He was there, but nobody saw him.Al Miller was used to sneaking around, avoiding attention. For a Jewish kid in Nazi Germany, it was partly a matter of survival, partly fun for a thirteen-year-old.The consequences of getting caught weren’t so dire on this summer day in 1936. It was just that visitors weren’t allowed in the Olympic Village. But there he was, having the time of his life, watching athletes from all over the world in their colorful sweatshirts and uniforms.Back in his neighborhood in the heart of Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district, where Julius Streicher, publisher of the viciously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, ranted against Jewish people at the Deutschlandhalle, Miller had learned how to slip around unnoticed, dodging streetcars and blending into the scenery to avoid trouble.He wasn’t scared; he enjoyed the thrill, doing things he knew his parents wouldn’t like. When he heard Nazi storm troopers marching through the streets, singing their hateful songs, he didn’t run: he found a shadow, a place to hide in plain sight, so close to the thugs he could distinguish the lapel pins on their uniforms. When he couldn’t hide quickly enough, he lifted his right arm in the Hitler salute. Trouble walked by.As the last Jewish student remaining at his school, his goal was to fit in, even if it meant purposely missing a few questions on tests so he wouldn’t stand out as the smartest. He shouted, “Heil Hitler,” and saluted every day along with his classmates. He played soccer with friends who wore swastikas on their Hitler Youth uniforms. He was just a kid who loved sports and school, trying to live a normal life.At the dinner table, Miller’s parents shared an outlook common to many Jewish Germans: Hitler won’t last. Jewish people have lived in Berlin since the thirteenth century and there have been troubles before. This will blow over. It can’t get any worse.Al’s father was a patriotic German, had fought on the Russian Front in World War I. Al’s grandfather had started a successful clothing business in Berlin, and his family still ran it. These were pillars of the community, contributors in so many ways.But on the eve of the Olympics, even young Al could have told you how most Berliners looked at his family: like dirt. Daily life for the Miller family and the other hundreds of thousands of Jewish people in Germany was rapidly deteriorating. While the Nazis had not yet arrived at their “Final Solution” to murder all Jewish men, women, and children, their aim at this point was to eliminate any semblance of Jewish influence on German society, to make life miserable, to encourage emigration, and to confiscateJewish property. Branding Jewish people as enemies of the state gave the Nazis a scapegoat for any and all problems and a rallying cry, unifying “Aryans” around their supposed superiority. The road to the Holocaust was paved with bullying, lies, propaganda, and a cynically calculated encouragement of intolerance.This state-fueled anti-Semitism played out in individual acts of hatred every single day. Consider these examples, merely a handful of stories that illustrate how life had turned upside down for Jewish Germans, young and old, ordinary and prominent, even before the Olympics.Gerda Schild was fourteen at the time of the Olympics, living with her parents in the Bavarian town of Ansbach. Like Al Miller’s, her father was a World War I veteran, a proud German, but that mattered little to her classmates and teachers. At recess, she and her friend Matilda were told to stand in the corner of the schoolyard; anyone who dared play with them was punished. When she accompanied her parents to the market, she saw all the good stuff, like the Florida oranges, tucked beneath the counter so they couldn’t buy it. On the radio, it was one Hitler speech after another, Jewish people blamed for everything wrong in the world.Neighbors hung banners proclaiming, ‘Jews are our misfortune,’ and brown-shirted storm troopers—just ordinary young men she knew from town—marched at night by torchlight, singing lustfully of the violence they’d inflict on Jewish people. In the winter, kids who had been her friends pelted her with stones packed in ice and snow. There was nothing she could do to retaliate. “When they had their little Hitlerjugend [Hitler Youth] uniforms on, they felt like they were God themselves,” she recalled.The message she received—from teachers, from classmates, from the newspapers, from the leader of her country—was that she was stupid and nonhuman, unworthy of respect or love or even the air she breathed. Her imagination, her intellect, her beauty, none of her unique gifts mattered; she was forbidden to shine. And worst of all, she began to believe the lies. She believed that she was dumb, that she was ugly, that her faith made her a second-rate human being.In her Berlin apartment building, young Susanna Sher walked down hallways plastered with anti-Semitic posters torn from the pages of Der Stürmer. One day she joined her father for a neighborhood stroll. Kids on the street called out, “Dirty Jews!” and spit on her father’s back. He kept walking, silently, eyes straight ahead.Another day, one of her father’s own employees beat him up and threatened to kill him. There was nothing her father, a proud man, could do.In Laupheim, Gretel Bergmann lived a carefree childhood before Hitler came to power. She ate plums, peaches, and apples straight from the tree; collected frogs, lizards, and salamanders; skinny-dipped under waterfalls and crawled under her covers to read books by flashlight. In the winter, she skated and skied; the best part was drinking hot chocolate afterward. She played soccer, went to synagogue on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and by the time she was nineteen, the Nazis ruled her country and she had a boyfriend. Those last two things shouldn’t be related, but in Nazi Germany the government cared who you dated.Gretel was Jewish, and Rudy wasn’t. It was a forbidden love, increasingly dangerous for both of them. Gretel and Rudy felt safe meeting only under the cover of night, in the sanctuary of a friend’s garden, the insane whims of a dictator tearing their hearts apart. Many years later, Bergmann recalled her last night together with Rudy.“Once again, our friend’s garden would be our refuge, only this time there would be an agonizing finality to it. And so we met. We had fallen in love less than a year ago, dreaming of a happy future, a future now confined to the agonizingly short time left of this night. The pain was almost unbearable; the agony, the depression, the despair of what was before us led down a path we had not taken before. The lifetime we had planned to be together would be over when morning came, and we devoted these few hours to expressing the deep love we had for each other. These few hours also were a symbol of our defiance of the evil Hitler stood for. It was a night when the dark seemed to rush toward the dawn with alarming speed, and when the sky began to lighten we knew that reality, no matter how hurtful, no longer could be pushed away. We held each other in an embrace that we wanted to last for eternity. We cried. We kissed. We parted. We walked off in opposite directions, not daring to look back.”Hertha Beese had lived in Berlin her entire life. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, her neighbor was forced to flee after making remarks critical of Hitler, barely escaping out a window when Nazis raided his home. Hertha rescued the baby the man left behind. Across the street, storm troopers dragged a school principal from his apartment; Hertha could hear the screams of the man’s wife as he was killed, thrown down a flight of stairs. Friends went missing, presumed to be tortured in concentration camps. Was he Jewish? Was he a Socialist? No one knew or much cared before. Now such a label could be a death sentence.Joachim Prinz, rabbi at Berlin’s largest synagogue, had visited Al Miller’s apartment many times and had performed his brother’ bar mitzvah. Many of Berlin’s Jewish people considered themselves more German than Jewish, but in response to Nazi persecution they began to cling closer together. As the spiritual leader of such a vulnerable group of people, Prinz later wrote that he felt an acute responsibility to preach that the “anvil was nobler than the hammer,” to make Berlin’s Jewish citizens feel superior, not despite but because they were targets of hate and murder. To live under a dictatorship, he understood, meant living in a constant state of fearful suspense. Hitler’s dreams, or nightmares, would determine their fate from day to day.“The press and radio depicted Jews as ugly, groveling, lecherous, powerhungry, and devious,” wrote Michael Meyer in an introduction to Prinz’s autobiography. “They needed to hear the opposite: that they were beautiful, noble human beings and that they had made a magnificent contribution to Western civilization. While swimming in a sea of hostile propaganda, they needed to nurture self-respect.”On April 1, 1933, the Nazis had carried out a boycott of Jewish businesses throughout Germany. Non-Jewish people who entered these stores were photographed and later beaten or arrested. Jewish people felt the suffocating power of their own countrymen turning against them. The night before the boycott was a Friday, the beginning of the Sabbath, and Prinz’s synagogue was packed, buzzing with a “mixture of hope and fear, of trembling and pride.”As always, two Gestapo agents sat in the front row, listening to every word, their presence meant to intimidate. Still, Prinz felt the strength of old prayers coming to life with new shades of meaning and rebellion, and he was taken aback when it came time to sing the Shema, Judaism’s most essential prayer. A cantor was prepared to sing, accompanied by a choir and organ, but was drowned out by the congregation. “All of us cried,” Prinz recalled, “but, nevertheless, we sang. We sang through our tears, and although it may not have been musically perfect, the singing was like a great Jewish symphony that underscored our fate—that we were going to bear it with pride and dignity, and that come what may, we would fight for our lives.”Leaving the synagogue, Prinz believed, his people felt strong and united. “There was no longer a stranger among us. We were all related, related by blood that was to be shed and by life that could be snuffed out.”Gad Beck was thirteen years old when the Olympics came to Berlin. His father was Jewish, his mom Christian. At the flag-raising ceremony each day at school, he and the other children who were considered Jewish were made to stand against a wall, apart from the other students, who stood with arms raised in the Hitler salute, singing songs and staring daggers at Gad as they raised the swastika flag. One day he won a footrace in a school competition but wasn’t allowed to receive the medal. He stood against a poplar tree and sobbed; all hope had been drained from a bright and energetic boy. “I can’t do it! I can’t do it! What have I done to them?” he cried to his mother. He was being destroyed and he knew it.The violence, the intimidation, the bigotry, the cruelty, the lies: this was the Germany of 1936.This was the nation that summoned the youth of the world to compete in the Olympic Games.And the world came marching in.
November 8, 2019 at 4:22 PM EST