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Jewish Journal

The Jewish Jesse Owens at the Nazi Olympics

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 11, 2008 | 12:42 pm

Sam Balter

You probably heard about it yesterday, or got a few text messages when it was televised just before midnight, or read about it this morning, but if you’re still in the dark about the amazing performance by the U.S. men’s swimming 4x100 relay, click here. I’m not a swimmer—little more than a doggie paddler—but I was mesmerized by how those guys blew through the water and “smashed” the favored, and incredibly cocky, French.

The Olympics thus far have been full of good performances (and at least

two

Jewish winners; Jason Lezak made three). But history is the best measure of one’s accomplishments at the games, and in this case the former Olympian worth talking about is Sam Balter.

An All-American at UCLA in 1929, Balter was 26—of prime basketball age—when the United States sent its best athletes to Berlin for the Nazi Olympics. That year was 1936, and the Olympics were best remembered for the heroics of Jesse Owens, an African America who won four medals in Hitler’s stadium. “On the sacred soil of the Fatherland, the master athlete humiliated the master race,” ESPN later wrote. But Balter too did his part in shaming the man who shamed humanity.

Balter was a Jew, the only Jew on the men’s basketball team. Yes, a Jew who, like Jordan Farmar, had skills on the hardwood and, in 1936, helped the United States win the first gold medal in the history of Olympic basketball.

NPR’s Carrie Kahn, with access to recordings her grandfather made before his death in 1998, reflected on Balter’s legacy last week in a moving personal essay. She revealed that, despite what she grew up believing, her Patoo, as she called him, agonized for months over whether to even play in the Nazi Olympics.

In July of 1936, he boarded the ocean liner Manhattan and left New York harbor for Berlin.

It wasn’t long, Patoo says, before he worried he had made a mistake. Despite the promise that Hitler wouldn’t use the games for his Nazi cause, propaganda brochures were handed out daily at the Olympic village, and anti-Semitic magazines were sold on most street corners.

“The magazine has caricatures of hooked-nosed people, and it lays the blame for everything on the Jews,” my grandfather says. He said he got a sense of how bad the situation had become, “but not obviously as bad as it got later on.”

During the games, Patoo said he was thrilled to get the chance to meet James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891. Naismith proudly watched his sport’s debut in the ‘36 Olympics. But the Germans didn’t seem to grasp the game and scheduled all the basketball competitions on outdoor dirt courts.

The final between U.S. and Canada was played during a torrential rainstorm.

“If you dribbled, it was a splash and it floated away,” recalls Patoo. By halftime, the score was only 15 to 4.

“These two teams supposedly consisting of the best in the world, and each scored only four points in the second half.”

The final score was 19 to 8.

What Patoo leaves out, but later tells my mom for the first time, is that he didn’t play in that final game. The U.S. team actually consisted of two seven-man squads, and they alternated games.

“It wasn’t our turn. It was the turn of the other group,” he haltingly admits. “We didn’t get medals until much later. Oh, we had a lot of beefs by the end of the games.”

My mom cuts in, “It was quite an inauspicious ending.”

That’s an understatement. Not only did Patoo not march before Hitler, as I had always imagined. He actually got his gold medal — not on a podium in front of the world — but out of his mailbox in Los Angeles.

The rest of her essay can be read and listened to here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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