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1875: Olympic Gold-winning Gymnast Is Born

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Detail of a German stamp featuring Gustav, right, and Alfred Flatow.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

January 7, 1875, is the birthdate of Gustav Flatow, an athlete who was a member of the gold-medal-winning German gymnastics team at the first modern Olympic Games, in Athens in 1896. Forty-nine years later, Flatow, a Jew, died of starvation at the German concentration camp Theresienstadt.

Gustav Felix Flatow was born in the town of Berent, in West Prussia (today Kościerzyna, Poland), and moved with his family in 1892 to Berlin, where his father was a merchant. The following year, Flatow began a commercial apprenticeship with a children’s clothing manufacturer there, and he also joined a local sports club. By 1894, he was competing in the German Gymnastics Festival, in Breslau.

In 1896, Gustav was chosen to be one of 10 members of the German gymnastics squad competing at Athens in the newly revived Olympic Games. His cousin Alfred Flatow (born 1869), also a gymnast, was one of his teammates, and in fact won a gold medal in the men’s parallel bars and a silver on the horizontal bar. Gustav did not win any medals as an individual competitor, but did take home two golds in the team competition (as did Alfred), in the parallel bars and the horizontal bar.

Four years later, in Paris, Gustav Flatow was again on the German gymnastics squad, though he did not win any medals. By then, he had already founded his own textile company, and soon retired from competitive sports to devote himself to business.

Spared deportation – for a while

In 1905, Flatow married Margaret Lamb (born 1883), and in 1917, at the age of 42, he was drafted into the German army, during World War I. Gustav and Margaret had two children, Stefan and Anni-Amalia.

Soon after Adolf Hitler became German chancellor, in January 1933, Flatow saw the looming threat, and moved both family and company to Rotterdam, the Netherlands. After Rotterdam was destroyed, during the German bombardment of May 1940, Flatow moved again, to Driebergen, near Utrecht.

Flatow’s history as an Olympic medalist did count for something in Nazi Germany. Both he and Alfred, for example, were guests of honor at the Berlin Olympic Games, in 1936. And when the deportations of Jews began from the Netherlands, in the summer of 1942, Gustav received an exemption stamp that allowed for him to initially be spared that fate. 

His luck ran out, however, on New Year’s Eve, 1943, when he and the family were arrested (all but Anni-Amalia, who escaped, although she was later killed) and sent to the Westerbork transit camp. From there, despite the protests on his behalf by German athletic officials, they were deported to Theresienstadt, in February 1944.

Although Gustav was imprisoned in the camp’s VIP section, by December 1944, he was close to death. Thus he was given an extra food ration: an additional four apples and four eggs a week. Nonetheless, he died of starvation on January 29, 1945.

Both Margaret and Stefan survived to liberation, on May 8, 1945. Stefan died in 2001.

Today, Flatow’s memory is commemorated with both an alley and a sports stadium in Berlin named for him, and a “stepping-stone” marking the location of his home in the city.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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