by Jeff Ihaza
A large, arresting black-and-white photograph of relay runners entering Berlin’s Olympiastadion greets visitors to The August Wilson Center exhibition The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936.
At the center of the stadium, hordes of Nazi soldiers are clearly visible, establishing the central conflict of these games and this exhibit, on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and presented in collaboration with the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The show closes next week.
The 1936 Olympic Games were the most controversial to date. Adolph Hitler saw the games as a prime opportunity to spread anti-Semitic and racist propaganda, only relenting on a ban of blacks and Jews after threats of boycotts.
Sala Udin, co-executive director at the August Wilson Center, says the exhibit is a great way to reflect on both black history and Jewish history. At that moment, the two groups, facing similar obstacles, triumphed athletically.
“There was a large-scale attempt on Hitler’s part to demonize blacks and Jews leading up to the games. Were it not for the participation of black and Jewish athletes, Hitler could have been more successful in propagating these ideas,” Udin says.
The games also presented a complex issue from a historical perspective. As a result of hosting the games, Germany received a much-needed economic boom. Still reeling from the First World War, Germany’s economy greatly benefited from the full participation of nations like the United States.
In fact, there was a push to boycott the games from American groups. The exhibit features artifacts from groups hoping to convince athletes to boycott, as well as American anti-Semitic group’s opinions on the matter.
The exhibit follows chronologically the phases that led up to the Olympics. Starting with Hitler’s propaganda and vitriolic campaigns of demonization, leading into the debate surrounding the games, and finally the games themselves.
Jesse Owens and John Woodruff’s fantastic performances at the '36 games are highlighted in the form of rare video footage of their medal-winning runs.
The exhibit closes with an image as powerful as the one at its entrance: an immense photograph depicting the sheer size and scope of the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
The exhibit continues through Feb. 28. Tickets are $8. The August Wilson Center is located at 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown.