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MAINZ, Germany — Nearly eight decades after Adolf Hitler hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the all-Jewish European Maccabi Games will take place in the same city — including events at venues built by the Nazis.
More than 2,100 Jewish athletes from 39 countries will compete in Europe’s biggest Jewish sports event at the so-called Olympic Park, a site constructed for the XI Olympiad at which Hitler aimed to camouflage his racist, anti-Semitic ideology to present Germany as a tolerant nation.
"The younger generation was able to convince the older generation that it is right"
But the Nazis continued to exclude German Jews from all major sporting events.
Two weeks before the Games, German officials told Gretel Bergmann, a Jewish athlete who was a favorite in the high jump, that she had been denied a place on the German team. In the end, only part-Jewish fencer Helene Mayer was allowed to represent Germany in 1936.
“I would have been a loser, either way,” said former high jumper Margaret Lambert, known by her maiden name Gretel Bergmann, who had been denied a spot on Germany’s 1936 team because of her Jewish heritage.
“Had I won, there would have been such an insult against the German psyche — how can a Jew be good enough to win the Olympics? — then I would have had to be afraid of my life, I am sure,” Lambert said in a 2008 documentary. “And had I lost, I would have been ... a joke.”
The colorful Jewish event, which begins Monday, is scheduled to include a Guinness Book world record attempt for the largest Friday evening Shabat ceremony.
“Holding the Maccabi Games in Berlin is a very important sign,” said 61-year old German Jew Leo Friedman, who hopes to win a medal with the country's golf team. “We will be able to highlight that Jewish life is part of German society and that Jews have not been chased away.”
Friedman’s parents survived the Holocaust and were liberated from a Nazi concentration camp after the end of World War II, but chose to stay in Germany.
“My parents taught me to look forward, to be tolerant, but also to be proud of my Jewish heritage,” said Friedman, who participated for the first time in Maccabi Games aged 18.
The Games aims to "spread a sense of equality and fairness and showcase the newfound Jewish confidence to the German and European public,” according to an announcement for the event, which will also be supported by many non-Jewish volunteers.
While advocates of this year’s location believe that the historic and sociopolitical importance of the European Maccabi Games is enormous for Germany, organizers admit that not all Jewish officials were in favor of hosting it at the historic location.
“There were some critical voices in the Jewish community in Europe, who did not support Berlin as an event site,” Oren Osterer, the director of the organization committee told NBC News. “But I would say that the younger generation was able to convince the older generation that it is right, and the time is right to hold the European Maccabi Games in Berlin, without forgetting the past,” Osterer said.
The official opening ceremony on Tuesday will be held at the so-called Waldbuehne, which was the event site for the gymnastics competition in 1936. And, the fencing championship will take place at the Kuppelsaal, where Jewish athlete Endre Kabos from Hungary won the gold medal in individual and team saber at the Berlin Olympics.
“During the last two Maccabi Games, we saw a huge increase in popularity of our outfits that read Deutschland, or Germany. People always asked us to swap clothes after the Games,” said 28-year old Ben Lesegeld, who will be competing in the soccer tournament.
“At first I was a bit ambivalent about the location because we should not forget the past, but it also shows the development process in German society and our positive future,” the Berlin resident said.
On the sidelines of the sporting event, organizers have also set up an education program for young visitors between age 14 and 18, which will include a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp of Sachsenhausen.
Amid a 25 percent increase in anti-Semitic crimes compared to last year and a rise in neo-Nazi violence, Berlin will face increased security measures during the event, which runs until August 5.
“As long as we have increased police presence and special security measures, we cannot speak of normality,” Friedman said. “But all the athletes I have talked to are looking forward to the Games.”