At Maccabi Games in Vienna, symbolism – and girls
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At Maccabi Games in Vienna, symbolism – and girls

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Team USA parading in the opening ceremony of the 13th European Maccabi Games in front of Vienna City Hall on July 6. Courtesy Ruth Ellen Gruber

VIENNA, Austria – The symbolism was unmistakable.

Four thousand Jews stood just a few hundred yards away from the spot where a quarter-million Austrians cheered Adolf Hitler in March 1938 as he announced Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria.

This time, however, the Jews had come to celebrate, as athletes from around the world gathered July 6 for the lavish opening ceremony of the 13th European Maccabi Games.

It was the first time the Games – the so-called Jewish Olympics for Europe – have been held in a German-speaking country since 1945, and Maccabi officials said the crowd made up the largest gathering of Jews in Vienna since the Holocaust.

“Here we are on the other side of the street from where Hitler declared he would destroy the Jewish people,” Rabbi Carlos Tapiero, the deputy director general of the Maccabi World Union, told JTA. “We’re saying, ‘No! We’re here.'”

The games, which were slated to run through July 13, mixed sports, socializing and a heavy dose of symbolism, showcasing Jewish renewal and Israeli success against the backdrop of Holocaust history.

The opening ceremony – three hours of speeches and a song-and-dance spectacle – included screen projections showing Hitler and the destruction of the Holocaust, as well as prewar Jewish life and postwar rebuilding in Europe and Israel. The event took place in front of Vienna City Hall, the Rathaus, not far from Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, where Hitler spoke in 1938.

“We can’t forget the Vienna that was the city of Theodor Herzl, nor can we forget the Vienna of the Nazis,” the speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, told the crowd. “It’s a festival of the victory of the Jewish spirit over Nazi extermination.”

Amid cheers, fanfare and flag waving, some 2,000 athletes paraded in the opening ceremony. Aged 12 to over 80, they came from 37 countries in Europe, the Americas, Israel, central Asia and Africa.

The delegations were dressed in colorful team uniforms – the Scottish team wore kilts – and ranged in number from the more than 200 from Germany to a lone woman from Guinea Bissau. The 115-member U.S. team included two 80-year-olds, John Benfield of Los Angeles and Arthur Figur of New Rochelle, N.Y. (See boxed story below.)

At the Maccabi Games’ venue – a sprawling, state-of-the-art Jewish school, sports and community center that opened in 2008 – athletes exchanged team pins, e-mail addresses and Facebook names.

“It’s the first time in my life that I have been together with so many other Jews,” said Jozef Gurfinkiel, a middle-aged man from Gdansk on the Polish bridge team.

“Girls, girls, girls!” exclaimed Jonathan Dzanashvili, a member of the Austrian basketball team. “It’s very important because we are all here together; we’re like glue.”

Shawn Landres, the co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, a Jewish innovation think tank and incubator in Los Angeles, said that Jewish sports involvement affirms that Jewish life “can be multidimensional and engage people beyond pure intellect, emotion or spirit.”

Landres knows this firsthand – he met his wife, Zuzana Riemer Landres, who is Slovak, at a Winter Maccabi Games event in Slovakia in 1998.

“Maccabi connected being Jewish with something I love to do – skiing.”

JTA Wire Service

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