Jewish Turnverein and Sports Association in Częstochowa. Sunday, August 12, 1917. The first tournament, with the participation of Jewish gymnasts in Poland." Yiddish poster. Printed by Albert Hoffmann, Magdeburg. (YIVO)

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An Overview

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Jewish participation in organized sports in Eastern Europe began around 1900, influenced by trends and developments originating in Central Europe and elsewhere. The ingredients of an explanation of both Jewish participation in sports and the emergence of Jewish sports and gymnastics organizations include changing European attitudes to physical culture and to sport; Jewish acculturation; modern antisemitism; and the rise of Jewish national sentiment.

Members of the Maccabi soccer team (in dark jerseys) in a match against the Yiddisher Akademisher Sport Klub (Jewish Academic Sport Club) on the Maccabi sports field, Vilna, 1930s. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

While traditional Jewry tended to frown on activities that distracted from the study of religious texts or interfered with an observant lifestyle, Orthodox Jewish children in Eastern Europe played games and engaged in physical activities (both in the modern and premodern periods). Organized sports in the modern sense, however, were unimportant within the Jewish world of Eastern Europe before significant acculturation had taken place.

In 1895, German-speaking Jews in Constantinople who had been rebuffed by a non-Jewish German gymnastics group operating in that city established a gymnastics association of their own. Similar Jewish groups were set up several years later in Bulgaria and Berlin, and shortly afterward, in various parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A number of early Jewish sports clubs had a national orientation (though they were not necessarily explicitly committed to Zionism). An assembly of the Jewish Gymnastic Organization of the West Austrian region held in 1913 and including delegates from a number of clubs based in the historic lands of Bohemia and Moravia resolved that every affiliated club would henceforth be obliged to adopt the name Maccabi, and to use Hebrew-language commands. The Maccabi movement spread quite rapidly. By the beginning of World War I, for example, there were at least 23 such clubs in the lands that were later incorporated into Czechoslovakia.

Nationally conscious Jewish sports organizations did not make much headway in the Russian Empire during the pre–World War I era, in part because tsarist restrictions made it all but impossible for such groups to operate, but also because the number of Jewish tertiary level students, who formed a large portion of the constituency for such organizations in Central Europe, was relatively small in the territory under tsarist rule. It was, in fact, the occupation of Poland by the German military that created conditions allowing for the first formal and official creation of a Maccabi club in what had been the Russian Empire. By 1917, there were allegedly as many as 43 Maccabi clubs in German-occupied Poland.

Members of the Morgnshtern gymnastics team, Lublin, Poland, 1929. (YIVO)

Thus, Jewish sports clubs, which simply did not exist before the very end of the nineteenth century, emerged across much of Eastern Europe, including both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire, within a relatively brief time span, and initially had similar orientations in all of the lands in which they came into being. When World War I ended, however, and the multinational Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires were replaced by independent states dominated by specific nationalities, the Jewish experience with sports fractured along state lines. Widely differing patterns emerged—suppression of Jewish sports organizations in one country, acceptance in another, deep internal fissures in a third, and significant individual successes in sports by men and women of Jewish origin (who were not necessarily affiliated with a Jewish sports club) in yet another case.

“Soccer match: Maccabi Baranowicz against Ha-Koaḥ Pinsk.” Yiddish poster. Printed by Glouberman, Pinsk, Poland (now in Belarus). (YIVO)

In Czechoslovakia, the Maccabi movement increased in strength in the post–World War I era and had no serious rivals on the Jewish street. There were 31 Maccabi clubs in Czechoslovakia in 1921, with a total of 2,000 members. Three years later—at which point the 32 Maccabi clubs in Czechoslovakia formally created the Maccabi Association in the Czechoslovak Republic—the movement had 2,500 members. Czechoslovakia, which had a liberal government and a tolerant attitude toward the Jewish population, was content to allow Maccabi to function in an unimpeded manner. The government was not opposed to Maccabi’s explicitly Zionist orientation and did not find the existence of a distinct Jewish sports movement problematic. Indeed, beginning in 1926, the Maccabi Association in Czechoslovakia received direct financial support from the government.

Over time, moreover, the government gradually increased the funds allocated to the Jewish sports movement. Public funding made it possible for the Maccabi Association, headed by Artur Herzog from 1926 until the end of the first republic, to expand its range. Though the organization had initially focused on gymnastics, it later began to promote such activities as soccer, swimming, field hockey, and winter sports as well as gymnastics. The Czechoslovak organization of Maccabi published its own periodical, and hosted meetings of the World Maccabi Union. Its activities continued unabated and unhindered until 1938.

In the realm of sports, as in most other areas of life, the situation in Russia after the revolution was starkly different from that of Czechoslovakia. The triumphant Bolsheviks, who were quite hostile to Zionism, eventually became extremely hostile to Maccabi as well, but did not permit Jewish alternatives to be established. Moves to restrict the functioning of Maccabi in Russia began as early as the spring of 1919. A year later, a commissar was appointed specifically to insure that the Maccabi branch in Moscow (which traced its origins back to 1916) was acting in full accord with the party line. By 1923, the Central Council of the Russian Maccabi was forced to close, and a number of the organization’s local branches suffered a similar fate. Many members of the Maccabi Central Council in the USSR were arrested in the mid-1920s. Those branches that were still in operation in the USSR at that time came under ever greater pressure, and eventually ceased to operate.

Individual athletes of Jewish origin participated in Soviet sports during the Stalinist era (even during periods in which Jews in other fields were subject to persecution). There was, however, no Jewish sports movement in the USSR at that time. Jewish sports per se, as was the case with Jewish political parties and other aspects of organized Jewish life considered suspect by the governmental authorities, were forced out of existence.

A man diving into the new swimming pool at the Maccabi Sports Club, Vilna, 1930s. (YIVO)

In Hungary, the interwar years were marked by a sharp increase in antisemitism. This was true not only in society in general but also in the sports world. The Christian Hungarian Sports League, for example, fanned antisemitism among Hungarian youth. Nevertheless, Hungarian Jews, who were generally far more acculturated than their Polish or Russian counterparts, played leading roles in Hungarian sports, just as they had in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century. Nineteen Olympic medals were won by Hungarian Jews in the pre–World War I era, in such fields as gymnastics, fencing, swimming, and wrestling. The rise of Hungarian antisemitism notwithstanding, there were approximately 30 Olympic medals won by Hungarian Jews in the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II.

Hungarian Jews played especially notable roles in soccer, far and away the most popular sport not only in that country but also in the rest of Eastern Europe, and in table tennis, which was also quite popular. József Braun, Ferenc Hires-Hirzer, Rudolf Jeny, and György Molnár were among the most prominent soccer players in Hungary. National champions in the field of table tennis included Zoltán Mechlovitz, Miklós Szabados, and Viktor Barna. In fencing as well—which was widely thought of as a sport with aristocratic roots—the presence of superb athletes of Jewish origin, including Janos Garay, Endre Kabos, and Attila Petschauer, was very noticeable. The story of Ágnes Keleti, a gymnast who survived World War II in hiding, and her triumph at the Olympic games of 1952, is the stuff of legend. Many of the individuals mentioned above, it should be underscored, participated in Hungarian teams or organizations, not necessarily in explicitly Jewish clubs. 

Ágnes Keleti demonstrating gymnastics at the Fifth Maccabi Games, Israel, 1957. (Pierre Gildesgame Maccabi Sports Museum, Israel)

The exceptionally prominent role played by individual Hungarian Jews in sports was facilitated by linguistic acculturation, relative economic well-being, and immersion in Hungarian culture. Unlike, for example, Polish Jews, who had long been separated to a significant degree from their non-Jewish neighbors, Hungarian Jews were integrated into many aspects of the general society, and shared Hungarian interests and inclinations. Despite the rise of antisemitism, Hungarian Jews were thus able to participate, and to excel, in certain sports activities in ways their coreligionists in other East European lands were not. There were specific Polish Jewish athletes who represented Poland at international meets in the interwar years, and Czech Jewish athletes who represented Czechoslovakia. However, the number of Hungarian Jews who played this role was significantly larger.

Ideological and class divisions within Polish Jewry had a major impact on the world of Polish Jewish sports. Maccabi had a notable presence in the Polish Jewish community throughout the interwar period, and issued periodicals of its own, namely Głos Makkabi and Hamakabi. However, unlike in Czechoslovakia, in the interwar era in Poland a number of competitors to the Zionist-oriented Polish Maccabi emerged. The organization Shtern (Gwiazda), affiliated with Left Po‘ale Tsiyon, for example, was established in 1923. Morgnshtern, created approximately three years later, identified with the Bund, and Ha-Po‘el, affiliated with the Right Po‘ale Tsiyon, came into being in Poland in the early 1930s. There were also individual sports clubs in interwar Poland (though not full-fledged sports movements) sympathetic to the Revisionist Zionists, to the Folkists, and to the Jewish Section of the Communist Party. By 1939, there were 27 different Jewish sports organizations in Łódź alone, representing various sectors of the Jewish population.

Hungarian skaters Emilia Rotter and László Szollás competing in the Olympics, Garmisch, Germany, 1936. (IOC/Olympic Museum Collection)

The communities within Polish Jewry were not necessarily represented in the sports world in accordance with their proportions in Polish Jewry as a whole. Polish Jewry, for example, did not produce a sports movement for the religiously observant. Nevertheless, the divisions in the Jewish sports movements of Poland did mirror certain significant divisions within Polish Jewry. For example, some branches of Polish Jewish sports clubs, such as the Łódź-based Bar Kochba Association (which eventually became part of the Maccabi movement), were led by individuals who believed that Yiddish was insufficiently standardized to serve as a command language, and who therefore promoted the use of Hebrew for this purpose. Morgnshtern and Shtern, on the other hand, were both committed to Yiddish.

Morgnshtern and Shtern, similarly, espoused socialist ideals, and perceived Maccabi as bourgeois-nationalist and reactionary. The commitment of the Bundist and Left Labor Zionist movements to both sports and physical education and to socialism had an impact not only on the social composition of these organizations, but also on their goals. Both insisted that they were opposed to the promotion of sport in and for itself, believing that socialist organizations for physical education should work to change the economic and political order.

Though Morgnshtern and Gwiazda manifestly shared numerous traits, they differed significantly from each other, at least in the earliest years of their existence. Morgnshtern argued that certain activities were inappropriate for socialist athletes, and, for example, initially declined to promote boxing (which Morgnshtern’s early leaders believed was both an unnecessarily brutal and an unhealthy sport). Indeed, Morgnshtern’s spokespersons were among the most forceful opponents of boxing in the Workers Sports International. Morgnshtern also believed that a socialist sports movement should not emphasize the creation of individual stars, or the breaking of athletic records, and should instead concentrate on the promotion of physical health and education for the masses. It therefore tended to encourage activities such as gymnastics, hiking, and cycling, and was not as focused on soccer as were most (Jewish and non-Jewish) European sports movements. Morgnshtern, finally, did not create a special commission for women, and stressed that such a commission was not necessary because women already played a prominent role in the organization. It was interested in promoting the physical education of women, and had large numbers of female members, but saw no need for the women in its ranks to have a separate division.

Members of Jewish sports clubs competing in a race, Czechoslovakia, 1930s. (Pierre Gildesgame Maccabi Sports Museum, Israel)

Shtern, on the other hand, asserted that there was no such thing as a proletarian sport, and that the class character of a sports movement depended on who led the movement, and on the movement’s goals. It vigorously promoted both soccer and boxing from an early date onward. Moreover the Warsaw local of Shtern is known to have had a women’s section.

A final noteworthy distinction between Morgnshtern and Shtern concerned their attitudes toward the Związek Robotnicych Stowarzyszeń Sportowych (Polish Workers Sport Federation; ZRSS). Though Shtern disagreed with certain stances taken by the ZRSS, such as the latter’s relatively positive relationships with both bourgeois Polish sports movements and with the Polish governmental authorities concerned with physical education, it played an active role within the ZRSS both before and after losing critical votes on these and other issues. Morgnshtern, on the other hand, was far less involved with the ZRSS. The relatively cool relationship between Morgnshtern and the ZRSS can best be explained by the not altogether easy relationship that the Bund had with the Polish Socialist Party (members of which dominated the ZRSS).

The proclivities of the individual Jewish sports movements of Poland notwithstanding, gymnastics, soccer, and table tennis tended to be among the most popular sports. It ought to be noted, moreover, that Polish Jewish sports movements often sponsored a very broad range of activities extending well beyond matters related directly to physical education. In Vilna, both a mandolin orchestra and a dramatic group operated under Morgnshtern’s auspices. In Warsaw, Morgnshtern’s affiliate organized group visits to the theater and to the cinema. Chess teams associated with the Jewish sports clubs of Łódź were notably successful. In some instances, members of the Jewish sports movements took on militia-like functions, providing physical protection from antisemites to otherwise defenseless sectors of the Jewish population.

There are few reliable figures on the sizes of the individual Jewish sports movements of interwar Poland, though one source estimates that a total of 30,000 individuals were members of these movements on the eve of World War II. Preliminary research conducted under the auspices of YIVO in the 1930s suggested that there were 190 branches of Maccabi, 107 branches of Morgnshtern, and 44 branches of Shtern in Poland in 1937. Morgnshtern, which had claimed to have some 4,000 members in the early 1930s, allegedly had 5,000 members in 1934. Maccabi was significantly larger than was Morgnshtern, and Shtern was far smaller. Ha-Po‘el claimed to have 100 branches and 5,700 members in Poland in 1936 but its assertion cannot be corroborated at this time.

The relative sizes of the Jewish sports movements of Poland seem to have shifted in significant ways over time. The Warsaw branch of Morngshtern grew in the late 1930s, while the branch of Shtern operating in Warsaw shriveled. In February 1938, Morgnshtern’s Warsaw branch is known to have had precisely 1,855 members and was larger than it had been at any earlier point. As the Bund increased in voting strength and popular following in the late 1930s, so too did the sports movement affiliated with it increase in size.

“Makabi Riga, 1918–1933.” Poster in Hebrew and Latvian. Riga, 1933. The poster advertises the Maccabiah, a worldwide gathering and tournament of Maccabi sports clubs. (Pierre Gildesgame Maccabi Sports Museum, Israel)

Large-scale Jewish sports movements ceased functioning in Eastern Europe during World War II. There is some evidence suggesting that activists in the prewar Jewish sports movements may have contributed disproportionately to resistance to the Nazis. A member of Warsaw’s Morgnshtern who remained in Warsaw for much of World War II, for example, reports that Brilanshteyn, Mania Fajn, Zalmen Friedrich, Leybl Friedman, Sholem Grinfas, Gruzaltz, Gitele Inventash, Sime Inventash, Gina Klepfisz, Mikhl Klepfisz, Kupchik, Mlinek, Natanblit, S. Notkowski, Maurycy Orzech, I. Pishitz, Leybl Shpeichler, and Sochatshewsky, all of whom apparently participated in resistance activities, had been members of Morgnshtern. Jewish athletes, however, generally shared the fate of the Jewish population.

Survivors of the Holocaust attempted to recreate organized sports activities in the period immediately following the war. Shtern was reestablished in Poland as early as 1946. The consolidation of control in the hands of Communist regimes, however, prevented the revival of organized Jewish sports movements in the East European context. In the years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, on the other hand, a (very modest) revival has taken place in certain geographic areas. Maccabi, for example, was able to organize, to some extent, in the former Soviet Union, in Poland, and elsewhere. Athletes from Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine participated in the 2003 European Maccabi Games.

Suggested Reading

Diethelm Blecking, “Jüdischer Sport in Polen,” Sozial- und Zeitgeschichte des Sports 13.1 (March 1999): 20–27; Diethelm Blecking, “Marxism versus Muscular Judaism: Jewish Sports in Poland,” in Sport and Physical Education in Jewish History, ed. George Eisen, Haim Kaufman, and Manfred Lämmer, pp. 48–55 (Netanyah, Isr., 2003); Andrzej Bogusz, “Körperkultur und Sport bei den Lodzer Deutschen und Juden im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert,” in Polen, Deutsche und Juden in Lodz, 1820–1939: Eine schwierige Nachbarschaft, ed. Jürgen Hensel, pp. 347–368 (Osnabrück, Ger., 1999); George Eisen, “Jewish History and the Ideology of Modern Sport,” Journal of Sport History 25.3 (1998): 482–531; Roni Gechtman, “Socialist Mass Politics through Sport: The Bund’s Morgnshtern in Poland, 1926–1939,” Journal of Sport History 26.2 (Summer 1999): 326–352; Mordechai Goldsamer, “A Chapter from the History of the Jewish Working Youth,” unpublished manuscript (1953); Jack Jacobs, “Creating a Bundist Counter-Culture: Morgnshtern and the Significance of Cultural Hegemony,” in Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100, pp. 59–68 (New York, 2001); Jack Jacobs, “The Politics of Jewish Sports Movements in Interwar Poland,” in Emancipation through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe, ed. Michael Brenner and Gideon Reuveni, pp. 93–105 (Lincoln, Neb., 2006); Jack Jacobs, “Jewish Workers’ Sports Movements in Inter-War Poland: Stern and Morgnshtern in Comparative Perspective,” in Jews, Sports and the Rites of Citizenship, ed. Jack Kugelmass (Champaign, Ill., 2006); Uri Miller, “Maccabi Russia in a General Historical Context,” in Sport and Physical Education in Jewish History, ed. George Eisen, Haim Kaufman, and Manfred Lämmer, pp. 116–125 (Netanyah, Isr., 2003); Joseph C. Pick, “Sports,” in The Jews of Czechoslovakia: Historical Studies and Surveys, vol. 2, pp. 185–228 (Philadelphia and New York, 1971); Jacov Sobovitz and Alexandru-Virgil Voicu, “Hungary’s Jewish Athletes during the Interwar Period, 1918–1940,” in Sport and Physical Education in Jewish History, ed. George Eisen, Haim Kaufman, and Manfred Lämmer, pp. 157–169 (Netanyah, Isr., 2003); Igor Yeykelis, “Odessa Maccabi, 1917–1920: The Development of Sport and Physical Culture in Odessa’s Jewish Community,” East European Jewish Affairs 28.2 (1998–1999): 83–101.