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Competition a Lifeline for Two Sisters
The two-bedroom apartment that Ruth Politzer, 92, shares with her sister, Jean Caro, 90, has all the trappings you might expect: old landscape paintings; framed family pictures spanning generations; mahogany and oak furniture dating back decades; crisp, yellowed photo albums; and, in a small corner of the dining room, amid other silver (including a menorah), a handful of cups and trophies celebrating athletic achievements from around the globe.
Those awards are the fruits of an athletic career that found the sisters competing nationally throughout South America, their adopted home once they had fled Europe and the Nazis.
During the decade she lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Politzer was a competitive athlete -- first in track-and-field events, including shot put and javelin, followed by several years of basketball, where she was team captain.
She was an athlete from an early age, and in 1924, during the German phase of her life, she ran 50 yards as part of a relay race from Potsdam to Berlin when she was only 8. Ten years later, a teacher wanted to recommend her for training for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but she was informed that she was ineligible because of being Jewish.
"The German dream was to be the super race, and we didn't belong to that dream," said Politzer.
Suddenly finding themselves in need of refuge, they also discovered fairly quickly that there were a limited number of countries accepting Jews, and the family had to go wherever they could in order to escape. Politzer left Germany in 1934, after her parents bought her a visa to England, where she went to school and participated in sports. She was 18 when she left -- old enough for her parents to send her as an independent teenager. She also had relatives there, who helped her get an apartment, among other things.
After three years, she left England for Buenos Aires. Caro and her parents joined her in the spring of 1938, by which time the entire extended family was out of Germany -- some in Argentina, and others in Sweden; Shanghai, China; or elsewhere.
Said Caro: "It was wonderful [for us in Argentina], and there was a big Jewish community of refugees."
Training for Sports -- and Their Livelihoods
But they also found themselves among a large number of German nationals, many of whom they said had Nazi leanings. Often they were asked to join athletic clubs, but refused because, they reasoned, they had not left Germany to come to Argentina and associate with Nazi sympathizers.
Politzer taught gym and exercise classes at a camp she co-founded. She also earned some money as a masseuse, a trade she later brought stateside. Caro, for her part, taught kindergarten, which she had trained for in Germany.
And there were still plenty of opportunities for athletic engagement.
"They had all the sports facilities you could dream of," said Politzer. "For us, the most satisfying thing was that, in Argentina, all the women's track-and-field records were in German Nazi hands. And now comes a group of Jewish girls that took that away."
During the 1939 South American Championships for Athletics, she won the gold in both javelin and shot put. Two years later, she won another gold in shot put, while Caro's skills in the same sport netted her a silver during the next competition, which was held in 1943.
In fact, Politzer's 1939 shot-put record still stands. Up to that point, athletes got three throws with each hand and were scored from the best of each; after 1939, the rules were changed, and contestants just got three throws with their best hand.
Politzer said that those games, held in Lima, Peru, were one of her happiest memories.
After Politzer got lateral epicondylitis (commonly known as tennis elbow), she abandoned track-and-field for basketball, playing for River Plate, one of Argentina's top teams. Caro competed occasionally (such as in the 1943 games), but most of her athletic time was spent playing tennis for pleasure.
But years of throwing a javelin and shot put showed themselves early on in Politzer's basketball career: "In the beginning, all my shots went out of bounds," she said, citing her strong throwing arm, which had to be brought under control. But she said she found the team atmosphere exhilarating after years of solo sports.
"I loved it so much more than javelin throwing," she said. "We played with other clubs, and we played all over South America." As a team captain, Politzer competed in Chile and Uruguay, as well as Argentina. She even led River Plate to several national championship games.
Through the late 1930s and early '40s, they kept an eye on the war, fearful that Hitler might attempt to invade England and possibly expand the war even farther. All that changed, though, after Pearl Harbor, because they knew that the United States would enter the war. "For us, it was the beginning of the end for the Germans," said Politzer.
When the sisters finally came to America with their parents in 1946, after wartime immigration quotas were lifted, they settled in Elmhurst, Queens, where they already had family, and where they made their home for several decades. The entire family survived the war, and nearly everyone was reunited in that New York borough, save for their older brother, who chose to stay in Buenos Aires.
It was a sweet reunion for a family that had been separated for so many years.
"We all came back together, and it was like we never left," said Caro. "We were very, very lucky, and we were a large family."
Caro taught kindergarten in Manhattan for 36 years, and every summer taught tennis at a camp in Maine, while Politzer got married and taught her three children to play basketball.
Caro never married; Politzer was widowed in 1967. After they both retired in 1982, the pair moved to Tom's River, N.J. They lived there for 25 years before moving to Concordville last year. When the sisters came the States in 1946, their port of entry was Philadelphia; it's not lost on them that they're back more than 60 years after first arriving here.
Many years may have passed since their competitive days, but their athletic exploits abroad remain close to their hearts.
"I'll always be grateful that we had sports," said Politzer, "because there were times that were so hard that we never knew where our lives would end. Sports were the thing that kept us going."