Team USA had a star-spangled entrance, the president of Germany spoke and there were fireworks galore at the largest gatehring of Jewish athletes from around the world in Germany since the Holocaust.
BERLIN – As the ceremonial torch was lit, fireworks erupted into the sky and athletes cheered as the 2015 European Maccabi Games officially began last night at the Waldbuhne amphitheater in the Olympic complex.
The opening ceremonies began on Jewish time, slightly later than its scheduled 8 p.m. start, and featured a variety of performances from Eurovision 1998 winner Dana International to a brief appearance by Matisyahu.
Prior to the start of the ceremonies at Maifield on the Olympic complex, a memorial service was dedicated to the Olympians lost in the Holocaust as well as in the 1972 Munich games. German Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection Heiko Maas read aloud names of gymnasts, high jumpers and others who lost their lives in these events.
“This is a tribute to all Jewish sportsmen and women who were persecuted and murdered by Germans,” he said in his speech. “In Germany, there can be only one response to anti-Semitism, and that is zero tolerance.”
Athletes, volunteers and supporters from all delegations listened to remarks from 94-year-old Holocaust survivor and former Maccabi athlete Margot Friedlander, as she encouraged the players to remember why they are there and let it give them strength in their performance.
Friedlander returned to Berlin despite having been ripped away from her entire immediate family during the Holocaust. To her mind, it is a “happy occasion” that the Maccabi games are taking place in Berlin.
For some, her story inspired them to look around at the venue where they are playing and take it in.
“From going to the sports league to losing her whole family, it really hit close to home — how she came back and we came back is absolutely incredible,” said Adam Greenberg, a Philadelphia resident and goalie of the men’s open water polo team.
Greenberg, 27, added that he believes that Berlin is the best venue in Maccabi history.
“We stood around here for, like, three hours and kind of bonded, but mostly our legs are sore,” he said. “But it was totally worth it because this is a great venue and a great event.”
While the ceremonies featured an array of entertaining performances, most in attendance agreed that the most exciting part was the entrances from each country.
With many flags flying and even more “Selfie Sticks” held high above the players’ heads as they took pictures with the 9,000-person crowd behind them, the delegations entered the venue in alphabetical order, cheering and waving as they walked down a hill on the side of the stage and up the stands to their seats.
As Team USA was last to enter alphabetically — Germany was, as host country, the final delegation to enter the venue — the other delegations had already filled their seats, which made for a more colorful, louder entrance. But it also added an element of unity that stood out to some.
“It was an overwhelming experience to see so many people with a common purpose,” said Fred Kurtz. Kurtz, from Philadelphia, is one of the team’s accommodations managers, joining his brother Dan, USA team manager, for the games.
Fred Kurtz’s position may be administrative, but his brother insists, as if on cue, it’s for another purpose. “He’s here to drive me nuts,” he joked.
Walking down the hill and onto the area in front of the stage was the highlight for him.
“When you were coming down the hill and coming up the steps and you saw all the teams organized, and you saw the stage and the flag and just the spirit coming up from the ground, it blew you away,” he said.
The President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, spoke to the crowd toward the end of the night about the importance of these games returning to Berlin, or “returning to its roots,” as he put it.
The end of the ceremonies featured the lighting of the torch, signifying the start of the games, which was performed by two special guests of the games: Nancy Glickman, daughter of Marty Glickman and Ann Stoller, cousin of Sam Stoller. Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were American Jewish Olympic sprinters who were prevented from competing in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin due to their religion.
Nancy Glickman lit the torch while sporting her father’s uniform shirt, a reminder of the past and how much has changed since.
The night was full of acknowledgment of the city’s past, its history with Jews and its confidence in change for the present and future.
And regarding that future, said Greenberg, there is only one thing on each participant’s mind for the next 10 days: “Bringing home the gold.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0740