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Sixty Years After ‘hitler’s Olympics,’ Survivor Carries Salt Lake City Torch

December 19, 2001
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Martin Weiss was seven when the first torch run took place at a modern Olympic Games under Hitler’s watchful eye.

Now, 56 years after his liberation from a concentration camp, Weiss will carry the Olympic torch in front of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum past cheering family members and friends.

The torch is on its way from Atlanta, through 46 states, to Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 Games. There are 11,500 torchbearers who are helping to bring the torch to the Games in February.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee and relay sponsors chose the runners out of 210,000 nominations sent from around the country.

The Holocaust Museum’s survivor affairs department asked the Olympic committee if a survivor could be a torchbearer. Museum officials then held a lottery, and Weiss won.

The experience is “very humbling” for the survivor, who says he is overwhelmed by the idea.

“It’s a statement about America,” Weiss said. “It’s wonderful that a thing like this can happen.”

In 1936 he heard about the Games from his father, who would go to town and bring back the day’s news, and from his sister, who was the only girl from his rural village in Czechoslovakia who was away at college.

Eight years later, his father and sister were killed by the Nazis.

One of nine children, Weiss’ life changed in 1939 when Hungarian troops occupied his village and began discriminating against Jews. Soon afterward, two of his brothers were sent to forced labor camps, and in 1944 his family was sent to the Munkacs Ghetto in Hungary.

From there, they were deported to Auschwitz, where nearly all of his family was sent to the gas chambers.

Weiss and his father were sent to Mauthausen. Weiss was liberated from there in 1945.

The next year, he emigrated to the United States. and now lives near Washington.

Weiss, who will turn 73 in January, regularly walks on a treadmill and is planning to run the few blocks with the torch on Friday.

While running, his thoughts will be on the future and not on the past, he said. Weiss said he will be thinking about how the “new takes over for the old,” and about progress in modern society.

“I have faith in the young people in America,” he said.

Weiss’ outlook contrasts vividly with the outlook for Jews in Germany in 1936.

The International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Games to Germany in 1932, a year before Hitler came to power. Hitler used the Games as a way to showcase the Nazis to the world.

He even took down anti-Semitic signs and displays around Germany to curry international favor and make Berlin look tolerant and welcoming. Some anti-Semitic publications temporarily ceased.

Hitler created the torch run, with torches taken from the site of the ancient Greek Olympic Games.

After the Games were over, anti-Semitic activity resumed. Hardly a month after the Games ended, Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp that later housed Jews, opened near Berlin.

The Holocaust Museum sent an exhibit on the 1936 Olympics — or the “Nazi Olympics”– to Salt Lake City, the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Many believe that had Western countries, particularly the United States, boycotted the 1936 Games, Hitler’s rise would have been slowed and international resistance to Nazism could have been stronger.

Some have applied similar logic to China, arguing that the Olympics should not be held there until the country improves its human rights record.

Asked about the decision to hold the 2008 Olympics in China, Weiss said the country would probably do better by her citizens because of the scrutiny involved in hosting the Olympics.

“I’m all for it,” he said. “Open a window and they have to change.”

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