BERLIN — After a very early arrival in the German capital, a group of jetlagged athletes, parents and volunteers from the American delegation joined their British counterparts for dinner on July 26 prior to the official start of the 2015 European Maccabi Games.
They mingled together in the expansive Estrel Hotel, where the delegations from every competing country are staying, and listened to several keynote speakers sound themes of continuity, Jewish pride and remembrance.
Each speaker, including British Ambassador to Germany Simon McDonald, impressed upon the 550 athletes present that they were in Berlin not just to compete and represent each of their countries, but also to learn from history — and to understand the significance of why they were in this place, at this time.
“The relationship between the two countries” — Israel and Germany — “is one of the most difficult,”
McDonald said in his speech. “But it’s also one of the great success stories of the post-Second World War” weltanschauung.
“I hope everyone has a brilliant time, not only personally, but also for what having the games in this city stands for,” he concluded. He also poked fun at the Americans’ expense for their participation in the games, which, he said with a laugh, was “puzzling,” as they are not part of Europe.
Speaking for the Americans prior to their departure from Maccabi USA’s Philadelphia headquarters, team manager Daniel Kurtz said that even though he has traveled to Israel for the Maccabiah Games, which
occurs every four years as a kind of Jewish Olympiad, this is the first time he has been motivated to attend the European Maccabi Games in his 15 years with the team.
“The European Games never had much draw to me. It’s never been something that really spoke to me as something I really wanted to do,” said Kurtz. He added that when Maccabi USA executive director Jed Margolis and EMG chairman of USA Organizing Committee Tonja Magerman “offered me the opportunity to go to Berlin, it was completely different.”
The spectacle and statement of having so many Jews — some 2,000 athletes from 36 countries — so
publicly present in Berlin held such power for him that he wanted to be a part of it, he said.
“To be part of Americans and Jews in Berlin, marching in the shadows of the Nazis and saying, ‘We’re still here and you’re not’” compelled him, he said, especially the idea of competing in this particular stadium.
Kurtz has been involved with Maccabi in various capacities, from coaching and managing to even participating as an athlete in judo competitions. He was trick-or-treating with his family on Halloween last year when he got the call from Margolis and Magerman inviting him to be team manager for the United States.
He is overseeing the 210 American athletes, coaches, family members and trainers in Berlin, as well as acting as liaison between the United States and the other countries.
The athletes, who each had to raise $5,800 in order to go, also spoke about a unique opportunity to compete in Berlin.
Following their bleary-eyed arrival in the German capital, the American delegation visited the Grunewald area of the city for a memorial service after they had settled in.
Grunewald is the site of the Berlin-Grunewald train station, which houses a memorial marking Track 17, the spot in which thousands of Jews from Berlin were deported from the city and sent to ghettos and concentration camps.
It was an emotional morning, said Maccabi USA executive director Jed Margolis.
Donna Orender, vice president of Maccabi USA, is in Berlin with her twin sons who are playing basketball for the open and youth teams, and they both read at the service. They honored Jewish Olympians killed
in the Holocaust, as well as the Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
“There were about 250 of us, and everyone was silent,” said Tonja Magerman, the European Maccabi Games chairman of USA Organizing Committee. “It was a storied moment.”
Orender, who is from Jacksonville, Fla., played basketball herself and participated in her first Maccabi Games in Israel in 1985. She is “thrilled and ecstatic” that her sons, Zachary and Jacob, 18, are competing in this year’s European contest.
“I want them to succeed competitively,” she said, “but the cultural lessons are far more important.”
The educational component of what Maccabi gives these athletes is “extraordinarily special,” she said. In this case, the educational aspect included the American delegation visiting the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on July 28 and gaining a more nuanced comprehension of the significance of being in Berlin at this time.
She added that “it’s an incredibly emotional and gratifying experience” to be in Berlin with her sons and
visiting the city with them as they prepare to compete in the same sport she played.
The dinner with the British delegation had been in the works for a few months, according to Maccabi USA President Ron Carner.
He knew that the American and British delegations were both going to be in Berlin ahead of the official start of the games and worked accordingly to plan a big event for the athletes.
This was the first time an event like this between two delegations had been planned, Magerman said. “It speaks to the relationship between America and Britain and how we support each other,” she added.
The players were treated to a buffet dinner and took the opportunity to meet and get to know one another — before they become opponents later on the field.
Carner, who has been president for six years, said having the games hosted in Berlin is “appropriate, exciting, challenging and emotional.”
He recalled the previous European Maccabi Games in Vienna in 2011, which evoked for many the memories of Hitler announcing the annexation of Austria.
“Here we are, four years later in Berlin, the heart of Nazism,” he said, speaking of the city’s history. “To say the least, it’s a very significant and important event.”