Sport among Jewish people in Hungary*


The History of Sport and Physical Education among the Jewish People in Hungary in the Last 120 Years

By Jakov Sobovitz

Historical evidence indicates that there has been a Jewish presence in Pannonia since they came there in the wake of the Roman legions. Jewish settlements were included among the Hungarian settlements ever since the latter became a nation.

In fact, the Hungarians had also until recently, been forced to fight for their identity and independence. Even the establishment of the Mediarian state occurred in the shadow of occupation efforts by rulers from neighbouring countries. It appears that the Jewish settlement in Hungary started practically in parallel to the settlement of the Hungarians themselves[1].

Lipot Low (1811-1875), Rabbi of Szeged[2], one of the most distinguished and influential spiritual leaders of Hungary’s Jews, removed a major obstacle in the path of assimilation. He declared that Jewish messianic expectations were exclusively religious in nature and that Jews were distinguishable from the people they lived amongst only in their belief and practice of their faith, thus rebutting the frequently expressed charge of the Jews’ inherent unassimilability and questionable loyalty as citizens.

In December 1867, the Hungarian Diet voted to bestow on Jews equality in matters of civil liberties and political rights. It took another 25 years before the Diet passed a bill recognising Judaism as an “accepted religion,” placing it on an equal footing with all Christian denominations[3].

Alfred Hajos at the 1896 Athens Olympic Games.

Alfred Hajos at the 1896 Athens Olympic Games.

A. Jewish Athletes in Hungary (1848-1917)

To the overwhelming majority of 19th century Hungarians, Jews were the very anti-thesis of the values, traditions, self-image and physical appearance associated with Hungary’s millennial national past that they wished to preserve[4].

In a speech to the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, Max Nordau[5] asked the Jewish people to renew their interest in sport and physical fitness. Nordau’s call for “muscular Judaism” was answered by the Maccabi movement, which spread first to the countries of Europe and Palestine and then throughout the world.

Dr. Henrik Schuschny[6], a respected physician and lecturer, noted that Jewish assimilation to Hungarian society was still incomplete, despite many successful attempts and noteworthy achievements in times of war and peace.

Schuschny’s pioneering effort to propagate the national benefits of physical education was carried a step further by Ferenc Kemeny (1860-1944). The son of Jewish parents in Nagyeckeren, now a part of Serbia, but then a city in southern Hungary, Kemeny was educated in Budapest and Paris. A prolific writer, his articles on pedagogy appeared in Hungarian, English and French journals. He was also the author of a number of scholarly books, in addition to being the secretary of the Peace Movement in Hungary. Kemeny became an instant convert to the Olympic idea – he had known Pierre de Coubertin since their student days in Paris and shared his intellectual outlook, which was perhaps a predictable consequence of his profession and convictions. However, for a Jew to become the first Hungarian member of the International Olympic Committee must have been a source of pride to the Jewish community.

Alfred Hajos Guttman[7] was Hungary’s renaissance man of sports. Born in Budapest, he was in many ways the typical product of the increasingly secularised environment created by the assimilated Jews. He became Hungarian`s first internationally famous swimming champion. Plans for the Hajos Guttman Stadium, submitted jointly with Dezso Lauber (Jewish architect), earned the silver medal in architecture – the gold was not awarded – at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

MTK[8] became identified with Hungary’s Jewry in the eyes of Jews and non-Jews alike. It was one of the nation’s most famous sport clubs and at one time or another  the majority of Jewish athletes belonged to it. However, the MTK was never an exclusively Jewish sports club, though perhaps it had more Jewish members than all other clubs combined.

B.   Their Finest Hour (1918-1940)

In no area of Jewish achievement was success more satisfying and well received than in sport. Talent and performance in the service of national interest outweighed any prejudice which may have been promoted by right-wing groups, which tried to imbue Hungarian youth with a spirit of racism and irredentism and assure the supremacy of the Magyar race by separating “Christian and Jewish Sports.”

1. Soccer [9]

Of all sports, soccer (football) continued to enjoy the greatest concentration of Jewish players. The composition of the “Golden Team,” in theory the ideal coming together of the best and most popular players of a period, provides the most convincing supporting piece of evidence. Between 1919 and 1926, seven of its eleven members were Jews – an unprecedented phenomenon and an unsurpassed record in the history of soccer in Hungary. Only two of seven – Kertész II and Blum – were repeaters.

Of the three Jewish players who monopolized the midfield positions, Gábor Obitz was the only newcomer. He was capped 15 times for Hungary, whereas Kertész II appeared 47 times and Blum was selected on 38 occasions. Statistics-conscious fans of  FTC will recall that Gábor Obitz played 267 games for the green and whites; sports-loving Jews in neighbouring Czechoslovakia watched him play for the Maccabi Brno between 1923 and 1926.

József Braun was regarded by many as the best Hungarian outside right of all time. The popular Csibi, a tall, well-built player, possessed skills that were invariably described in superlatives. Although his career was cut short by a series of injuries – he was only 25 when he retired – Braun was chosen for Hungary’s national team 27 times between 1918 and 1926.

After Braun came the most consistent “feeder”, the speedy winger, György Molnár, who played for Hungary in 26 international matches between 1920-1927.

Ferenc Híres-Hirzer, the explosively quick and graceful inside left, was a dazzling playmaker and a prolific scorer of goals. He played on the left wing for the “Golden Team” from 1919-1926. “Kicsi,” as he was popularly called, also played for some time for Maccabi Brno, and in Italy, where his quick and elegant moves earned him the nickname “Gazelle.” He was selected 32 times.

Rudolf Jeny might well have become a goalkeeper, a position that fascinated him, but it was as an outfield player that he excelled.  Between 1919 and 1925, he was selected for Hungary’s national team 19 times. His best performance came in the 5-0 win over   Switzerland in Budapest in 1925. He scored twice and Molnar, another Jewish player who played inside left also scored two.

The last seven pre-professional years (the professional period began in 1926 and ended in 1934) produced more outstanding Jewish players who were not selected for the “Golden Team” than any other period in the history of Hungarian football.

Goalkeeper Ignác Amsel, nicknamed “Pók,” was a fearless goalkeeper who made 322 appearances for FTC and was capped eight times.

Lajos Fisher, the Vac keeper, was similar to Amsel’s remarkable talent. Fisher appeared nine times for the national team between 1924 and 1926. In 1926, still only 24, he emigrated to the United States.

Dezsõ Grósz II was the master of the ball both in the air and on the ground. He also emigrated to the United States in 1926.

Henrik Nádler of the MTK, the prominent left midfielder of his time, suffered in comparison with Zoltán Blum of the FTC. Nonetheless, his repertoire of imaginative moves won him six caps between 1924 and 1926.

Like Rudolf Jeny, his teammate, Zoltán Opata, a 17-time international, enjoyed great popularity on and off the field. Arpad Weisz was unfortunate to be around at the same time as Jeny. Even so, the slightly built outside left for “Törekvés Football Club” won six caps between 1922 and 1923.

Similarly, Molnár and Híres-Hirzer’s successive monopolies of the position of inside left had severely restricted the careers of József Eisenhoffer and Illés Spitz. Eisenhoffer, a convert to Judaism, had a brief and mercurial career. Between 1920 and 1924, he played for Hungary eight times, scoring seven goals. He scored all the goals in Hungary’s victories over Sweden and France. As a member of the FTC in 1923 and 1924, he scored 25 goals in the 29 games he played, an impressive goal to games ratio. Spitz, a crafty player, was equally adept at making his winger look good with passes of pinpoint accuracy, and taking on defenders who were often rendered helpless by his bewildering body swerves and dribbling. He played in six international matches.

On April 6, 1924 in Budapest, Hungary trounced Italy by a score of 7-1. There were six Jewish players in the Hungarian team.  Braun, Molnár, Opata, Eisenhoffer and Jeny, all Jewish, formed the entire forward line. Molnar scored a hat-trick, Braun scored twice  and Eisenhoffer and Opata were also on target.

In the 1924 Paris Olympics, there were eight Jewish players on the national team: Braun, Eisenhoffer, Opata, Híres-Hirzer and Jeny up front and Gyula Mándi-Mandl, Béla Guttmann II and Obitz in defence. They beat Poland 5-0 in their first match but    lost 0-3 in the second game against Egypt.

Between 1924 and 1934, soccer in Hungary was fully professional, pressed into the service of business interests. The consensus was that four Jewish players belonged to the “Golden Team” of those years. Ferenc Híres-Hirzer was a throwback to the “Golden Team” of 1919-1926. The three new outstanding Jewish players were János Aknai-Acht, Gyula Mándi-Mandl and Márton Bukovi.

Aknai-Acht was one of the truly memorable goalkeepers in the history of Hungarian football. Those who watched him play in the late 1920s and early 1930s recall with awe his great agility as the UTE keeper. He was capped for the national team 10 times.

Gyula Mándi-Mandl, the most defensive player up to his time, was powerfully built, using body checks effectively and sending the ball forward with huge clearances. Between 1921 and 1934, Mándi was selected 31 times for Hungary. He became one of the nation’s most respected coaches after World War II and also coached the Israeli national football team between 1959 and 1963.

Márton Bukovi, playing in his pivotal position of centre halfback, directed the defence of FTC, the team for whom he played for seven years (1926-1933) Bukovi left for France, where he played with great success .

By the middle of the 1930s, the seemingly unending flow of outstanding Jewish players had been reduced to a trickle. Some players left Hungary in response to lucrative offers; others retired. László Sternberg and Ferenc Sas-Sohn were the only Jewish players on the “Golden Team” from 1935-1938, and also the last ones to be selected for a “Golden Team.” Sternberg played for the UJPEST Football Club, and 19 times for Hungary’s national team between 1928 and 1936.

Ferenc Sas-Sohn of the Hungarian Football Club was the last of the great Jewish right-wingers. Between 1936 and 1938, he played for Hungary 17 times and scored two goals. In 1937, the 22 year-old Sas-Sohn was selected for a team representing Central Europe in a match against Western Europe’s best. Playing in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, the Central Europeans won 3-1, two of their goals scored by Sas-Sohn. Following Hungary’s disheartening 4-2 defeat to Italy in the 1938 World Cup Final in Paris, he left Hungary and settled down in Argentina. His departure disappointed legions of soccer fans, but for him the passage of the first Jewish law (May 1938) was a clear sign of the terrible times to come. Few Hungarian Jews were in a position to react to this, if indeed they realised the danger.

In the course of his six-year career (1933-1939), spent entirely with the FTC, Tibor Kemény played 202 first division matches and scored 100 goals. Kemény established a reputation that earned him nine international caps. He was only 26 when he retired, his career cut short by the passage of the law barring all Jews from sports clubs and athletic competitions.

2. Table Tennis [9]

In no sport does the achievement of Jewish players justify the use of more superlatives than table tennis. By way of explanation, three reasons come to mind as possible: the great popularity of table tennis in Budapest in the early 1920s; the devotion and unrelentingly hard training methods of players, despite the absence of qualified coaches; and ready availability of funds for equipment and travel.

Hungarian men and women won 50 world titles before the outbreak of World War II,

The tidal wave began to surge in 1925 and only the exclusion of Jews from sporting life forced it to subside a decade and half later. In the men’s singles, Jewish national champions succeeded one another as naturally as if it were a birthright. Zoltán Mechlovitz, a pre-war national champion (1911), demonstrated his durability by winning two more national titles (1925-1926) at the age of 34. Sándor Glancz interrupted Mechlovitz’s winning streak by capturing the title in 1927. In the following year, Mechlovitz again proved invincible. Between 1929 and 1932, Miklós Szabados and Viktor Barna alternated as national champions. Their grip on the national title was loosened by Lajos Dávid in 1933, but Szabados stormed back in 1934. The next three champions, Tibor Házi (1935), Károly Benkõ II (1936) and György Gárdos 11 (1937), were non-repeaters. In 1938, six years after his last triumph, Barna won his third individual national title. The last two Jewish national champions were Jenõ Schmiedl (1939) and Tibor Barna II (1940), Viktor’s brother.

The men’s doubles displayed much the same Jewish prowess, though with less diversity. Mechlovitz repeated his standout performance, winning the second of his two national doubles titles alongside the non-Jewish Roland Jacobi (one of the best Hungarian players of the time). Jacobi is often mistakenly identified as a Jew because of his “Jewish-sounding” family name. Fourteen years later in 1925, Mechlovitz teamed up with Dániel Pécsi of the MTK and the Austrian Erwin Freudenheim and won the title in two consecutive national championships (1925-1926). However, Mechlovitz failed to win three in a row, spoiled again by Sándor Glancz. He and László Bellák, his teammate in the predominantly Jewish Nemzeti Sport Club, became national doubles champions in 1927. Mechlovitz staged a spectacular comeback in the following year and regained the doubles title.

A new era dawned in 1929. Miklós Szabados and Viktor Barna, both of the MTK, won their first national doubles championship, which they retained on three further occasions. They finally relinquished it in 1933 to two of their teammates, István Boros and Béla Nyitrai, both of whom were also Jewish. The next three years were again dominated by Szabados, winning with Tibor Házi in 1934 and 1935, and with László Bellák in 1936. For two more years, the domination of all-Jewish pairs continued. Károly Benkõ and Jenõ Schmiedl won in 1937 and Barna, teaming up with István Bores, won his fifth national doubles title in the following year

The year war broke out marked the beginning of the end of Jewish monopoly of the national doubles title. Jenõ Schmiedl was the harbinger of the inevitable transition. The last of the great Jewish doubles players, Schmiedl teamed up with non-Jewish partners, Ferenc Soós in 1939-1940 and József Farkas in 1941, and won three national titles. He brought to a close the most remarkable series of victories by Jewish players in the history of table tennis.

In the women’s singles, quantity fell short of quality. Only two Jewish players won national singles titles: Mária Komfeld (1925) and Anna Sípos (1926-1927, 1931, 1935 and 1939), who was also an outstanding doubles player. She won the national title between 1929 and 1933, in 1935 and 1939-1940. Though she never played with a Jewish partner, Dora Beregi was another prominent doubles player, national champion in 1937 and 1938.

The record of Jewish achievement in mixed doubles was again impressive both in quality and quantity. Between 1926 and 1939, only two of the female halves of the teams that won national championships were non-Jews. The list of the winning teams is yet another reminder that table tennis was indeed a Jewish sport: 1926, Zoltán Mechlovitz and Lili Friedmann; 1927, Lászlo Bellák and Anna Sípos; 1928, Mechlovitz and Mária Mednyánszky (non-Jewish); 1934, Szabados and Mednyánszky; 1935, Szabados and Sípos; 1936, Bellák and Ida Ferenczy (non-Jewish); 1937, Ernõ Földi and Dóra Beregi; 1938, Barna and Beregi; 1939, Jenõ Schmiedl and Anna Sípos.

If the Jewish champions in the singles and doubles competitions revealed the tip of the iceberg, competitions in the men’s and women’s team titles exposed the rest: the full extent of the Jewish contribution to table tennis in Hungary. It enabled many excellent Jewish players to savour brief moments of glory and limelight in which the well-known singles and doubles champions basked

Between 1926 and 1941, the majority of players in the top teams in the country were Jewish. They played for clubs such as the Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre, Nemzeti Sport Club, Budapest Sport Egyesület, Duna Sport Club, and Ujpesti Sport Egylet, were Jewish. The 1939 national champions, Vac, were exclusively Jewish. There were fewer Jewish players in national champion teams in the women’s competitions. Two of three players for MTK, Lili Friedmann and IIona Zádor, were Jewish. MTK won four consecutive national titles (1937-1940), sharing the title in 1940 with the all-Jewish Vac, whose players went on to win the national team title in 1941. That was the last major collective victory by Jewish table tennis players in wartime Hungary.

World championships, especially in non-Olympic sports, are usually regarded as the ultimate test. Between 1926 and 1937, the Hungarians virtually turned all categories of world championships into a replay of their national championships, except in 1926, when Roland Jacobi ruled the tables, and in the women’s competition, where Mária Mednyánszky had no equals for four years. Jewish players dominated the events. Except for 1926, the year the first world championship in table tennis was held in London, when the Hungarian team comprised two Jewish and two non-Jewish players, and for Jacobi’s last appearance in 1928, only Jewish players represented Hungary in the next eight world championships, winning seven titles and once placing second in the team competition. Victories in the singles and doubles competitions were achieved with similar monotony.

The following statistics provide ample evidence of the astounding achievements of Hungary’s Jewish world champions

Viktor Barna: 22 gold medals (1929, doubles and team; 1930, singles, doubles and team; 1931, doubles and team; 1932, singles, doubles and team; 1933 A (Baden bei Wien), single, doubles and team; 1933 B (Paris), singles, doubles and team; 1935, singles, mixed doubles, doubles and team; 1938, team; 1939, doubles; 5 silver medals (1931, singles; 1938, doubles; 1931, 1933 B, mixed doubles; 1937, team); 3 bronze medals (1938, singles; 1933 A, doubles; 1930, mixed doubles)

Miklós Szabados: 15 gold medals (1931, singles; 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933 B, 1935, doubles; 1930, 1931, 1933 B, mixed doubles; 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933 B, 1935, team); 6 silver medals (1929, 1932, 1935, singles, 1932, mixed doubles; 1932, 1937, team); 2 bronze medals (1933 B, singles; 1935, mixed doubles).

Anna Sípos: 11 gold medals (1932, 1933 A, singles; 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933 A and B, 1935, doubles; 1929, 1932, 1935, mixed doubles); 6 silver medals (1930, singles, 1930, 1931, 1933 B, mixed doubles; 1933 B, 1935 team); 4 bronze medals (1929, 1931, singles; 1929, doubles; 1933 A, mixed doubles).

László Bellák: 7 gold medals (1938, mixed doubles; 1928, 1930, 1931, 1933 B, 1935 and 1938, team); 9 silver medals (1928, 1930, 1933 B, singles; 1929, 1932, 1938, doubles; 1929, mixed doubles; 1932, 1937, team); 5 bronze medals (1928, 1930 and 1935, doubles; 1931, 1933 B, mixed doubles).

István Kelen: 7 gold medals (1929, 1933 A, mixed doubles; 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933 B, 1935, team); 5 silver medals (1931, 1933 A, doubles; 1930, 1936, mixed doubles; 1932, team); 2 bronze medals (1930, singles; 1935, doubles).

Zoltán Mechlovitz: 6 gold medals (1928, singles; 1926, 1928, mixed doubles; 1926, 1928, 1929, team); 2 silver medals (1926, singles; 1926, doubles); 3 bronze medals (1929, singles; 1928, doubles; 1929, mixed doubles).

Sándor Glancz: 4 gold medals (1933 A, doubles; 1928, 1929, 1933 A team); 4 silver medals (1929, 1932, 1933 B doubles; 1933 A, mixed doubles); 6 bronze medals (1933 A singles; 1928, 1930, doubles; 1930, 1931, and 1932, mixed doubles).

Lajos Dávid: 4 gold medals (1930, 1931, 1933 A, 1933 11, team); 3 silver medals (1931, 1933 A, doubles, 1932, team); 1 bronze medal (1930, single).

Tibor Házi: 3 gold medals (1933 8, 1935 and 1938, team); 1 silver medal (1933 13, doubles); 4 bronze medals (1933 B, 1938, singles; 1932, 1936, doubles).

Dániel Pecsi: 3 gold medals (1926, doubles; 1926, 1928, team); 1 silver medal (1928, mixed doubles).

István Boros: 1 gold medal (1933 A, team); 3 bronze medals (1932, singles; 1932, 1933 A doubles).

Ernõ Földi: 1 gold medal (1938, team).

The last link to this remarkable chain of victories, unparalleled in the history of Jewish achievements in sports, was added by Viktor Barna. He teamed up with the Jewish, Austrian-born Richard Bergmann, winner of the men’s singles, to win the men’s doubles title at the last pre-war world championship (Cairo, 1939). For two more years, Jewish players remained highly visible in national championships. By 1942, table tennis, falling in line with all other sports in Hungary, had become in Nazi terminology Judenfrei. and no longer permitted Jewish players to take part.


Jenő Fuchs at the 1912 Olympics.

3. Fencing [10]

After more than a decade and a half, Hungary recaptured their dominant position in fencing, sweeping both the individual and team sabre competitions. For their contribution to the latter, three Jewish Olympians won gold medals: János Garay, the 1923 national champion; Sándor Gombos, who also placed 5th in the individual sabre competition; and Attila Petschauer, one of Hungary’s most gifted fencers. Petschauer nearly repeated Fuchs’ double Olympic victories of 1908 and 1912. However in the individual sabre event in 1928 he was defeated by Ödön Terstyánszky, his teammate and the eventual gold medal winner, and finished second.

In the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games, the Hungarian sabre team trounced Denmark 15-1, Mexico 14-2, US 13-3, Poland 15-1 and Italy 9-2 in the final.

Endre Kabos was a quiet, unassuming 26 year-old member of the European champion Hungarian team (1931) and second place finisher in the 1931 European individual championship. He won 15 of his 16 bouts, more than any of his teammates. Kabos also finished third in the individual sabre competition at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, behind György Pillér, gold medal winner and teammate, and the Italian Giulio Gaudini, whom he defeated in the team competition. Attila Petscahuer, the only other Jewish member of the gold medal winning Hungarian sabre team, placed fifth in the individual competition.

Ilona Elek (Schacherer), a 29 year-old, two-time European champion, won Hungary’s first gold medal in the 1936 Olympic Games. “Csibi” Elek, in a nerve-wracking bout, edged Helen Mayer (1928 gold medal winner) 5-4 and defeated the Austrian Ellen Presi (1932 Olympic champion) 5-3. She had thus overcome the two previous gold medal winners, but the intervention of a third party also helped  her cause . In a dramatic bout, Austria’s Ellen Preis, who had already suffered two losses, handed Mayer her second defeat, leaving Elek with only one loss and the Olympic gold medal.

Endre Kabos, a member of the 1930 national sabre champion Tisza István Vívo Klub, won six gold medals and a silver in European championships between 1931 and 1935. He took a gold medal with the sabre team and placed third in the individual competition in the 1932 Olympic Games. In the final rounds of the team sabre competition, the Hungarians clashed (Berlin, 1936) with the Olympians of Nazi Germany, trouncing the former 13-3 and Italy 9-6, and won the championship.


Endre Kabos at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

Kabos’ second gold medal was the result of his exceptional fencing ability in the final round robin, and with only one loss, became Olympic champion. In 1937, he helped the latter break the monopoly of the army officers’ Honvéd Vívo Club, which had held the national épée team since 1931, and remained national champion for two more consecutive years. On November 4, 1944, Endre Kabos was one of the many people who fell to their death in the cold waters of the Danube from a bridge that the Nazis and the pro-fascist Arrow Cross had mined and prematurely exploded.

The strong showing of Hungarian-Jewish fencers in the inter-war Olympic Games was not the direct result of a multitude of Jewish fencers coalescing in the course of national competitions. Only two Jews, both Olympians, won national championships in the men’s sabre individual competition: János Garay in 1923, and Sándor Gombos in 1930. Both were also members of teams that won national team titles in the 1920s. Attila Petschauer won his only national title in the sabre team competition in 1929 as a member of the Nemzeti Vívó Club.

Ilona Elek did not dominate domestic women’s foil individual championships. In 1937, the national champion was Margit Elek, her younger sister, who was also a member of the Detektív Atlétikai Klub, the team that won the 1938 national title. Ilona was a member of Hungary’s world champion foil team in 1937 and finished second in the individual competition; she was European champion in 1934 and 1935, and member of the Hungarian team that won three European titles (1933-1935) and second place (1936). Margit finished second to Ilona in the 1934 European championship and placed fourth in 1935. Athletes in their ‘30s and ‘40s rarely competed in world-class tournaments, let alone dominate them. Yet, between 1946 and 1956, the Eleks would amass a number of Olympic, world, European and national titles, becoming the most successful women fencers in the history of the sport.

4. Water Polo [11]

Hungary was accepted back into the Olympic fold in May 1924, and the preparations for participation in the Paris Olympic Games got underway. Having won two consecutive European championships in 1926 and 1927, Hungary’s national water polo team were overwhelming gold medal favourites. Their second-place finish, therefore, caused considerable disappointment at home.

Tibor Fazekas, István Barta and the Jewish national Jewish, Bé1a Komjádi, were members of this national team at the 1928 Olympic Games. But the Hungarian victory in the team competition was as much the result of hard training as superb performance. Bela Komjádi, a legend in his time, was idolized by his players. The team’s performance in Los Angeles (1932) was an eloquent testimony to Komjádi’s unwavering efficiency and soaring vision.

Three Jewish players had taken part in these Games. György Bródy was an elegant goalie who seemed to have a magnetic effect on the ball in front of him, rather than catching or pushing it over the goalpost. Substitutes were Miklós Sárkány, a tough-playing defensive back, and István Barta, who had been a member of Hungary’s national team, and three-time European championship gold medalist (1926, 1927 and 1931). Komjádi, already ailing, basked only in the glow of his “Golden Team.” He died in 1933 at the age of 41.

Béla Komjádi’s love and knowledge of the game left an indelible imprint on the style and technique of the Hungarian national water polo team.

György Bródy was playing for his second Olympic title, and Miklós Sárkány was the defensive player who had become a regular member of the team since the 1932 Olympics.

After early rounds without a single loss (Yugoslavia 4-1, Malta 12-0, UK 10-1, Belgium 3-0, Holland 8-1), on August 14, 1936 they battled Germany to a 2-2 tie in the “Swimmstadium,” where 20,000 German fans cheered. The decisive matches were played the following day. Germany beat Belgium 4-1 and Hungary beat France 5-0, to earn a second consecutive gold medal in water polo. Few Hungarians failed to bring to mind “Komi bácsi” – as Komjádi was respectfully called – on that tearfully joyous day.

5. Wrestling [11]

The talented wrestler, Károly Kártpáti, won Greco-Roman featherweight silver in the 1927 European championship. Kárpáti, by then a three-time (1930-1932) national champion, also won Olympic silver in in the freestyle lightweight in 1932.

In Greco-Roman wrestling, Armand Magyar (bantamweight, 1924-1927), József Pongrácz-Pollák (featherweight, 1920), Ödön Radvány (featherweight, 1924), Károly Kárpáti (featherweight, 1928; lightweight, 1930-1932), Imre Surányi-Sturm (welterweight, 1930) and Tibor Fisher (heavyweight, 1920) won national titles. However, it was hard to explain the lack of success by Jewish wrestlers at national championships in freestyle wrestling. Only Jenõ Fehir-Weisz (featherweight, 1931) and Károly Kárpáti (lightweight, 1931) lit up an otherwise bleak record of achievements.

6. Swimming [12]

The inter-war years produced outstanding Jewish swimmers who won a respectable number of national titles. Ödön Gróf of the UTE was a world-class competitor. In 1934, he was a member of the Hungarian 4×200-meter freestyle relay team that won a European championship in Magdeburg and finished second in the 1936 Olympic Games.

He dominated all distances in national competitions (except the 100-meter freestyle) in the latter half of the 1930s. His national titles: 200 meters, 1937-1938; 400 meters, 1935-1939; 800 meters, 1936-39; 1500 meters, 1936-1938; river swimming, 1940; 4×100-meter freestyle relay (1937-1938, 1940-1941, 1943) and 4×200-meter freestyle relay (1938, 1940-1941). Hungary’s sweeping anti-Jewish laws put an end to his brilliant career.

In 1928, Lászlo Köves-Steiner of the MTK won the 100 meters national championship.

György Angyal-Engel of the UTE won consecutive national titles (100 meters, 1937-1940; 200 meters, 1938-39) and was a member of the UTE’s 4×100-meter (1940) and 4×200-meter (1938) national champion relay teams. His career came to a halt when the authorities decided to exclude Jews from sport.

Swimming was one of three sports in which Jewish women excelled (fencing and table tennis were the others). National champions were: Irén Dénes (100-meter freestyle, 1923-1924); Ella Molnár (100-meter breaststroke, 1924-1926), Katalin Kraszner (100-meter breaststroke), 1923-1924; all-round swimming, 1924), Vilma Kraszner (member of the 3×100-meter medley team of the MUE, 1926-1927, and 4×100-meter backstroke relay team of the UTE, 1930), Katalin Stõke (100-meter backstroke, 1926-1929, and member of the 3×100-meter medley team of the MUE, 1926-1927) and Magda Felhõs (200-meter individual medley, 1940).

In Hungary as elsewhere, the true depth and diversity of Jewish participation in sports was more easily discernible in the broad national spectrum than within the restrictions imposed by the Olympic rules. Olympic success or failure depended on a single day’s all-or-nothing performance, where “best” is fleeting and subject to many variables. By contrast, participation in domestic competition provided for a more consistent and extended exposure.

The winds of danger, the Jews thought, would soon blow over. Such expectations were born of a mixture of illusion and self-deceit than a realistic appraisal of the political situation. To acknowledge them would have been to admit that their faith in the continuation of the 1,000-year-old coexistence of Jews and Hungarians, which Jewish leaders had traditionally regarded as mutually beneficial, was not well placed.

Dr. Ferenc Mezö-Grundfeld (1885-1961) was a patriot and a scholar. He had been wounded in the first world war and decorated. He became a teacher of Greco-Roman History and was a life-long student of the history of sport. Mezö was the author of 44 books and numerous scholarly articles. Founding co-president of the Hungarian Olympic Society from 1948 until his death, he was also an IOC member. At the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Dr. Fereuc Mezo[12] won a gold medal for his 100-page study, The History of the Olympic Games, which he had submitted for the epic works artistic competition category.

The post-war achievements of Jewish athletes in Hungary add yet another remarkable chapter to the annals of Jewish resilience and recovery of the surviving leaders, Alfred Hajos-Gutmann and Ferenc Mezö, became the architects of athletic reconstruction. The former was named president of the Hungarian Olympic Association in 1946; the latter was admitted to the IOC in 1948.

Karoly Karpati – Olympic Champion (1906-1996) [13]

(Winner of a gold medal in wrestling in the Berlin Olympic Games – 1936)

Few sports personalities were as famous as Karpati, especially in the dangerous anti-Semitism of the 1930s. He was so well known that he was one of the few Jews in Hungary who were insulated from persecution by the Nazis during World War II. During his youth he lived in the City of Debrezen. In 1937, Karpati began a new career as a physical education teacher in the Jewish Gymnasium in Debrezen. At the beginning of World War II, after the Jewish Gymnasium was closed, the Karpati family left for Budapest. There he worked for the “Tarbut” Jewish Gymnasium as a physical education teacher and a wrestling coach.

Karpati first came to notice as a nineteen-year-old as a springboard and high board diver.

From 1926 he made his name as a wrestler with the UTA Association in Debrezen in both Greco-Roman style and freestyle in the feather-, light- and middle-weight categories. He won every domestic title that was open to him and his achievements in the Olympic arena at the time were remarkable.

1. Olympic Games:

9th Olympic Games in Amsterdam 1928 – 4th place Featherweight
10th Olympic Games in Los Angeles 1932 – Silver medal Lightweight
11th Olympic Games in Berlin 1936 – Gold medal Lightweight

2. European Championship:

3 Gold medals
1930 – Brussels – Lightweight
1933 – Antwerp – Lightweight
1935 – Brussels – Lightweight

2 Silver Medals
1927 – Budapest – Featherweight
1929 – Paris – Featherweight

2 Bronze Medals
1931 – Stockholm – Lightweight
1934 – Dortmund – Medium Lightweight

C.   The Gathering Storm and the “New Economic Policy” (1945-1989)

In the early 1950s[14], there were as many active Jewish soccer coaches as there were players. Gyula Mandi, Bella Guttman and Marton Bukovi were successful in Europe and South America. In terms of quality, the coaches were far superior to the players.

Eva Szekely’s victory[15] in the 1948 200-meter breaststroke marked the appearance of a new generation of Jewish swimmers.

Between 1896 and 1968, 131 Jews from 17 nations won 236 medals (101 gold, 61 silver, 67 bronze). It was Hungary, however, that produced the most successful Jewish athletes in Europe[16].


No area provides the historian with a more substantial representation of Jewish identity than those of the principal educational institutions of Hungarian Jewry. The Anna Frank Gimnazium[17], the only Jewish high school in Hungary, is heir to a tradition of academic excellence and respect for physical education and sports. It not only survived, but also actually thrived in the aggressive anti-Semitic atmosphere of the inter-war years.

True incentive and inspiration came from two physical education teachers, one of whom was Zoltan Duckstein[18], who dedicated his life to developing and training strong, healthy and sports-loving Jewish students.


Eva Szekely racing toward a gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.


[1] UMMINGER, W.: The Chronicle of Sport. Budapest 1992. AVIRAM, I. & others: Encyclopedia of Sport & Physical Culture. Tel Aviv 1959.
[2] BANOCZI, J: History of the National Israeli Teachers Training Institute (1857-1897). Budapest 1897.
[3] SCHUSCHNY, H: Physical Education and Jews: 1895 Year Book of the Hungarian Israeli Literary Company. Budapest 1895.
[4] UJVARI, P: Hungarian-Jewish Lexicon. Budapest 1929.
[5] SHOREK, Y: Contribution of Theodor Zeev Hertzel to Renaissance of Physical Education and Sport for the Jewish People. Wingate, Israel 1987.
[6] SCHUSCHNY: Physical.
[7] MEZO, F: Gold Book of the Hungarian Olympics Champions. Budapest 1955.
[8] VEDRES, J: 75 years of MTK. Budapest 1963.
[9] BOSKOVICS: History.
[10] KARPATI, R.: Around the World by Sword. Budapest 1965.
[11] KUN, L: History of Sport and Physical Education. Budapest 1978.
[12] MEZO: Gold.
[13] KOZAK, P: History of V.A.C. Budapest 1952.
[14] SIMRI, U & Hanak, A: Jews in the World of Sports. Tel Aviv 1985.
[15] SZEKELY, E: Only the Winner May Weep! Budapest 1982.
[16] POSTAL, B., SILVER, J. & SILVER, R.: Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports. New York 1965.
[17] FELKAI, L: History of Jewish Anna Frank Gimnazium. Budapest 1992.
[18] DUCKSTEIN: Artistic.

Additional Reading:

REJTO, L.: The Chronicle of Nine Clubs. Budapest 1969.
FOLDESSY, L.: Olympiai Kis Lexicon. Budapest 1960.
HAMORI, T.: World Championship. Budapest 1974.
NAGY, B.: Fradists: The Football Players of FTC, 1900-1980, Budapest 1981.
WERTHEIMER, M. & others: Das Judische Sportbuch. Verlag Atid, Berlin 1937.

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