The Olympic Gymnast: Alfred Flatow

He enabled Jews to participate in sports.

Alfred Flatow was a German-Jewish gymnast who won several gold medals at the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens. He later created the Judische Turnerschaft, an athletic organization which provided sports opportunities for Jews all over Europe.

Alfred was born in 1869 in West Prussia, which today is part of Poland. After widespread pogroms, the Flatow family fled to Germany, where they believed they were safe from persecution. The Flatows quickly assimilated into German society, attending German schools and sports clubs, and serving in the army.

In 1889, Alfred became the youngest gymnastics instructor in Germany. Seven years later, Alfred and his cousin Felix joined the German national squad and competed in the 1896 Olympic Games. Alfred won three gold medals and a silver medal.

After the Olympics, Alfred spent the ensuing decades as a teacher, a coach, and a sportswriter who published several books about gymnastics. He was one of the founders of the Judische Turnerschaft, a pioneering Jewish sports club. Rising antisemitism in Germany kept Jews out of many athletic organizations, and the Judische Turnerschaft was the only place Jewish athletes could safely participate in sports and games.

As a former Olympic champion, Alfred retained membership in Germany’s most elite gymnastics club until he was forced to “voluntarily” resign from the organization in 1933.

Alfred moved to the Netherlands in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution, but two years later Germany invaded Holland. On October 3, 1942 – Alfred’s 73rd birthday – he was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in spite of appeals by top German gymnastics officials. The former Olympic hero died of starvation less than three months later.

Alfred’s fate was unknown for many years. In 1961, well-known German sportswriter Arthur Grix was asked what happened to Alfred, and Grix answered with chilling casualness, “He was a Jew and went the usual way.”

In recent years Germans have taken steps to ensure Alfred is not forgotten. There is now an elite sports school named after him and his cousin Felix. There is also a Flatow pavilion at the Olympic Stadium, and a Flatow sports hall. In 1996 a stamp was issued featuring a picture of the cousins.

For inspiring his countrymen at the Athens Olympics, and making sure Jewish athletes throughout Europe had a way to play sports and stay in shape, we honor Alfred Flatow as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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