The Gold-Winning Jewish Wrestler of the Nazi Games
Karoly Karpati’s legacy of strength, Jewish pride and inspiration.
Karoly Kellner was born in 1906 to a Jewish family in Eger, Hungary. Severely underweight as a boy, his parents enrolled him in a gymnasium hoping he would put on some muscle. The plan paid off in spades. He developed an athletic build and tried his luck at Greco Roman wrestling – the popular sport of the times- enjoying great success.
Kellner won his first Hungarian National Junior title in 1925, the same year that the sports clubs of his home town refused entry to Jews. A devout Jew, Kellner refused to convert and instead took on the Hungarian name Karpati and was allowed to compete. He won ten straight National Championships.
Dubbed ‘The Great Karpati’, he won European Lightweight wrestling crowns in 1927, 1929, 1930, and 1935 and a silver medal in the 1932 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. In 1936 he was 30 years old at his physical peak, when the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, the capital of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
The Great Karpati
Relishing the chance to showcase pure Aryan strength, Hitler banned all Jews from the German team only letting one Jewish athlete, fencer Helene Mayer, compete after a threat from the International Olympic Committee to cancel the Games.
Just one year after the notorious Nuremberg Laws in 1935 which severely restricted Jews from all areas of public life in Germany, Karpati was one of many among Jewish Olympians representing their countries in Berlin amid a sea of swastikas, SS officers and in the presence of Adolf Hitler.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin
Karpati was particularly under the spotlight, competing in the most physical sport that pitted sportsmen and ideologies against each other. He defeated Frenchman Charles Delporte in the first round, overpowered Australian champion Dick Garrard in the second and pinned Italy’s Paride Moragnoli in the third. Overcoming the favorite and reigning Olympic champion Hermanni Pihlajamäki of Finland, Karpati set up a dramatic 5th round climax against the Nazi champion Wolfgang Ehrl, a butcher by trade who was unbeaten going into the competition.
Before the final match that took place on August 4th, 1936, Karpati reportedly turned to his team mates promising them, “I either come out of this with the gold medal or I don’t come out at all.”
A tense and gritty show-down went to the wire before two of the three judges scored in Karpati’s favor crowning the Jew a gold medal winner at Hitler’s Games. It was a major embarrassment for Hitler and a victory of Jewish pride.
Winning the Gold
After the Games, Karpati returned to the Nazi-aligned Horthy regime in Hungary where anti-Semitic attacks were common. Despite been forced out of sports clubs, he remained proudly Jewish, moving to the town of Debrecen, marrying his fiancé Livia Grossman and finding work teaching physical education in a Jewish school.
In 1937, when a visiting rabbi was trying out for a community post in Debrecen, the rabbi was advised not to walk from the synagogue back to his hotel on Friday night as he would likely be attacked. The rabbi’s son Sandor Smolovits details his father’s memory of how another Jew in the synagogue stepped in.
“I’ll walk him there. He’ll be safe,” said a self-assured voice. It was Karpati and as predicted, the pair were attacked by a mob of anti-Semitic students.
“While my father stood by and watched,” wrote Slomovits, “Karpati grabbed two members of the gang and, in an astonishing display of power and athletic skill, used them as cudgels to beat the others, routing the whole band.”
Years later, Karpati was forced to join a labor crew attached to the German allied Hungarian army and was transferred to a labor camp in Nadvirna, Poland.
Jewish Olympic champion Attila Petschauer who was murdered in Nadvirna
It was in Nadvirna he saw the killing of a fellow inmate, Jewish Olympic champion fencer Attila Petschauer and later recalled: “The guards shouted: ‘You, Olympic fencing medal winner . . . let’s see how you can climb trees.’ It was midwinter and bitter cold, but they ordered him to undress and climb a tree. The amused guards ordered him to crow like a rooster, and sprayed him with water. Frozen from the water, he died shortly after.
Rabbi Smolovits, who had been saved by Karpati years earlier, also wound up in Nadvirna and witnessed how Karpati retained incredible courage. On one occasion Karpati threw a guard who had shoved him in the back with his rifle off a bridge into a brook. Sandor Smolovits writes: “My father and the other 100 Jews in the work detail immediately began saying the Shema, certain that death was at hand. We were crying. We knew our lives were over, however miraculously, nothing happened.”
The guards chose to punish the guard who had been embarrassed, rather than the prisoners, and transferred Karpati to another camp, where he reportedly showed similar resolve against his oppressors. But he was often beaten, once so badly that his ribs pierced his lungs.
In 1944 Karpati escaped his labor camp, reuniting with his wife who was hidden by Hungarian soldier Viktor Papp – a friend of his wife’s sister in Budapest. The pair remarkably had a child while in hiding with Papp who arranged forged papers for Karpati’s wife to give birth in hospital. The child’s true Jewish identity was revealed only after the war.
Papp was later recognized by Yad Vashem bestowing the title of Righteous Among the Nations and Karpati continued to prove that a Jew can’t be beaten down so easily. He remained in Budapest after the war, coaching the Hungarian national wrestling team for the next 20 years and writing five textbooks about the sport. A Jewish fighter, who never forgot his roots, Karoly Karpati died aged 90 in 1996 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in the Kozma Street, in Budapest.