi sports movement had begun as part of an ideological effort to build a “new Jew” in response to anti-Semitism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The aim was to enable Jews to use their bodies, not just their brains, to prove their excellence. The Zionist leader Max Nordau even issued a famous call for what he termed “muscular Jewry” at the second World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1898.
The focus today has shifted somewhat, Tapiero said.
“The ethos of excellence in sports changed when the world changed,” he said. “We don’t have to prove our excellence there. The ethos now is the social aspect — so in this respect ‘girls, girls, girls’ is a success!”
Shawn Landres, the co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, a Jewish innovation think tank and incubator in Los Angeles, said that Jewish sports involvement affirms that Jewish life “can be multidimensional and engage people beyond pure intellect, emotion or spirit.”
Landres knows this firsthand — he met his wife, Zuzana Riemer Landres, who is Slovak, at a Winter Maccabi Games event in Slovakia in 1998.
“Maccabi connected being Jewish with something I love to do — skiing,” Riemer Landres told JTA. “It changed my Jewish experience because it was more about movement, being active and competitive sport. It put sport into a Jewish context, and expanded Judaism beyond workshops and studying together. And then it changed my life.”