Zionist gymnastics and sports organization. The establishment at the end of the nineteenth century of a national Jewish gymnastic society in Europe can be explained as a reaction to mounting nationalism across the continent, with concomitant exclusion of minorities and heightened antisemitism. The Slavic Sokol (Hawk) gymnastics movement, founded in Prague in 1862, stood as a successful East European model to evoke national spirit on the athletic field.
Maccabi delegation in a parade, Bucharest, 1930s. (Pierre Gildesgame Maccabi Sports Museum, Israel)
The ideological founder of the national Jewish athletic movement was Max Nordau (1849–1923), a committed social Darwinist who ranked second only to Theodor Herzl in the Zionist movement. His calls at the Zionist congresses in Basel in 1898 and 1901 for the creation of a Muskeljudentum (muscular Jewry) to effect the regeneration of the physique and character of Jews were of historical significance. After forerunner associations in Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, the first substantial national Jewish athletics association in Western Europe, called Bar Kochba, was founded in Berlin in 1898. The movement quickly gained supporters in Eastern Europe, resulting in the first widespread attempts to organize it in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, and in Bulgaria.
The first Jewish athletics federations in Galicia were founded at the start of the twentieth century in Lwów and Kraków. Before World War I, Jewish sports societies in Galicia had attracted 2,776 members in 27 clubs. At the last competition before World War I, in March 1914 in Lwów, the Galician association, following the Bulgarian precedent, adopted the name Maccabi. Clubs in Bohemia and Moravia were organized into the “Western Austrian circle,” which in 1913 consisted of 2,500 members in 23 clubs, and these branches were also instructed to adopt the name Maccabi.
Letos s nami na tabory, Makabi Hacairu" (Let's go to camp this year, Young Maccabi)). Czech poster. Czechoslovakia, 1933. The poster invites Jewish children to attend Maccabi summer camps. (Pierre Gildesgame Maccabi Sports Museum, Israel)
In Russia, the first Maccabi society was founded in Odessa in 1913. But tsarist authorities soon banned it, deporting leading members to Siberia. After the October Revolution, the Maccabi movement enjoyed an upturn until the Bolsheviks, as part of their anti-Zionist policies, turned against the movement and shut it down.
The situation after World War I demanded a reorganization of Jewish athletics. This was undertaken at the Twelfth Zionist Congress in 1921 at Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia. What emerged was the World Maccabi Union, led by Heinrich Kuhn of Berlin. Until the start of World War II, East European members of the union included organizations from Romania, Hungary, the Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, as well as Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.
The Maccabi federation of Poland was the strongest pillar of the World Union. In the 1930s, its membership included 30,000 Jewish athletes in 250 clubs. The Polish model demonstrated perfectly the Zionist orientation of the Maccabi movement and the competitive sporting dimension of “muscular Jewry.” Ideologically and financially, Maccabi societies in Poland encouraged emigration and the promotion of the Jewish community in Palestine. Maccabi athletes competed in Polish national championships in all of the classic disciplines. Jewish athletes set records in boxing, wrestling, and weightlifting—disciplines that held particular symbolic value for developing “muscular Jewry,” and contradicted the stereotype, once deplored by Nordau, of Jews as weaklings.
Track and field athlete Maryla Freiwald from the Kraków Maccabi federation was one of Poland’s most successful athletes in the 1920s, representing the country 15 times at international competitions. She also symbolized proof of the importance of women’s sports in the Maccabi movement. Maccabi athletes were similarly successful in Czechoslovakia, where they represented the country in track and field and fencing at the Olympics.
A man diving into the new swimming pool at the Maccabi Sports Club, Vilna, 1930s. (YIVO)
An attempt at the beginning of the 1920s by the World Maccabi Union to be accredited as an Olympic contender failed. In response, the association decided in 1929 to make the Maccabi training programs more “Palestino-centric” and to set up an international competition in Palestine for Jewish athletes, dubbed the Maccabiah Games. The first Maccabiah Games were held in the spring of 1932 in Tel Aviv, with 390 participants from 19 countries. The Polish team took first place. The first winter Maccabiah Games were in 1933 in Zakopane, Poland, accompanied by antisemitic rhetoric in the country’s extreme right-wing press.
The second summer Maccabiah Games, in April 1935, were already under the shadow cast by the Nazi regime in Germany and reflected the dramatic deterioration in the situation of Europe’s Jews. Many participants remained in Palestine illegally after the games were over. In 1936, competitions took place in the Slovakian town of Banská Bystrica. But the summer games planned for 1938 in Palestine were canceled because of the threat facing Europe’s Jews.
The 1937 edition of the Jüdische Sportbuch (Jewish Sports Book) noted 200,000 members of Maccabi clubs in 27 countries. But Nazi Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia and the start of World War II in 1939 soon put an end to the activities of the movement in Eastern Europe. Nor was the movement able to rebuild in the USSR after 1945. It was not until the collapse of communism in 1989–1990 that it was possible to organize new Maccabi clubs in Poland and Russia.
Diethelm Blecking, “Marxism versus Muscular Judaism: Jewish Sports in Poland,” in Sport and Physical Education in Jewish History, ed. George Eisen, Haim Kaufman, and Manfred Lämmer (Netanyah, Isr., 2003); George Eisen, “The Maccabiah Games: A History of the Jewish Olympics” (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1979); Uri Miller, “Maccabi Russia in a General Historical Context,” in Sport and Physical Education in Jewish History, ed. George Eisen, Haim Kaufman, and Manfred Lämmer, pp. 116–125 (Netanyah, Isr., 2003); Joseph C. Pick, “Sports,” in The Jews of Czechoslovakia: Historical Studies and Surveys, vol. 2, pp. 185–228 (Philadelphia and New York, 1971); Jarosław Rokicki, “Początki żydowskich organizacji sportowych,” Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 188 (1998): 62–78.
Translated from German by Rebecca Stuart