"Of course, the United States should not withdraw from the 1936 Olympics. Why should I, or any other athlete, be penalized for the actions of Joe Zilch, or anybody else named Hitler who has nothing whatsoever to do with us ?" -- Eleanor Holm. Sept. 7, 1935 in The Washington Post
In September 1935 Adolf Hitler had been in power less than three years; the invasion of the Rhineland was six months away; Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau were still just names of far away places, not landmarks of horror.
In the summer of 1936 Eleanor Holm, "the champion American mermaid," was caught sipping champagne aboard the S.S. Manhattan on the way to the Olympics in Berlin and was barred from competition. "I got more publicity than Hitler," she says now.
On Sept. 15, 1935, Hitler enacted the Nuremberg Laws that deprived Jews of German citizenship. Not everyone in the United States thought he was "Joe Zilch."
Members of the American Jewish community of labor unions and of leftist organizations, all led by Judge Jeremiah T. Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, tried and failed to organize a boycott of what has come to be known as "the Nazi Olympics."
Compared to 1980, "it (the boycott movement) was feeble and abortive," said Sam Balter, who won a gold medal on the U.S. basketball team and was the first Jewish athlete selected for the 1936 team. "The American public knew practically nothing about it." A Gallup poll taken in 1936 found a 57-43 percent majority against boycotting.
In recent weeks, as President Carter's proposed withdrawal from the 1980 Olympics in Moscow has gained momentum, government officials, athletes and sportswriters have pointed to the 1936 Games as evidence that the U.S. should or should not compete in July.
On Jan. 1, Rolf Pauls, the West German ambassador to NATO said. "If the world had boycotted Hitler's 1936 Olympics, the course of history might have been different."
Last week, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance said, "I look back to the 1936 Games, when I was in college, and I think in hindsight that it was a mistake for us to attent the 1936 Olympics. Obviously that affects my thinking about the current situation."
One State Department official said the historical precedent had entered his thinking -- particularly the potential for propaganda. But athletes who participated in the 1936 Games, and historians, do not believe the situations are necessarily parallel.
"It's not similar," said Eleanor Holm, who supports the 1980 boycott. "Here the Russians are a definite threat, they've already gone into another country. I don't think Hitler was believed to be such a threat back then."
Back then, in the early 1930s, America was still "wollowing in the Depression," said James Shenton, professor of American History at Columbia University. "We were singularly preoccupied with domestic affairs, to the exclusion of international affairs."
In the six months prior to the 1936 Summer Olympics, "The Talk of the World," as the Universal Newsreels were known, mentioned Hitler once and the Winter Olympics, which also took place in Germany, and the possible boycott not at all.
"If you had asked the man on the street about the boycott," said Eddie Rosenblum, 86, then Washington's AAU representative, "he wouldn't have known what the hell you were talking about."
In 1936, the boycott movement "flowed from the bottom up," said Mark Mason, a professor of history at Fordham University. "It was grass roots." m
In 1980, Mason points out, "this is a movement from the top down."
President Roosevelt was largely silent on the boycott issue.
In April 1936 Secretary of State Cordell Hull felt compelled to issue a statement saying that Roosevelt's tenure as honorary president of the American Olympic Committee "carries no international political implications."
Helen Stephens, a gold-medalist sprinter in the 1936 Olympics, said Olympic officials told the athletes that the "reason he (Roosevelt) did not wish us bon voyage was because he was opposed (to sending a team)."
Opposition to the Games was led by the Tammany Hall politician Mahoney, a Catholic who later ran for mayor of New York and lost to Fiorello LaGuardia. The American Jewish Congress and the AAU, led by Mahoney, went on record in 1933 as opposing participation in the Games in Berlin as long as the Nazis continued persecuting the Jews.
The following summer, Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee, went to Germany and reported that there was nothing to worry about, and the invitation was accepted.
But the issue was not decided until the AAU convention in December 1935 at New York's Commodore Hotel. AAU delegates, whose organization controlled the Olympic trials, passed a resolution by 2 1/2 votes not to boycott the Games. Eddie Rosenblum, who voted for the boycott, said, "They recounted that vote at least four or five times."
Mahoney resigned as AAU president shortly thereafter and tried to organize a counter-Olympics in Spain. "The People's Olympics" never took place because the Spanish Civil War broke out.
Most American athletes were unaware of the boycott movement. Sam Balter, now a retired sportscaster, says he was the exception to the rule, and the subject of lively debate in the Jewish press.
"I spent a lot of time soul searching, looking for the answer," he said. "Some told me it was important to compete and show a Jew could win. Others said it was immoral to attend Games in Germany. Even now after 50 years, I'm not sure I made the right decision."
Jack Shea, a speed skater from Lake Placid, N.Y. (and an official on this year's Lake Placid Olympic Committee) won a gold metal in the 1932 Olympics. Although he is not Jewish, Shea decided not to attend the 1936 Games when members of the Jewish community asked him not to go.
Helen Stephens, the gold medalist in the 100-meter sprint, received a box of letters before she left for Germany "asking me to line up and then refuse to run and say it was because of his (Hitler's) treatment of the Jews," she recalled. "Of course, the Olympic officials said, 'Pooh, pooh, we don't want to get involved.'"
Stephens also received "calls and letters in Germany asking me not to participate. That was a little more upsetting."
Stephens says she was the one American athlete formally received by Hitler. She says he asked her for her autograph and wondered if she wanted to spend a weekend with him at his summer retreat.
Stephens' coach interceded on her behalf.
Mack Robinson, Jackie Robinson's older brother, was a silver medalist on the 1936 team. He had heard about Hitler's ideas of Aryan supremacy but "questioned whether or not he had an attitude (toward blacks). I wondered whether it was propaganda from the States or whether it was trumped up by the media."
In Germany, Robinson saw "sketches that had blacks with monkey tails running" but says, "They were comic to me."
Robinson was more upset about the tepid reaction the American team received when it returned home. Black athletes won 12 medals in track and field, including nine gold.
Marty Glickman, one of two Jewish sprinters on the American track team (Sam Stoller was the other) decided to go to Germany "because," he said, "if I could win in Nazi Germany, (I could) help disprove the myth of Aryan supremacy.
"Of course," he added, "I couldn't do that."
Glickman and Stoller were scratched from the 400-meter relay team on the morning of the race. They were told the coaches merely wanted to field the best team, one that included Jesse Owens, who already had won three gold medals.
"The Nazis had already been embarrassed by the supremacy of the black athletes," Glickman said. "It is my belief that we were replaced to save the Nazis from not having Jews run and win."
Although he "was victimized by the politics of the Olympics," Glickman is one of a handful of athletes who participated in the 1936 Games to oppose the 1980 boycott.
"The propaganda argument is nonsense," he said. "Who was the hero in 1936, Hitler or Owens? Jesse was a black hero. The best man won."
Some American athletes who advocate participating in the Moscow Games talk about showing up the Russians the way Jesse Owens showed up Nazi Germany. But one State Department official said, "The Nazis were very successful in using the Olympics as propaganda. Jesse Owens was a footnote.
"The Games led Hitler to assume he had acceptance in Europe for what he had done four months earlier (invading the Rhineland). It led him to take the next bite," he said.
Sam Balter recalls that the Germans "left little brochures in the athletes' rooms in the Olympic village advocating the ideals of the new Germany" and Lebensraum, the need for elbowroom."
"I found I had been deceived and Germany was using the Olympics for propaganda," Balter said. He is convinced the Russians will do the same thing.
Eleanor Holm, who met "Hitler six times . . . but never learned to care for him," according to Dorothy Kilgallen's column, said, "We were just amazed with the Nazis' organization. They were showing off. They had parades with tanks and guns before the Olympics. Even in the stadium, they showed off the lockers. They were underground shelters for the future made of concrete.
"I want to tell you something hon," she added. "I'd think twice about going to Russia. I wouldn't go. Of course, it's easy for me to say, an old broad who's had her day."