When conscience collides with Olympics dreams

In 1936, both winter and summer games were held in Nazi Germany (a medal ceremony from the Berlin summer games is pictured), leaving a quandary for Jewish St. Louisan Mel Dubinsky, a contender for the Olympic team in ice skating.

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

With Friday marking the official start of the London 2012 Olympics (officially the XXX Olympiad) and the thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish voices calling for a moment of silence in honor of the 40th anniversary of the 11 slain Israeli athletes in Munich, I was reminded of another instance in St. Louis Jewish history when conscience and the Olympics collided —  this time back in 1936.

In 1936, both the Winter and Summer Olympics were held in Germany; the winter, which was officially known as the “Hitler Olympics,” in the market town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, the summer in Berlin. By 1936 the Nuremberg Laws were enacted by the Nazi-controlled Reichstag, which forbade German Jews from practicing law, medicine and other learnedprofessions, from social relations or marriage to non-Jews, and essentially stripped Jews of all the rights of German citizenship, paving the way for the full-blown Holocaust.

Here in St. Louis, a young man named Melvin Dubinsky was a promising star member of the Silver Skates, an elite ice-skating champion who was regarded by his local coaches as a prime candidate for the Winter Olympic Games in Germany. But Dubinsky, having strong Jewish values at an early age, dropped out of the competition to qualify for the 1936 Games. In solidarity with the Jews of Germany and the world, he did not want to hand a propaganda victory to Hitler, and so gave up an athletic opportunity of a lifetime. Years later, the late Mel Dubinsky would become President of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, a major Jewish community leader at the local, national and international levels, a steadfast supporter of the State of Israel, and even a personal friend to the late Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.

The ’36 Olympics also left a lasting impression on longtime St. Louis Jewish community leader, Bill Kahn.  

As a young man growing up in Pittsburgh in 1936, Kahn was inspired when his father, Ziggy Kahn, then director of athletics of the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Center, wanted to organize a boycott by Jewish athletes and organizations against the Nazi Olympics in Germany. He persisted in his efforts despite the timidity of some of his lay leaders who told him to “sha, sha” and not make a public fuss about the far-off games.

As executive director of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis years later, Bill Kahn took to heart that lesson from his father when he and then-Federation President Tom Green and Holocaust survivor Leo Wolf were the prime movers behind the establishment of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. Like his dad, Bill Kahn did not let the naysayers locally deflect him from his goal of establishing a world-class Holocaust Museum right here in St. Louis.

Today, some 30,000 young people from all over the bi-state region and beyond visit the Museum every year. Kahn was honored in 2006 by having a Garden just outside the Holocaust Museum named in his honor.

As this year’s London games commence, we should keep in mind that the way we stand for our conscience today can serve to influence and motivate the future leaders of the Jewish community to stay true to their own beliefs when called for, whether it’s honoring victims of terrorism, or building and maintaining the community’s Jewish institutions and heritage.