A Jewish Athlete: Swimming Against Stereotype In 20th Century Europe
In the American film Airplane, a stewardess asks a passenger whether he would like something to read. "Do you have anything light?" the man asks. "How about Famous Jewish Sports Legends?" she offers.
In fact, Jews in sports are anything but a joke: they've been winning Olympic medals since the modern Olympics began. This daughter's profile of Czechoslovak swimmer and water polo player Kurt Epstein traces the history of Jewish athletes in Central Europe and provides a detailed case study of one such life-long athlete. Epstein grew up a stone's throw from the Elbe River and began swimming before the First World War, when his town was still part of Austria-Hungary. In high school, he became a competitive rower and swimmer, challenging prevailing stereotypes about Jews and becoming a leading Czechoslovak water polo player and swimming coach, representing his country at two Olympic Games. In addition to describing the cultural background of the Epstein family in the Bohemian countryside, this essay examines Kurt Epstein's decision to participate in the 1936 Berlin "Nazi" Olympics, and follows him through a series of Nazi concentration camps back to Prague, where he was elected member of the Czechoslovak National Olympic Committee. After the Communist putsch of 1948, Epstein vowed to flee "in a swimsuit if necessary" and, at 44, emigrated to New York City where he became a cutter in the garment district, swam weekly at the St. George pool in Brooklyn, and served as Treasurer of the Czech Sportsmen-in-Exile-in the Western world.