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The Canadian ski team at the 1936 Winter Games opening ceremony offered the Olympic salute, easily mistaken for the Nazi salute. (ullstein - DHM/Copyright © ullstein bild / The Granger Collection)
The Canadian ski team at the 1936 Winter Games opening ceremony offered the Olympic salute, easily mistaken for the Nazi salute. (ullstein - DHM/Copyright © ullstein bild / The Granger Collection)

Photography

A glimpse of Canada at the 1936 Nazi Games Add to ...

The image is haunting, the misunderstanding it provoked enormous: a parade of Canadian athletes at the 1936 Winter Games - the first half of the so-called Nazi Olympics - smiling, dressed in jaunty Olympic garb, with arms outstretched in what appears to be a Nazi salute. The fact that they were, in fact, performing the eerily similar and traditional Olympic salute (with arms outstretched to the side rather than the front) was lost on the German onlookers, who erupted in cheers. This moment, caught on film and part of a new exhibition in Vancouver, sparked a big debate: Should the Canadians try the salute again at the opening ceremony of the summer games in Berlin? Great Britain chose not to. But the Canadians went ahead and saluted. Once again, they were misunderstood, and the crowd went wild.

These are some of the amazing - and disturbing - facts about Canada and the controversial 1936 Games laid out comprehensively for the first time at an exhibition opening tomorrow at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.

More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics studies Nazi Germany in the time leading up to the Games, the debate in Canada over whether to attend, and the competition at the Games themselves - in particular, Canada's participation.

While much has been written about the United States and the Berlin Olympics (especially the star-making performance by the black track and field athlete Jesse Owens), there has been little written about the Canadian experience. What about the great Toronto boxer Sammy Luftspring, torn between his Olympic goals and a disapproving Jewish community who urged him not to go to Germany? What about Irving (Toots) Meretsky, the only Jewish member of Canada's basketball team - at a time when Canada was a powerhouse in the sport and basketball a medal sport for the first time?

The Holocaust Centre's executive director Frieda Miller wanted to tell their stories - and Canada's story - in an exhibition that would coincide with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She asked two well-known Canadian scholars in Jewish history, University of British Columbia Professor Richard Menkis and University of Toronto Professor Harold Troper (co-author of the book None is Too Many ), if they wouldn't mind helping out. Menkis and Troper became so intrigued with the project that they dug away at it for months, uncovering all sorts of little-known or long-forgotten information and archival material - much of it from newspaper clippings.

"It's like a detective story," says Miller. "It's the thrill of the chase."

The exhibition includes some stunning images, including never-before-shown photographs of Berlin decked out for the Games, recently donated to the Ontario archives by a Jew who escaped Germany just before the war, and a photograph of eager Canadian figure skaters waving their arms and standing on tiptoe, clamouring to get Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to sign autographs for them, "like a rock star," says Miller.

There are also artifacts, including the large sash Canadian athletes (and other teams) carried into the opening ceremonies - a sash that featured a glittery swastika at either end.

Menkis and Troper were particularly interested in Canada's response to calls for a boycott of the Olympics. It was in September, 1935, that the Nuremberg Laws were passed, stripping German Jews of their citizenship, just as Canadian left-wing and Jewish groups were urging the Canadian Olympic Committee to boycott the Games. But the COC decided at a private meeting in Halifax in November, 1935, that because Great Britain had decided to go, Canada would participate in the Olympics as well.

"They certainly weren't going to listen to a bunch of Jews and Commies," says Menkis. "So it never got an airing. They said they had discussed it behind closed doors and that was that."

In the end, not a single country boycotted the Games. Forty-nine countries participated - the most in Olympic history.

The fight then turned into an internal one for the athletes themselves, with campaigns trying to convince them not to go to Germany; and protests at Olympic fundraising activities.

Luftspring struggled with the decision. He had wanted to be a boxer since he was 9. And he had made a name for himself: fighting 105 matches between 1932 and 1936 and losing only five of them. At 20, he was the right age to go and he desperately wanted to compete. But his family - and others - urged him not to.

The pressure finally got to him. In a joint letter to the Globe's sports editor printed July 7, 1936, Luftspring and fellow Jewish boxer Norman (Baby) Yack wrote: "… we would have been very low to hurt the feelings of our fellow Jews by going to a land that would exterminate them if it could."

Both boxers travelled instead to an alternate Olympics that were being organized in Barcelona. Another Canadian athlete, 1932 bronze-medal high jumper Eva Dawes - who was not Jewish - joined them in their boycott and in Barcelona. (The Barcelona "People's Olympiad" was ultimately cancelled, however.)

Meretsky arrived at a different decision. Nothing was going to keep the Windsor, Ont., basketball player from the Olympics. While in Berlin, Meretsky quietly visited a Jewish neighbourhood. "It was obvious they were all scared," he later reported.

During that short time period, one had to go looking for signs saying Jews were forbidden, or for anti-Semitic propaganda, Menkis says. The Olympics that marked the birth of the modern torch relay and the wired-for-media stadium were also very much about presenting a positive image of Nazi Germany to the world. Evidence of official anti-Semitism was swept under the carpet - or at least relegated to areas outside busy Olympic zones.

"Hitler had certain plans," Menkis says. "And anything that he could have done to lower the guard of the other nations was to his benefit. And a little bit of that was the Olympics. … It was a way to show the world that they were benign and benevolent."

What surprised - or maybe upset - Menkis most about the research he did for this exhibition was the lack of attention devoted to this issue by the COC. When you look at the minutes of that meeting, he says, it's clear only the shortest amount of time was spent discussing the proposed boycott.

"To find only three lines about it," he says, quietly. "Sometimes the silence can be so loud."

More Than Just Games: Canada & the 1936 Olympics runs at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre from Oct. 15 to June 18, with a complementary exhibit, Framing Bodies: Sport and Spectacle in Nazi Germany (www.vhec.org).

 

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