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Jewish Journal

WWI Huns Spark His Passion for Exercise

by Hillel Price

February 3, 2005 | 7:00 pm

 

I learned about gymnastics from the German soldiers occupying Lithuania during World War I. I used to watch them swinging on the parallels and the rings. I would go home and try it myself. I took wood from one of our factories and made parallel bars in our backyard.

One day, when I was 10, my grandfather found me practicing on the parallels. He said, "What do you want to be, a 'comediant?'"

They would call us "comediants," because we would swing from bars and stand on our hands. The older generation didn't approve. Jews weren't used to physical education; they were used to studying.

I joined the Maccabi organization when I was 16. It was a sports club with a Zionist philosophy. The goal was to build a strong youth who would be able to fight for Eretz Yisrael.

In my town, Seraij, we had about 60 members: boys and girls from age 9 to their 20s. We rented a hall where we did gymnastics. We met every day, every evening.

We spoke Hebrew, and we took courses in Hebrew language. Lecturers came and spoke to us in Hebrew about the importance of sports and gymnastics. We had a slogan: Nefesh briah b'guf barih, a sound mind in a healthy body.

Every year, we had a festival. We would march through the streets with a band playing music. Some Maccabi members would ride horses. Then the townspeople would come to the big hall, and we would have an exhibition. We would do gymnastics and weightlifting and lecture on the importance of physical education.

Mostly, we competed against other Maccabi teams. But we also competed against other organizations and non-Jewish teams. We would perform for the townspeople, young and old, to raise money.

Sometimes, I would find a play in the library. If not, I would write a play myself. We would then perform a little drama and do exercises to music on stage. Afterward, everyone would dance until 4 o'clock in the morning.

I became the chairman of our Maccabi club soon after I joined.... I had done gymnastics at my high school, which was one of the first Hebrew-speaking schools. I also taught myself by reading literature in German, because there were no Hebrew books on physical education.

It was my job to go to towns and organize the youth into Maccabi clubs. I would explain to the people that physical education was important -- just as important for the girls as for the boys.

The Maccabi Central Committee chose seven people to represent Lithuania in the Maccabiah games. I was the only one chosen to compete in the 100-meter dash. To prepare for the competition, I ran every day in an open field that the Maccabi had rented. I ran plenty, a few hours a day.

But I had to make a living, too. I would come home late from Maccabi meetings. In the morning, my grandfather would come looking for me, because customers would be lined up outside our flour mill, waiting for me to open the gates.

In 1932, I traveled with the Lithuanian team to Palestine. I took a train from Lithuania through Germany and France. Then, I sailed from Marseilles on a ship called the Patria. When we landed in Jaffa, Palestine, the harbor wasn't deep enough for the ship. So everyone got onto small boats, which carried us to shore.

It was very exciting to step onto Palestine. The Maccabiah was the first Jewish event in Palestine for people from the Diaspora in 2000 years. There were tens of thousands of people there.

Some of the Jews who had known me in Lithuania and had moved to Palestine saw me marching in the opening ceremonies. They called my name and yelled, "You should come visit us!" The Americans and the Germans won all the awards. All I got was a certificate.

I spent about two weeks visiting relatives in Palestine after the games. One woman from our team decided to stay in Palestine, because she was a Zionist. I didn't want to stay. I saw Arabs in Jerusalem riding horses and waving swords and yelling. And I had to go back to Lithuania to work.

When I came back, I lectured about the games. In 1935, I was invited to inspect Maccabi organizations all over Lithuania and to organize new groups in cities that didn't have any Maccabi clubs. I did this until 1937, when I left for the United Sates.

The Maccabi made going-away parties for me, because I had organized new branches and invigorated others. I was celebrating, because I knew I would live.

My older brother, Meyer, who had been in the United States, came back to Lithuania to get me. We went to the American consul together to try to get a visa. I was sitting there while Meyer was speaking with the official behind a closed door. When Meyer opened the door and nodded his head yes, he got a visa for me, I said, "Ah, I'm alive."

I left behind my mother; my brother, Aaron, and his wife and two sons; my sister, Paula, and her husband and two sons; my grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts, cousins -- maybe 25 members of my family. I'm the only one left from the whole family.

In the United States, I didn't play sports. It wasn't so easy here. I had to work very hard. I worked at a meat factory until 10 p.m. every night. This was my exercise, my hard work.

The following story by Hillel Price, 99, was told to his granddaughter, Journal contributing writer Sarah Price Brown.

 

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