How the 'Jewish Olympics' Helped My Greek Grandma Make Aliyah Before the Holocaust

The Maccabiah Games were her ticket out, a decade prior to the immense tragedy that befell the Jews of Thessaloniki

Avi Pitchon
Avi Pitchon
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Clara (wearing a white hat, in center of middle row) in a group photograph of athletic competitors at the first Maccabiah Games in 1932.
Clara (wearing a white hat, in center of middle row) in a group photograph of athletic competitors at the first Maccabiah Games in 1932.Credit: R. Gross
Avi Pitchon
Avi Pitchon

My grandmother Clara was 17 in 1932, when, like many other young Jews from Thessaloniki, she decided to leave her birthplace and make aliyah. This was three years after the second “white paper” of the British Mandate had been passed by the Colonial Secretary, Sidney James Webb, the 1st Baron Passfield. The paper followed the bloody 1929 riots in Palestine and increased limitations on Jewish immigration.

That meant that Clara would not have been granted permission to immigrate. But she lived close to the sea, was an avid swimmer and a member of an athletic association. I can imagine that through her involvement in sports, she learned of a loophole called the Maccabiah Games, about to commence in Palestine for the first time. The British lent their support to the sporting event, and many competitors used their permission to come to Palestine as a one-way ticket.

Clara thus joined the Greek delegation and sailed to Tel Aviv. In the only photographic proof of her participation, she can be seen among a group of what I was told are athletic competitors. She is smiling broadly, wearing a hat that was apparently part of the official uniform, and managing to look elegant.

Her older brother had immigrated to Palestine legally a few years earlier; Clara lived in his household as an illegal alien until her status was secured. It seems that she did not pursue a sports career, and neither of her sons, my father and my uncle, know whether she actually competed in the Maccabiah.

But the Games likely saved her life. Had they not existed, or even taken place years later, Clara might not have come here. The games were her ticket out, a decade prior to the Holocaust and the immense tragedy that befell the Jews of Thessaloniki, a community that was exterminated. My grandmother loved to swim and loved the sea. She also loved fashion, going to cafes and dancing. However, she never mastered the Hebrew language, and always preferred speaking in her native Ladino. All the nicknames she gave me when I was a child were in Ladino, too. She lived in Tel Aviv most of her life, and I remember that she loved it.

Another sports link

In the mid-’30s Clara opened a hat boutique, Salon Claris, on Allenby St. She spent her leisure time in Tel Aviv’s trendy beachside cafes, where one could dance to the music of live orchestras. My grandfather, who immigrated to Palestine illegally after hearing Jewish Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky speak in Thessaloniki, worked as a laborer during the day and at night sold tickets for concerts at the San Remo cafe. He met my grandmother in the late 1930s, they were married in 1940 and my father, Moshe, was born in Tel Aviv in 1942.

In 1949, my mother, Katarina, came to the new State of Israel as a seven-year-old Holocaust survivor from Slovakia, along with her mother. Half of her family had been murdered by the Nazis, including her father before she was born. In 1957, she was 15 years old and a gymnast. She did not compete, but she was appointed to carry the plaque of the Argentine delegation of the Fifth Maccabiah, which opened in September that year.

Her participation, however minor, symbolized an aspect of her integration and transformation from a refugee, a survivor, into a reinvented native.

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