You’ve heard of the Olympic Truce, right? It’s the spoken agreement — supposedly dating back almost 3,000 years — that says competing nations will participate in a "laying down of arms" in the name of goodwill and sportsmanship during the Games. The Truce is seemingly built for eyeroll-inducing political statements ("in a world that can sometimes seem bleak," said U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague in July, "sport has the power to bring people together and remind them of their common humanity"). And it’s easy to view certain Olympic truces as nothing but hollow symbolism.
But as the games come to a close this year, Pittsburgh’s Holocaust Center and August Wilson Center have announced an exhibition about the modern Olympic festivities perhaps least concerned with "common humanity."
Berlin's 1936 games — also known as the Nazi Olympics — were defined by the politics of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.
Exactly one German Jew participated among nearly 350 German Olympic athletes that year. High ranking members of the Reich’s sport ministry reportedly referred to the games as a "way to weed out the weak, Jewish, and other undesirables." And America’s failure to boycott is seen as an immense misstep considering the Nazi party had already begun a racially motivated purging of German society.
There were notable triumphs at the 1936 Olympics, of course. Despite being "black auxiliaries," as Hitler termed the 23 black athletes in the U.S. Olympic team that year, John Woodruff and Jesse Owens brought home gold medals. Same goes for Samuel Balter, a Jewish member of the U.S. basketball team.
But despite the triumphs, the 1936 games remain a difficult reminder of how Olympic Truces can be temporary.
"This is a really critical part of Jewish history, a really critical part of African-American history and a really critical part of American history," says Joy Braunstein, director of the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
For more information about the 1936 Olympics, visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.