Never Walk Alone Jewish Identities in Sport: An exhibition of the Jewish Museum Munich

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.” That precisely this song, originally composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for the musical “Carousel,” has become one of sport’s hymns, is not really surprising. The question of “belongingness” has to be asked in the sports arena just as in the society that surrounds it. The exhibition “Never Walk Alone. Jewish Identities in Sport” broaches this complex subject of belonging by focussing on sportsmen and sportswomen of Jewish origin on the sports field.

Since the middle of the 19th century, enthusiasm for sport in German society has been growing continuously. The picture of modern, healthy, and well-toned bodies has always been closely linked to physical training and discipline. Whoever trained enough could gain recognition through physical prowess. This development also gave Germans of Jewish origin a number of possibilities to become better integrated and climb the social ladder. In gymnastics and fencing, as well as in swimming and climbing, or in a “very English” way in the field of tennis, football or boxing, male and female athletes of Jewish origin exceled. Performance and success in sport were not just an important means in the development and consolidation of the modern German Jewish indentity, but put an end to the anti-Semitic stereotype of physical inferiority.

On the first exhibition level, sportsmen and women take up their positions on the sports field. By concentrating on individual biographies, on the one hand, the athletes’ self-perception can be analysed and, on the other hand, attributions from outside brought to light. German Nationalist gymnasts appear on the field just as Zionist runners, tennis players full of enthusiasm for the modern English sport as well as boxers, to just the same extent as hobby sportsmen and women with strong feelings for their “Heimat”. That certain attributions could be of existential importance is shown for example by the story of the fencer Helene Mayer. Although classified a “Jew,” she was allowed to take part in the Olympic Games 1936 and won a silver medal for Germany. However, she was neither Jewish according to the halakha (Jewish religious law) nor indeed from the way she saw herself. She was declared a Jew solely through the anti-Semitic construct of the Nuremburg Race Laws introduced by the Nazis. These defamed Germans who had one Jewish parent and paved the way for their persecution.


The question of belonging is not one asked only by sportsmen and women but also by fans. The feeling of solidarity, the bond, and appreciation for an athlete or club condition a person’s self-perception and lead to a feeling of well-being and safety—always on the proviso that the wish for belongingness is accepted and made possible by one’s counterpart. It always takes two sides which are dependent on one other. Belongingness versus ostracism; inclusion versus exclusion. The gallery owner Alfred Flechtheim and his passion for boxing, the sport and fashion store owner Fritz Adam and his sponsorship of polar expeditions, and the composer Arnold Schönberg and his tennis notation, as well as the attorney Gert Rosenthal and his dream of a “Jewish German ladies field hockey team” all reveal avant-garde, traditional, humorous, and original forms of an enthusiasm for sport lived out on the sideline. Current fan-related notions are also discussed as is the use of the words “Jew” and “Yid” in the sports arena.

Who can participate or be allowed in sport, how and to what extent, is not something arbitrary. Looking at the extent to which a person belongs can reveal a lot about the self-perception of the sportsmen and women of Jewish extraction as well as attributions from outside. And this way of seeing things on the sports field shows the multiplicity of options behind being “athletic and Jewish”—even to this day.

An exhibition of the Jewish Museum Munich
Curator: Jutta Fleckenstein in collaboration with Lisa-Maria Tillian-Fink
Scenography: chezweitz, Berlin: Dr. Sonja Beeck and Detlef Weitz with Julia Volkmar, Morten Ohlsen and Marco Pelz

Opening: 21.02.2017, 7 pm
Duration of exhibition: 22.02.2017―07.01.2018

Angela Brehm
Jewish Museum Munich
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