Ten hours before the Olympic opening ceremonies last Friday, a less festive opening took place at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "The Nazi Olympics, Berlin 1936" not only recaptures those Games but also puts them into historical and cultural perspective. "It's not just about athletes," says Stephen Goodell, the museum's director of exhibitions. "This was the ultimate manipulation of sport. It was part of the Nazi project."
The exhibit, which will travel to several other U.S. cities next summer, is divided into five sections, one for each of the Olympic rings. A wall-sized photo of a runner carrying the Olympic flame in front of Nazi soldiers and swastika-emblazoned banners leads into the first section, which chronicles the 3� years between the time Hitler became chancellor and the start of the Games. Nine concentration camps were built in that period, and the Nuremberg Laws denying Jews rights of citizenship were passed, yet the International Olympic Committee never considered taking the Games out of Germany.
Another section examines the debate in the U.S. over whether to boycott the 1936 Olympics and points up the irony of such a debate given the racism that existed in the U.S., where, among other things, blacks were forbidden to play major league baseball. The section devoted to the Games includes a copy of a letter from the Nazi government informing Germany's best female high jumper, Gretel Bergmann, a Jew, that she would not be allowed to compete because of her poor performance—even though she had equaled the German record of 5'3" four weeks before. A video screen shows footage of Hitler proclaiming the Games open to all as a crowd rises in Nazi salute.
"The Nazi Olympics" has an undeniable resonance. As visitors left the exhibit last Friday, most no doubt planning to watch the Atlanta ceremonies that night, the last thing they saw was a row of photos of 12 European athletes from that era. All later perished in concentration camps.