An Athlete Who Stood Up To Hitler

by Rafael Medoff

These days the sports pages sometimes resemble a police blotter. One of baseball’s most famous pitchers has been indicted for perjury and lying to Congress. A champion cyclist is under investigation for using steroids. A college basketball star has been suspended for assaulting his girlfriend. In times like these, it is worth remembering an athlete who, 75 years ago this week, made news not because of his inappropriate behavior but because he took a stand against evil.

Herman Neugass (1915-1991) was a star sprinter at Tulane University, in New Orleans. In early 1935, he tied the world record in the 100 yard-dash (9.4 seconds), and the following year he was the Southeastern Conference sprint champion. Neugass seemed to be a shoo-in to qualify for the 1936 United States Olympic team. There was just one problem: the 1936 games were scheduled to take place in Germany. Nazi Germany.

During the months preceding the 1936 Olympics, many Americans began calling for boycotting the games to protest the Nazis’ persecution of German Jewry. Support for the boycott grew in response to the July 1935 anti-Jewish pogrom in Berlin, and the promulgation of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws two months later.

The boycott was endorsed not only by American Jewish organizations, but also groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Catholic War Veterans. The Roosevelt administration, which at that time was still interested in maintaining friendly relations with Berlin, opposed the boycott.

In 1935, the American Olympic Committee sent postcards to potential Olympic athletes around the country, asking if they were willing to compete in Berlin. Very few of them were prepared to give up their chance to take part in the world’s most prestigious athletic competition.

One of those few was Hermann Neugass. At first, however, he did not publicize his negative reply to the Olympic Committee. As a result, one of his teammates publicly justified his own decision to go to Berlin on the grounds that Neugass, who was Jewish, was apparently going, too.

Seventy-five years ago this week, Neugass, in a letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, announced his stand and set the record straight. “I would not participate…in games in any country in which the fundamental principle of religious liberty is violated as flagrantly and as inhumanely as it has been in Germany,” Neugass wrote. “As an American citizen who believes sincerely in the cardinal tenet of freedom of religious worship imbedded in the Constitution of the United States, I feel it to be my duty to express my unequivocal opinion that this country should not participate in the Olympic contests, if they are held in Germany.”

Jesse Owens, the African-American track star, is widely regarded as the hero of the 1936 Olympics, because his victories in Berlin provided a rebuff of sorts to Hitler’s claims of Aryan racial superiority.

But there was also another kind of hero in 1936: the handful of American athletes who took a moral stand and risked their careers by refusing to participate in the Nazi Olympics. Along with Herman Neugass, the other boycotters were championship jumper Syd Koff, who had won four gold medals at the 1932 Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv and qualified for the 1936 Olympics; Harvard track and field stars Norman Cahners and Milton Green; speed skater Jack Shea, who had won a gold medal in the 1932 games; swimming coach Charlotte Epstein; track and field star Lillian Copeland; and entire the Long Island University Blackbirds basketball team, which was widely regarded as the nation’s best team.

The seventy-fifth anniversary of Herman Neugass’s courageous public statement is a fitting occasion to recall those who stood up against Hitler in 1936, by refusing to go to Berlin.

December 2010