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Jewish Journal

Almost Olympian

by Rachel Brand

February 28, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Although Salt Lake City hosted several Jewish Olympians this year, including figure skater Sasha Cohen, the Olympic games haven't always been so welcoming to Jewish athletes.

Bernd Stevens said he might have competed in skiing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, "if it hadn't been for being Jewish." Stevens, now 82 and living in Torrance, had qualified as an alternate for the German Olympic ski team in 1935. But for the Nazis, it wasn't enough that Stevens -- who had skied competitively from the age of 5 -- was ranked as one of the most talented skiers in the country. The blond, blue-eyed, 16-year-old was Jewish.

Now, 66 years later, all Stevens has to show for his near-Olympic experience is a bronze medallion, given to him by the Germans as a consolation prize. Engraved on the front is the Olympic bell with the words, "This is given in honor of sports" and "to serve in honor of the Fatherland." The back reads: "The Olympic games of 1936." Below it is a swastika.

There is slight regret written upon Stevens' face as he tells his story, but this octogenarian doesn't need an Olympic medal to make him a hero. "I felt left out, but it became minor compared to surviving," Stevens told The Journal.

The real trial began after the 1936 Olympics, when his father lost his business and income as a result of Kristallnacht. "It was a question of whether the Holocaust would destroy the whole family," he said. It nearly did, taking the lives of his father and brother on their way to the concentration camps. With false papers, Stevens left Germany and proceeded to Austria, Italy and North Africa. He arrived in the United States on the last ship to leave Italy.

Upon his arrival in the United States, Stevens joined the Army. "I wanted to fight for my new country and help eradicate the Nazis and save whatever Jews could still be saved." At the end of his basic training he was asked to join the Office of Strategic Strategy, the predecessor to the CIA. He became a parachutist, dropping at night behind enemy lines, all the while keeping his job a secret even from his family. Stevens has recorded his experiences in a 300-page novel tentatively titled "The Silver Circle," which he hopes will be published shortly.

After the war, Stevens went back to school in the United States and became a CPA, opening a successful accounting firm together with his longtime best friend, a fellow Holocaust survivor. Stevens recently retired at the age of 81.

"If you take a cold shower every morning, you will live to be 70," advised Stevens, who still exercises twice a week. He was still skiing competitively in giant slalom events until he was 74.

From a man with such a challenging life, Stevens' advice to Jewish Olympians comes as somewhat of an understatement: "Keep working at it. It never comes easy."

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