More than 200 people from across the Pittsburgh area attended the gala opening of the “The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936,” Monday, Oct. 15, at the August Wilson Center, Downtown.
But for Sala Udin, interim president of the center, the bigger story was the collaboration between the Black and Jewish communities — through the August Wilson Center and Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — that brought the exhibit to Pittsburgh.
He called the exhibit “the starting point for a larger conversation.”
In fact, Udin said the exhibit, which is on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., and runs through Feb. 28, 2013, is the first in a seven-month educational and cultural series of events “to explore 100 years of collaboration between Blacks and Jews,” including town hall dialogues and cultural presentations.
But this evening was about the Nazi Olympics exhibit.
The 4,000-square-feet exhibit commemorates the 75th anniversary of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which Hitler intended as a propaganda tool to demonstrate Aryan superiority.
Instead, Black athletes, including the famous Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and the University of Pittsburgh’s John Woodruff, who won gold in the 800-meter run, debunked the myth of Aryan superiority and proved athletes from all backgrounds can compete equally.
For the opening night only, Pitt loaned Woodruff’s medal to the exhibit.
Using photographs, film footage, written documents and testimonies from the athletes themselves, the exhibit chronicles the rise of the Nazis, their attempt to usurp sports in Germany to their own ends, efforts in the United States to boycott the Games and Jewish athletes who boycotted anyway when the national effort failed.
The exhibit also struck comparisons between Nazi xenophobia and racism in America, showing how Blacks were shut out of team sports here. In fact, that part of the exhibit includes a team photo of the Pittsburgh Crawfords from Negro League Baseball.
Daniel and Barbara Shapira and Franco Harris chaired the project, all of whom paid tribute to Holocaust survivor and sports photographer Les Banos, who, along with Harris, was an original project chair until his death earlier this year.
Barbara Shapira, in opening the exhibit, said she and Daniel felt “honored” when approached to step in for Banos, and she she called the exhibit “a special opportunity to encourage dialogue.”
Outgoing Holocaust Center Chair David Sufrin echoed Shapira’s sentiments.
“The Holocaust Center is about collaboration, inclusion and acceptance of all minorities,” he said. “We just want the exhibit to be an example of how all groups can work together for inclusion.”
German Political Consul Bernd Georg Reindl, who was on hand for the opening, said entire classes of school students must see the exhibit so they understand how Hitler distorted the Olympic ideal for his own ends.
“They have to understand the greater aim behind it — to use it as propaganda,” Reindl said.
But Herb Douglas, the special guest of the evening and the oldest living black Olympic medalist — he won a bronze medal in the long jump during the 1948 Games in London — put the evening in perspective, by describing the ’36 Games as a watershed moment in Black sports history.
While acknowledging the horrors of the Holocaust, which the Olympics grimly foreshadowed, “I call the ’36 Olympics the Renaissance for African-Americans in Sports,” Douglas said. “We felt we could do as well as anyone in the world, and I am the descendant of that.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)