When Berlin Lifted The Curtain Bittersweet Memories Of '36 Olympics

July 12, 1992|By Erika Young

With the 1992 Summer Olympics fast approaching I picture myself standing in the host city, breathing the salty air from the Mediterranean Sea, listening to church bells toll and proud Spaniards shouting, "Saludo, Saludo -- Welcome to Barcelona!"

Many flags will be at the Olympic stadium for the first time: those of countries that only recently have won their independence. Missing will be the flags of the Soviet Union, East Germany and other former communist countries.

Instead of witnessing the thrilling events in person, I can only dream about them with the help of the newspaper and television, or console myself with these words from a song by Franz Lehar: "Happy is he who forgets what he cannot change."

Many times I've sung that song -- when the outside world was hidden from me by an invisible curtain, when it was a crime to listen to a foreign radio station or voice an opinion contrary to the doctrine of the Third Reich.

That curtain was lifted, but only for two short weeks in the summer of 1936. Welcome to the Olympics, read the banners strung across the streets in my native Berlin. "Welcome, strangers from foreign lands," I thought jubilantly.

I still thank my mother for opening our house to the people from America, to Mrs. Holman and her daughter Vivian. One look at the German-American teen-ager from Philadelphia told me we would have fun together, we'd become friends.

And we did.

While my mother muddled through a mixture of German-English with Mrs. Holman in the living room, Vivian and I sat in the kitchen and talked about clothes and snacked on junk food. "Verboten," I'd hear my mother whisper through the open door when Mrs. Holman expressed concern about our government. Mother would quickly change the subject and ask about those wondrous appliances -- refrigerators, washers and dryers -- that were practically unheard of in Germany at that time.

To broaden our vocabularies, Vivian and I would converse in each other's native tongue. It wasn't always easy, our hands putting the message across when words failed.

I listened open-mouthed to her verbal picture of the United States: the vast country, the Statue of Liberty, the Fourth of July celebrations, the meaning of freedom.

To do my part, I had school friends over. We sang sentimental songs and held hands in the spirit of camaraderie.

Of course the main purpose of the Holmans' visit was to attend the Olympics. Together Vivian and I rode the U-Bahn (subway) to the Olympic stadium.

At the entrance to the stadium, people stood in groups discussing the 200-meter track race. The name Jesse Owens was mentioned, but it didn't mean anything to me.

It still didn't mean anything after the athletes were in the starting position and Jesse Owens, muscles bulging and glowing, looked far ahead to the banner at the finish line.

The tension grew. Everyone was waiting for the pistol shot. When it wasn't fired, people grew restless. Then the word was passed -- the Fuhrer had arrived. People rose as if electrified, stretched out their arms and shouted, "Heil Hitler!"

Vivian poked me in the ribs. "They're crazy!" she shouted over the roar of voices. I cautiously turned my head to see if a brown shirt (Nazi) had caught her remark. We were safe, all eyes hung on the Fuhrer.

And then the race began, and what a race it was. Jesse Owens took off like an arrow, with Matthew Robinson following on his heels. Seeing these two up front, fellow Americans lining the bleachers grew wild, shouting "USA! USA! USA!" And waving American flags like crazy.

Jesse won. His body bathed in sweat, he looked at Adolf Hitler. Was he going to be asked to his box? Would he receive the customary congratulations? There was none, just a grimaced face and a hasty exit by the Fuhrer. Jesse wasn't supposed to win. He wasn't Aryan. He didn't belong to the super race.

Not daring to voice their enthusiasm for Owens and his sportsmanship, Germans kept silent until the Fuhrer was out of sight.

And then a roar ran through the stadium. It was everybody shouting, "Jesse! Jesse! Jesse!"

All fired up, Vivian and I rose from our seats and waved and cheered.

What a day! What an event! What a man!

The next day was the women's high-diving competition. "I don't have a ticket," I lamented at the breakfast table. Blessed be Mrs. Holman. Turning to my mother, she said, "I hear they're having the sale of the year at Hertie's. Shall we go together?" And then she handed me her admission slip.

I naturally rooted for Kaethe Koehler, a German, to win the gold medal. It wasn't to be. Dorothy Poynton Hill, an American, dove down the 30 feet, her body as straight as a stickpin. There was no splash, only a ripple as she hit the azure water and disappeared into it.

The next day, we watched as the German Ludwig Stubbendorf won the gold medal in an equestrian competition. He seemed to look sad listening to the German national anthem while the swastika flag was slowly raised.

Too quickly the Holmans' visit came to an end. Though Vivian and I had promised to keep in touch, we never did. But I thought of her often over the years, especially after I left my native country.

Gripping the rail of the SS America as the Statue of Liberty came in sight, I thought I heard Vivian's voice shouting, "USA! USA! USA!"

I think about her now and wonder if she will be in Barcelona later this month rooting for the American athletes. On second thought, I believe she'd rather be back in Berlin, shaking hands with Jesse Owens and thanking him for that thrilling day in 1936.

I know I'd want to do the same.

ERIKA YOUNG is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

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