The August Wilson Center hosts 1936 Nazi Olympics Exhibit


The official poster for the 1936 Summer Olympic Games shows an Olympian rising above Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate. (1936).

By Mia Crow

There are pictures of Olympic hero Jesse Owens making his gold medal winning long jump in front of Adolph Hitler, defying the Nazi leader’s theory of a “master race.”

Also in an exhibit from now until February 2013 at the August Wilson Center is Connellsville native John Woodruff, also black, winning the 800 meter run in the 1936 Olympic Games in plain view of Hitler.

The exhibit also shows disturbing Nazi inspired consequences of racial mixing in Germany with images called the “Rhineland Bastards.”

All of these images are part of The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 exhibit on loan to the Wilson Center with hopes of keeping themes of racism and prejudice in front of the public.

“The Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the AWC felt it was important to have this exhibit here to talk about some of the themes of racism and of prejudice,”

“It tells how and why it’s relevant today and to also bridge the gap between the two communities,” said Cecile Shellman, artistic director of visual arts and exhibitions.

The exhibit, which is cosponsored by the Holocaust Center of  Greater Pittsburgh  and the Wilson Center juxtaposes the participation of blacks and Jews in  the 1936 Berlin Olympics against public relations campaign Hitler waged to showcase his master race ideology and a way promote his propaganda under the false pretense of being a hospitable country.  Hitler’s regime, only moments before the tourists and athletes arrival, temporarily removed the anti-Jewish signs and removed any Gypsys off the streets and into internment camps.

This exhibit was brought to Pittsburgh by way of the National Holocaust Museum in collaboration with the AWC.

It is a soul stirring chronicle of the effects of racism against two cultures in two different parts of the world.  For instance, there is the African American Experience section displaying panels with images of restrooms and restaurants showing “Whites Only” signs then there are the images of the Jewish people and Gypsies enclosed in camps, of Jewish athletes who were kicked out of sports clubs and off the German team.

Hitler’s rise to power and his hatred for anyone “non-Aryan” caused a major debate among the many countries set to compete in the Olympics which sparked a boycott debate.  There are images of Jeremiah Mahoney and, president of the Amateur Athletic Association, who was opposed to sending any athletes to Germany and Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, who was opposed to boycotting the games, they are shaking hands as they come to a compromise about the games.  Many of those countries agreed to boycott the games that year; they felt they would be endorsing Hitler’s ideals.  However, despite the threat of boycott the United States and 48 other countries decided to participate, making it the first-time so many teams competed in any previous Olympics, the exhibit shows the Boycott Debate.

“It was important for African American athletes to be here…they were going to a place where the Jews were being discriminated against and black athletes were living with racism in our own country,” said Shellman.   The African American athletes were subjected to Jim Crow laws in the United States, but in Germany they were hailed as heroes.  The 1936 Olympics gave them a sense of hope and black pride.  Nineteen blacks competed in this Olympics bringing home 14 medals for the US.

Jesse Owens was responsible for four of those medals, winning gold in the long jump, 100 and 200 meter dashes and the 4 x 100 meter relay, making him the most successful athlete in those games.

“He ran off with everything but the stadium.”  Shellman said reading the caption of a political cartoon showing Jesse Owens running with objects from the stadium and Hitler observing in the background.  The exhibit illustrates Owens’ success in Germany, there are image of him and German competitor and eventually close friend, Carl Ludwig Long relaxing on the ground having a friendly conversation.  Despite Hitler’s Aryan ways, there are other images of Owens being barraged by German fans for his autograph.

John Woodruff, then a freshman of the University of Pittsburgh, won the gold in the 800 meter run beating the German’s with ease.  .  Woodruff’s gold winning run is displayed on a paneled image of him in the exhibit along with a video kiosk in which Woodruff and other athletes describe their experience in the Olympics. “This was the first Olympics in which they participated with the biggest contingency winning 70 of the 187 medals and this was the most medals won by the African American athletes.”

Children of African Colonial soldiers and German women made up a very small population of biracial children in Germany after World War I.  There were about 500 teens that were known as the “Rhineland Bastards” who were forcibly sterilized to keep them from reproducing and to “purify” Hitler’s “master race.”  The AWC exhibit shows the image of these teens, who were mostly white with blond hair and one black with curly black hair in sailor type dress, but they weren’t the only people who were subjected to Hitler’s “purification,” the mentally disabled, Gypsies or Roma and Sinti, and the physically disabled.   “This exhibition has a lot of information that has not been explained in this context before…there are photographs that have been in archive in Germany and here in the United States that have not been widely distributed…and it certainly makes you think.” Said   Shellman, for example, the images and text describing the “Rhindland Bastards” and the Nuremberg Laws.

The Nazi Olympics exhibit  is set up to resemble a stadium with panels of images of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda and it shows and his ideals he wanted to show of blonde haired and blue eyed pure race.  There are panels of the Olympic success of African Americans, such as Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and John Woodruff and the Jewish Athletes such as, Alfred Flatow, Lili Henoch and Roman Kantor competing in their prospective event.  It tells of the popularity the black athletes gained but had to go home to Jim Crow America and be subjected to discrimination and segregation, but their Jewish counterparts were also successful but were killed in the aftermath of the Olympics in death camps during World War II.  They were killed in the Holocaust. “This is a powerful exhibit and it asks what will we do when we encounter racism?  It continues and what will we do?  This whole exhibit is about how we respond to things like that and how our bravery and the bravery of these athletes tell the story of courage,” says Shellman.

The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 will be at the AWC from October 15- February 2013. Hours of admission is Tuesday-Saturday 11a.m.-6p.m.  Admission is free. Fee for Special Exhibitions on the second floor: Adults – $8, seniors (62 and over) and Students with valid ID – $4 and Children – $3. Members are free.



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