In its few lines, this appeal by Hamburg sports club “Schild” [“shield”] of June 1933 illustrates the situation of Germany’s Jewish population as well as Jewish reactions to it, although its purpose merely was to announce the founding of a sports club. The letter was written by the Vaterländischer Bund jüdischer Frontsoldaten[German-Jewish War Veterans’ Association] founded in 1919, which became a chapter of the Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten, or RjF [National Union of Jewish War Veterans] in 1920. The association’s mission was to oppose the defamation of Jewish soldiers while emphasizing their loyalty to their German homeland. Sports initially did not play a role within the RjF, as it was not concerned with leisure time activities, but with teaching values and ideas. Therefore, the circular announces that “now,” meaning in June 1933, a sports club was going to be established. This late foundation date was specific to Hamburg since the RjF had had to realize two things as early as the mid-1920s: first, the significance of sports in creating community spirit, and secondly, the importance of sports in preparing for physical self-defense. The sports association “Schild” was officially registered in 1925, but its initial relations to the RjF were merely cooperative. In 1933 however, “Schild” was integrated into the RjF owing to the increasingly threatening atmosphere. Until 1933 there had not been a “Schild”-chapter in Hamburg.
This circular was prompted by the introduction of the “Aryan articles,” a piece of anti-Jewish legislation which was first applied to the civil service and legal professions (April 7, 1933) and subsequently circulated to sports associations and clubs. It was immediately and eagerly applied by many German organizations even before being formally written into law. Germany’s largest sports organization, the Deutsche Turnerschaft [German Gymnasts’ Association], did so on April 8, 1933, one day after the law had been passed. The “Schild” circular made direct reference to the “Aryan articles” and explained that while Jewish athletes had been “immobilized,” it was important to continue practicing sports, for which the “Schild” clubs could provide the basis, as “physical exercise for Jewish youths is one of the foremost necessities of our time.” This argument also explains the founding of a “Schild” chapter in Hamburg. The goal was to provide a broader basis for sports and to extend the RjF activities in Hamburg to the area of sports. Considering the history of Jewish sports, it is hardly surprising that Jewish female athletes were addressed explicitly. Women’s gymnastics had been an accepted part of Jewish gymnastic clubs for some time and much earlier than was the case in sports clubs without a clear denominational affiliation which accepted both Christian and Jewish members. By specifically addressing women as well as men, “Schild” demonstrated that it was not interested in merely propagating an athletic male body image, but that it recognized physical exercise as highly important for both men and women, and subsequently even as essential for survival.
“Schild” was not the only Jewish sports organization, since the Zionists had their own clubs belonging to the Makkabi association. These two groups were rivals until 1933 because they had originated from diametrically opposed positions. While the RjF defended its German patriotic ethos and placed great hope in assimilation—albeit under great pressure after 1933—the Zionist Makkabi clubs advocated emigration and offered preparation courses. In 1933, such disputes seemed marginal however, which is reflected in the “Schild” circular’s statement that if one had been previously active in another Jewish club and felt “ideologically” closer to it, one should remain in this club and “become even more active” in it. Its goal truly was the “physical training” of all young Jews. To the “Schild” organization, this did not necessarily mean preparation for emigration, however (including Hakhshara—the training to become a farmer in Palestine, for example), for the RjF did not remotely consider advocating emigration in 1933. Their main goal was to enable its members to physically defend themselves. Therefore the list of sports offered included not only traditional sports (i.e. track and field, swimming, soccer), but also boxing and jiu-jitsu, a Japanese form of self-defense. The Japanese martial arts judo and jiu-jitsu were introduced in Germany in the early 20th century and were enthusiastically adopted and developed. “Schild” played a major part in this process, and jiu-jitsu became one of the disciplines in which Jewish athletes were highly successful. Beginning in 1925, the RjF newspaper regularly printed jiu-jitsu class training hours, which clearly hints at which sports were important to the RjF.
As the circular shows, the RjF’s mission was not only to promote martial arts and physical fitness, but it also advocated the idea of the German citizen of the Jewish faith. This is the essence of the statement that everyone was welcome to “Schild” who was of a “patriotic mindset,” even if they had not fought in the First World War. To the RjF, this meant the steadfast link between Judaism and “Germanness.” Within this concept, “patriotic” was both the rational and the emotional key term. TheRjF considered itself part of German society.
The preemptive and ruthless application of the “Aryan articles” by German sports clubs in
particular demonstrated how quickly the demand of Jews to “get out!” was
realized as early as 1933—at that point without any
legal enforcement or basis, as needs to be pointed out. In the years following
1933, Jewish sports clubs did indeed increase their
membership significantly. In Hamburg 10% of the Jewish congregation were also members in a
Jewish sports club. Yet sports were unable to halt political developments. In
the run-up to the 1936 Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
and Berlin, the
regime still exercised restraint towards sports clubs since it did not want to
jeopardize this gigantic propaganda project. Yet there was an SA SA: Sturmabteilung [Storm Division]-slogan which
went: “Once the Olympics are over, we will beat the Jews to a pulp.” “Wenn die Olympiade vorbei, schlagen wir
die Juden zu Brei.” In 1938, all Jewish
sports clubs were banned.
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Erik Petry, PD Dr. phil., born 1961, works as research assistant at the Centre of Jewish Studies and teaches Jewish history and culture of the 19th and 20th century, both at University Basel. His research interests are: modern history of Jews in Germany and Switzerland, Zionism, history of antisemitism, history of the Middle East, oral history and commemorative history.
Erik Petry, Jewish Martial Arts. Hamburg’s Sports Club “Schild” (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-84.en.v1> [September 24, 2017].