Herzl, Swords and the Nazi Salute: The Curious History of Jewish Fencers

From downtrodden Jews dueling anti-Semites to the German-Jewish fencing champion who called Hitler a 'cute little man,' the story is a bizarre one.

During the summer of 1920, Jo Barschi, a Jewish doctor from Norway and an ardent Zionist, moved to prestate Israel. A former Norwegian fencing champion, he brought his sword with him along with his few other possessions.

Barschi opened two infant-care clinics in Jerusalem, and a year later, when his family made it to the Holy Land, he went to work as a doctor in the Jordan Valley. Later, he worked as the director of Hadassah Hospital in Haifa.

In 1927, the Barschi family moved to Tel Aviv. There, the doctor met Miklos Amoudi, a Budapest dentist from an assimilated Jewish family who followed his childhood sweetheart to Mandate Palestine. An amateur fencer himself, Amoudi also brought his sword with him. Barschi had finally found a dueling partner.

The practices held by the first two fencers at Amoudi’s clinic in Jaffa are documented in the book “Sport Immigration,” by Yehuda Carmi. Carmi, who heads the physical education department at Ohalo Academic College of Education and Sport in Katzrin, explores the link between sports and immigration through fencing.

Carmi is a former Israeli fencing champion who came in fourth place at the 1987 world championships. He coached the Israeli fencing team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Fencing is the athletic incarnation of the duel, which served for centuries as a substandard method for conflict resolution. Perhaps the most famous duel in Jewish history was David's slingshot victory over Goliath, which led to Israel’s victory over the Philistines.

Later, duels were meant to restore lost honor. Carmi defines the duel as “bridging social capital,” something that let people outside the aristocracy climb the social ladder. For this reason, he argues, dueling — especially fencing — was very popular among central European Jews.

Some "honorable people," including anti-Semites, were willing to fence Jews in duels, Carmi writes. The gentile had to make a choice. He could accept, which would mean recognizing has rival as having equal status, or he could refuse, opening himself up to disgrace.

Evidence of this mentality can be found in the writings of Theodor Herzl. As a journalist, he documented fencing duels between Jews and French anti-Semites in the late 19th century. It was the duel between Jewish officer Armand Mayer and anti-Semitic nobleman the Marquis de Mores that inspired Herzl to write his first article on anti-Semitism.

Regarding Mayer, who sought to defend the honor of Jewish officers in the French military, Herzl wrote that “his manner was gracious, and his bravery impeccable.”

Herzl himself even offered to duel a leader of an anti-Semitic movement in Vienna. He wasn’t bluffing. Herzl had been trained as a child to use a sword and fought a duel as part of his initiation into Albia, a German student fraternity.

Olympic glory

The founding of Jewish athletic associations and student unions in Europe also contributed to the popularity of fencing among central European Jews in the mid-19th century.

Siegfried Flesch, an Austrian Jew, won a bronze medal for fencing with a saber at the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. That was the first of 90 Olympic medals, 47 of them gold, that have been won by Jewish fencers.

In fact, Jewish athletes have won more medals for fencing than for any other sport. Even at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi-ruled Berlin, Jewish fencers took home four of Germany’s eight medals in fencing.

The women’s fencing medal ceremony at that Olympics was memorialized in a famous photograph. The three medal winners — a Hungarian Jew, a German Jew and an Austrian Jew — stood atop the podium.

The silver-medal winner, Germany’s Helene Mayer, is seen giving the Nazi salute. She met Hitler later that day and described him as “a cute little man.” German author Thomas Mann had tried to convince her to boycott the Olympics, to which she replied: “Stir your own pot.”

A year later, at the world fencing championships in Paris, Mayer changed her position on Nazi Germany. She lived in the United States during the war, and the other 1936 medalists survived the Holocaust and went on to compete in future Olympics. But many other famous Jewish fencers didn't survive.

The immigration wave to Mandate Palestine due to European anti-Semitism brought many talented fencers, both men and women, mainly from central Europe. In 1940, the first fencing championship in Palestine was held; fencers from the British military took part as well. Carmi documents duels between British soldiers and fighters from the Stern Gang prestate underground militia.

But fencing didn't flourish in Israel until the late 1960s. Carmi attributes the delayed success in part to workshops and fencing camps that sprung up in the Galilee. Also, a fencing academy was founded in 1968 by Amnon Carmi, the author’s father.

In his book, Carmi writes how in 1965, before the academy was opened, there were about 25 fencers in Israel training at three different clubs, with one coach. Four years later, there were around 3,000 fencers training at 200 different clubs.

As Carmi puts it, “Aside from the great interest I had in the history, I wanted to understand why immigrants continued to fence in Israel. Why did they stick with an elitist, unpopular sport, even after they came to the Levant?”

The reason, Carmi writes, is that for immigrants, fencing wasn't about sports at all. It was part of their culture. They continued to train in fencing even after they moved to Israel, just as they preserved so many other habits and customs.

Carmi found examples of fencing as a way to "build social capital" for Israelis with roots in North Africa and the Middle East. He writes that the organizers hoped the academy could be a first stage of bridge-building among the old-time fencers — Ashkenazim — and the Mizrahi students.

Koby Kalmanovich