The ninth Zionist congress, which had taken place in late 1909 / early 1910 in Hamburg, offered a supporting program consisting of a harbor tour, religious services, and a gymnastics exhibition by Jewish athletes at the zoological garden's Ernst-Merck arena, a venue located behind the Dammtor train station.
The gymnastics exhibition attracted a large audience and generated great interest among Hamburg’s Jewish youth to train regularly in a Jewish gymnastics club. Since the existing Jewish gymnastics club, Hamburg Jewish Gymnasts' Association of 1902 Hamburger Jüdische Turnerschaft von 1902 had reservations concerning these potential new members due to their supposed Zionist convictions, a committee chaired by Hamburg philosopher and political economist Ernst Tuch (1872–1922), who had been a longstanding member of Berlin's Jewish sports club Bar Kochba, and Hamburg chemist and businessman Walter Weigert (1883–1952) founded a local chapter of the Berlin Jewish sports club Bar Kochba in Hamburg on March 14, 1910.
During the second Zionist congress, which took place from August 28 to 31, 1898 in Basel, Max Nordau, the Zionist organization's “spiritus rector”, presented his idea of a “Muskeljudentum” [muscle Jewry]: “Zionism revitalizes Judaism. In moral terms, it effects this by a rejuvenation of national ideals. With regard to the body, it does so by the physical education of its youth, who are once again going to create the muscle Jewry that has disappeared.” Stenographic minutes of the second Zionist congress, p. 24 Individual physical exercise was meant to become a preparation for and part of a wide-ranging renewal of Judaism in Europe. In addition to that, Zionism aimed to strengthen the Jewish community spirit beyond national borders and in the long term to create a specific place of refuge for Jews who were marginalized or persecuted by the respective majority society. In its role of carrying out the supposedly necessary physical regeneration among the Jews, sports became a significant part of a new Jewish national movement.
Only two months after the congress, 48 Berlin students close to the Zionist movement acted on Nordau's demand: on October 22, 1898 imperial Germany's first Jewish gymnastics club was founded in Berlin. It was called Jewish Gymnasts’ Association Bar Kochba Jüdischer Turnverein (JTV) Bar Kochba, named after the leader of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in antiquity (132-135 CE). Other cities soon saw the founding of Jewish gymnastics clubs as well. During the sixth Zionist congress held in 1903 in Basel, an umbrella organization of Jewish gymnastics clubs Dachverband Jüdische Turnerschaft was established, whose almost identical name to its anti-Zionist Hamburg equivalent was purely coincidental. This umbrella organization united the different Bar Kochba associations run by Zionist students in many European countries and in Palestine. After activities in gymnastics clubs had come to almost a complete standstill during the First World War, a new umbrella organization was established in 1921 during the twelfth Zionist congress at Karlsbad Karlovy Vary. It was called Maccabi World Union, a name choice which reflected its increasingly international character. In 1929, European Maccabi Games were held near Prague, and in 1932 the first “Maccabiah Games”, the “Jewish Olympics”, took place in Palestine. When Jewish athletes were excluded from German sports clubs in 1933, Jewish sports clubs grew significantly: while about 8,000 athletes were active in Maccabi sports clubs in 1933, their number rose to more than 21,000 within three years. Following the 1938 November pogrom, the National Socialists closed all Jewish organizations and associations across Germany, thus also putting an end to the Jewish sports movement in Germany.
In Hamburg the Israelite Gymnasts' Association of 1899 Israelitische Turnerschaft von 1899, whose members were former students of Hamburg's Talmud Torah School, existed since 1899 and did not have any connection to the abovementioned clubs newly established in reaction to Nordau's appeal. In 1902 the Hamburg Jewish Gymnasts' Association of 1902 Jüdische Turnerschaft von 1902 zu Hamburg, mentioned in the report, emerged from this club. Due to political differences this club did not join the eponymous umbrella organization, however. While friendly relations initially existed between the umbrella organization and the Hamburg Gymnasts’ Association Hamburger Turnerschaft, the latter developed an increasing opposition to the Jewish Gymnasts’ Association Jüdische Turnerschaft. In October 1905 the Hamburg Gymnasts’ Association Hamburger Turnerschaft even called for the establishment of its own umbrella organization that was supposed to distance itself explicitly from “national Jewish” ideas. Although this initiative was never realized, relations between the Hamburg Gymnasts’ Association Hamburger Turnerschaft and the umbrella organization were poisoned ever since.
The gymnastics exhibition at the Hamburg Zionist congress had, as the report reads, raised great interest among Hamburg's Jewish youth “to take active part in the work of physical regeneration of the Jews” and to become regularly active in a Jewish sports club. These future athletes initially planned to join the existing sports club, the Hamburg Gymnasts' Association Hamburger Turnerschaft. Hamburg Zionists Ernst Tuch and Walter Weigert had organized the gymnastics exhibition and subsequently led negotiations with the Hamburg Gymnasts' Association Hamburger Turnerschaft. The board members were concerned that these new members would introduce Zionist ideas into their sports club, however. Therefore it is not surprising that the majority required to admit Jewish national athletes could not be reached following the Hamburg Zionist congress. Nor is it surprising that it was not the members of the existing Hamburg Jewish sports club who were invited to participate in the gymnastics exhibition during the ninth Zionist congress in Hamburg, but gymnasts from other cities such as Berlin, Cologne, and Poznan. Yet there were also 40 female and eight male Hamburg athletes who were not organized in any group and participated in the gymnastics exhibition together with the athletes from other cities.
When negotiations with the Hamburg Gymnasts' Association Hamburger Turnerschaft failed, a committee chaired by Tuch and Weigert on March 14, 1910 founded another Jewish sports club, the Jewish Gymnasts’ Association Bar Kochba Hamburg Jüdischer Turnverein Bar Kochba, “to promote gymnastics and the cultivation of all physical exercise such as hiking, swimming, rowing, sports and play among the Jewish population of Hamburg-Altona in line with our tribe’s heritage,” as the report states.
In choosing the name “Bar Kochba Hamburg” for their club, its members positioned themselves on the side of the national Jewish gymnasts. Its founding in March 1910 documents the opposing positions towards Zionism within Hamburg's Jewish community. These opposing views also reflect a fundamental conflict within German Jewry at the time: while a minority openly joined the Zionist organization, the majority regarded it with skepticism. Most German Jews during this period felt represented by the goals formulated by the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith (CV) Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens , an association founded in 1893 to combat antisemitism. Beginning in the 1910s, the ideological rift between the supporters of the CV and the Zionists widened. While the supporters of the CV sought to refute antisemitic prejudice and fight antisemitism by emphasizing their German citizenship and Jewish-German national consciousness, the Zionists did not believe that antisemitism could be overcome by education and rational arguments. Instead they pursued the creation of a separate, Jewish national consciousness.
Since the Zionists' openly national-political work was frowned upon by many patriotic German Jews, the Bar Kochba gymnasts’ clubs expressly did not refer to themselves as Zionist, but as national Jewish [nationaljüdisch] in order to stress their independence from the Zionist organization. However, both the so-called “gymnastics exhibition” by Bar Kochba athletes during the Zionist congress and the selection of contributors to the association’s central publication, the Jüdische Turnzeitung [Jewish Gymnasts' Paper], demonstrate the close ties these sports clubs had with Zionism: many of its authors, including the presumed author of this report, held positions in the Zionist organization. Moreover, the Jewish Colonial Bank the Zionists' financial arm, advertised its stock in the paper, and the articles featured in it barely differed in content from those appearing in other Zionist publications such as the Jüdische Rundschau or the Blau-Weiß-Blätter.
At the beginning of the 20th century the great majority of Jewish-German athletes were organized in the German Gymnasts’ Association Deutsche Turnerschaft or other non-confessional sports clubs and did not join a Jewish sports club, however. In Hamburg this became particularly evident by the fact that a Jewish sports club, the sports club “shield” Sportgruppe Schild organized by the Reich Association of Jewish Veterans Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten, was only founded in 1933 following the exclusion of Jewish athletes from non-confessional sports clubs.
Just a few weeks after the founding of the Hamburg association, the ladies' department began its athletic activities in the newly built gymnasium of the Eimsbüttel gymnastics club Eimsbütteler Turnverein, as the report proudly announces. Over time further agreements regarding the hourly or daily use of sports facilities by the Bar Kochba club were made with other non-confessional sports clubs in Hamburg. Apart from the gymnastics groups, Hamburg's Bar Kochba also had groups for rowing and swimming, the latter of which was granted discounted admission to the Alsterlust pool that had opened in 1888 and was located at Lombardsbrücke in the St. Georg neighborhood. Additionally, several hiking groups were established as well as a men's fencing squad that was led by Hamburg attorney Manfred Zadik (1887–1965), as the report mentions.
The club leased an athletic field on Alsterdorfer Straße near the Winterhude market square that it was able to use on a daily basis beginning in spring 1910. In addition to track and field, its members used it to play soccer, fistball, and rounders as well as popular running games of the time such as Barlauf and relay races.
One peculiarity of the Hamburg Bar Kochba was its high number of female members in comparison to the other clubs belonging to its umbrella organization. Counting 160 members at its founding in March 1910, the club had 111 female and 107 male members by June of the same year. By September the numbers had risen to 127 women and 116 men. A closer look at the members who actually actively practiced sports shows that the share of women was even higher: about 50 women practiced gymnastics every Wednesday evening in the Eimsbüttel gymnastics club's Eimsbütteler Turnverein newly built gymnasium at Schlankreye that was outfitted with the most modern exercise equipment; by late 1911, 56 women participated. Meanwhile only an average 35 men were active in the men's gymnastics group. While the average female membership in the umbrella organization was 37% in 1912, this number was significantly higher in Hamburg. As the report points out, the Hamburg Gymnasts' Association Hamburger Turnerschaft denied its adult female members voting rights, so it is fair to assume that many female Jewish gymnasts joined the Bar Kochba where they were granted voting rights while male Jewish gymnasts had voting rights in either organization, so this aspect presumably did not play a role in their choice of club.
Over time the number of female and male athletes became increasingly balanced, with the number of women remaining high in the gymnastics groups while male athletes tended to be active in the soccer, rowing or fencing groups instead.
In 1914 there were 21 national Jewish German gymnasts’ associations who belonged to the umbrella organization. The JTV Bar Kochba Hamburg was one of twelve national Jewish gymnasts’ associations founded in imperial Germany that continued to exist after the First World War while athletic activities ceased almost completely in most other clubs. Beginning in the 1920s, athletes, especially teenagers, received instruction in Jewish history and culture in addition to sports. At the Munich Gymnastics Day Münchener Turntag held in September 1919, the Jewish Gymnasts' Association Jüdische Turnerschaft demanded of its members not only a “national Jewish pledge, but also work for the national Jewish cause, i.e. active participation in the revival of the Jewish people and the rebuilding of the Jewish land.” The resolutions of the Munich Gymnastics Day are printed in: Jüdische Turn-und Sportzeitung, Heft 9 / 10 (September / October 1919), p. 5. In addition to exercising one's own body, this was also meant to include learning the Hebrew language. Subsequent issues of the Jüdische Turn- und Sportzeitung included multiple-page lists providing the Hebrew terms for trunk-bends, push-ups, and other gymnastics terms.
In Hamburg one way in which this instruction was carried out was in the form of lectures and recitals held at the club house at Bornstraße 25 purchased in 1927. Along with the Berlin, Wroclaw Breslau, Leipzig, and Frankfurt am Main clubs, Bar Kochba Hamburg was one of the largest German sports clubs which was organized in the Maccabi World Union beginning in 1921. See Gemeindeblatt der Israelitischen Gemeinde Frankfurt am Main, 4 (December 1927), p. 93.
In 1930 the club celebrated its 20-year anniversary by hosting the Maccabi Games, to which two athletes from Palestine were also invited. In the years between 1933 and 1938 the club's work in Hamburg was mainly focused on preparing its young members for emigration – this was the case in both the Maccabi and the “shield” sports clubs – although sports programs continued until the disbanding of all Jewish associations in November 1938.
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Ivonne Meybohm, Dr. phil., born in 1981, is Assistant to the Director at the Dubnow-Institute in Leipzig. She studied history and recent German literature at the Free University Berlin, where she also worked as project coordinator for the Online Encyclopedia "1914-1918 online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War". Her focus of research: Jewish History (especially history of Zionism) and Digital Humanities.
Ivonne Meybohm, Founding of the Jewish Sports Club Bar Kochba, 1910 (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, February 08, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-162.en.v1> [December 07, 2023].