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Back to Berlin

November 15, 2018 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

An eclectic group of Jewish motorcyclists, representing Israel and the Maccabiah Games, travel across Europe to Germany, facing past and present demons.

In 1930, a group of Jewish athletes travelled on bike from Tel Aviv to Berlin and other sites, seeking to spread the word of a new Jewish organization: the Maccabi Games, which were held for the first time in 1932.

At the time, rising anti-Semitism meant that many Jewish athletes were shunned in their native lands. Competing in the Jewish Maccabi Games was often the only outlet for their sporting abilities. In 1936, Nazi Germany politicized sports even further when it hosted the Olympic Games in Berlin. Many Jewish athletes were barred from competing and the games sent a clear message to the world about the dangers facing Germany’s Jews.

Eighty years later in 2015, with anti-Semitism once again rising in Europe, Berlin announced that it would be hosting the Maccabi Games for the first time ever. Over 2,000 Jewish athletes from over 36 countries would converge in Berlin to compete in Europe's largest Jewish sporting event. The location would be next to Berlin’s grand Olympiastadion, first built for the 1936 Olympics.

Once again, a group of 11 Jewish athletes set out from Tel Aviv, riding to Berlin carrying the Maccabi torch, recreating the original Maccabi bike ride from the 1930s. They were a diverse group: old and young, Israeli, Canadian and European. They worked as surgeons, TV personalities, farmers, art dealers, photojournalists, architects and business people. Four bikers are the children of Holocaust survivors. Two Holocaust survivors accompanied the group on their trip. Their remarkable journey was documented in a new film Back to Berlin.

At the very start of their journey in 2015 the bikers realized they faced a very different situation than in the 1930s when the early Maccabi Games were held. Then, bikers travelled freely from their homes in present-day Israel into Syria and Egypt and eventually overland into Europe. With biking through Israel’s neighbors impossibly dangerous now, the group flew to Athens on the first leg of their trip from Israel to Greece.

In Greece, the bikers got their first shock: members of the local Jewish community warned them not to display the Israeli flag on their motorcycles. Israel’s flag “is the only flag in the world that’s too dangerous to fly in Greece,” one local activist explains on camera. They defied the warning and he group travelled on to the Greek city of Thessaloniki proudly flying their Israeli flags.

Biker Kobi Samuel, an art dealer from Israel, paused and explained to the group that his grandmother Martha Angel was one of over 46,000 Jews deported from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz in 1942. Eight of her brothers and sisters were murdered; Martha survived and lives in Israel. In the film she recalls how she was saved, but becomes too tearful to speak when she tries to talk about her siblings.

In Thessaloniki, the bikers found a cattle train that transported Jews to Auschwitz. Standing in its hot, dark interior, they recalled that the journey took ten days in a bitterly hot summer. Hundreds of Jews were crammed into the trains without food and water. The bikers sat in the same car, sweat running down their faces.

After a few moments, it became too much for Gili Shem Tov, an Israeli television personality who participated in the ride. Gulping water outside after bolting from the train, she explains to the camera that she is two months pregnant and she just can’t imagine the women in her situation forced into a broiling train and held with hundreds of other Jews without food and water, headed towards almost certain death.

In Poland, biker Danny Moran, who works as a press photographer in Israel, was joined by his 78 year old father Yoram. There, for the first time, Yoram told the story of his childhood. In 1943, at the age of six, Yoram and his mother were herded into a train headed to the death camp Belzec. A Jew on board managed to open the door and Yoram’s mother flung him from the train and then she jumped herself. They hid in ruins with other Jews. For a time, Yoram’s mother managed to escape through sewer pipes each day and forage food. She managed to keep two dozen Jews alive for a time during the war.

The bikers had differing reactions to their journey. Joe Gottendenker was born in Poland and recalled how his mother placed him with a non-Jewish Polish couple during the Holocaust when he was a baby. Now living in Toronto, Joe joined the group in Poland and confidently declared that the existence of the state of Israel means there can never be another Holocaust. “When I see these young Israelis...that’s why it’s not going to happen again; they won’t let it happen again,” he posits.

For the film’s director and producer Catherine Lurie, the reality is more complex. In an exclusive interview, Ms. Lurie explained that making the film and accompanying the riders through Europe meant taking a stand. “We’d come back as new Jews,” she explains. We were “from a nation – we’re not as guests as other people’s lands” any more. Today’s Jews can be proud to have the security of the state of Israel behind them. At the same time, the cast and crew were reminded that Europe’s Jews continue to face rising anti-Semitism today.

In Hungary, Lurie was warned against contacting Jobbik, the openly anti-Semitic political party, and was told that interviewing them could put her and her crew in danger. Jobbik had recently announced plans to create a national list of Jews who owned property outside of Hungary.

The anti-Semitism that Lurie and her cast and crew witnessed wasn’t confined to countries that cooperated with the Nazis. Back home in London, a non-Jewish British director who’d helped Lurie with the final shoot confided she didn’t think Israel had the right to exist. She repeated the call that’s increasingly heard in Britain for all Jews to vacate the Jewish state. In another instance, a top producer in London asked Lurie why on earth she was making a film about Jews and Israelis, saying “That’s the most unpopular topic in the world.” Lurie’s reply was simple: “I said that’s why I’m going to do it.”

Back to Berlin is opening in Britain in November 2018 and is being shown in China and Hong Kong. Its makers hope it is shown in schools to help educate the next generation about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Perhaps the project’s greatest impact is reminding us all of the importance of taking a stand against Jew hatred in all its forms.

After a recent screening in Chicago, director Catherine Lurie had one wish for the viewers watching the story of the modern day Jewish bikers and their determination: “I hope this to make you all feel stronger.”

Click here for more information about Back to Berlin and visit their Facebook page here.

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