Olympic Gold Could Not Save Them From the Gas Chambers

The success of the Dutch-Jewish women's gymnastics team challenged Nazi eugenics. The athletes, along with their Jewish coach, were the first in Amsterdam to be deported.

In the chronicles of the Olympic Games, 1928 was an historic year since for the first time women were allowed to compete in athletics and gymnastics, though with various restrictions. In gymnastics, for example, men competed in seven categories while women participated in only the team competitions. Holland, the host country, did not garner much success relative to the size of its large delegation and given its status as an advanced sport country, but it took great pride in its women’s gymnastics team.

Five of the 12 gymnasts on the team were Jewish, including some of its top sportswomen, as was the coach, Gerrit Kleerekoper. Like many Jews in Amsterdam, Kleerekoper worked in diamond polishing (and also in teaching) and at the same dedicated days and nights to training the girls. He led the team to the gold medal with a huge lead over its rivals, an historic achievement. Since then, no Dutch individual or team ever came close to the winner's podium in the gymnastics competitions, until the 2012 London Olympics.

Alida van den Bos, one of the non-Jewish gymnasts on the team (who died at the age of 101 in 2003), spoke about Kleerekoper in an interview a few years before her death.

“The Olympic competitions were held in an open stadium but the training was in a closed hall," she recalled. "One day, a few months before the games, Kleerekoper decided we would train outdoors. ‘You can never know what the weather will be on the day of the competition at the Olympics,’ he said, ‘and you have to be prepared for every possibility.’ This was a brilliant idea – the training outdoors improved us and gave us energy. We came far more prepared than our competitors and we easily won the gold medal.”

Dutch journalist Eddy van der Ley says that in those days, it wasn't unusual to find Jews involved in all walks of Dutch life – including athletics.

“Today this is less felt than it was in the past, but Amsterdam was a very Jewish city, especially before the war,” says van der Ley. This was true in many fields, including sport. According to the Nazis’ count in 1941, about one tenth of the inhabitants of Amsterdam – some 80,000 people – were Jewish, adding up to more than half of the 150,000 Jews in all of Holland. At the beginning of the 1940s, the famous gymnasts from the late 1920s were already in their late 30s or early 40s, most of them married and mothers, but they were still a shining symbol of the status of Jews in Holland. Apparently the Germans thought so, too.

When the Nazis started sending the Jews of the Netherlands to the death camps, they were of course looking for all of them. But in recent years it was published in Holland that the first Jews they sought to round up were the gymnasts, both male and female. After all, gymnastics was a preferred sport and very prestigious in the Nazi regime and Jews – especially Jewish women – who excelled in the field threatened the Nazis' theories of racial superiority.

Most of the women gymnasts were sent during the course of 1943 to the Westerbork detention camp in northern Holland, from which more than 100,000 Dutch Jews and another approximately 5,000 Jews who had fled from Germany were taken to the death camps at Sobibor and Auschwitz. Anna Dresden-Polak (third from the left in front row of the picture), who was nicknamed Ans and was a native of Amsterdam, was 36 years old when she was deported with her 6-year-old daughter to Sobibor, where they were murdered in the gas chambers on July 23, 1943. Her husband, Barend Dresden, was sent to Auschwitz, where he perished at the beginning of 1944.

Helena Nordheim (second from the left in the front row), whose Hebrew name, Leah, was also her nickname on the team, was sent to Westerbork in June of 1943, at the age of almost 40 and a few weeks later to Sobibor. She too was murdered along with her husband Abraham and her 10-year-old daughter Rebbecca.

Judikje Simons (first on the right in the front row), a native of The Hague who was known as Jud, was sent to Sobibor earlier and was murdered in March of 1943 at the age of 38. Her husband Bernard and their children Sonja, 5, and Leon, 3, were also murdered there. Estella Agsteribbe (fourth from the left in the front row), a native of Amsterdam who was nicknamed Stella and was the youngest of the gymnasts – 34 when she died – was deported to Auschwitz with her family. She, her husband Samuel Blits, their 6-year-old daughter Nanny and their 2-year-old son Alfred were all murdered in the death camp in September 1943.

Nor did the coach Gerrit Kleerekoper escape Hitler's killing machine. He, his wife Kaatje and their 14-year-old daughter Elisabeth were murdered at Sobibor on July 2, 1943. Less than a month later, his 18-year-old son Leendert was murdered at Auschwitz.

The only one of the gymnasts whose fate was better was Elka de Levie (first on the right in the back row), who was born in 1905. Her divorce from her husband Boas in 1943, right before the deportation of many of Amsterdam’s Jews, apparently saved her life. She was among the lucky few who were not sent to the camps and the only one of the Jewish gymnasts on the legendary team who survived the inferno. Elka de Levie continued to live in Amsterdam for the rest of her life and passed away in 1979 at the age of 74, in almost complete obscurity.
There was also a Jewish athlete on the Dutch men’s gymnastics team in the 1928 Olympics, Mozes Jacobs, who perished in Sobibor in 1943.

In the 1990s there was a renewed interest in the subject of the legendary Dutch team and at that time the tragic end became clear in minute detail.