The tale of an Olympic Gold Medal

Dr. James Ullman, of Williamsburg, is a retired physician who these days is engaged in researching obscure events in modern history.

He recently uncovered the story of Karoly Karpati, the gold medal-winning Jewish wrestler at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, the capital of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

This is a dramatic story, and Ullman sent out queries to people familiar with modern history, asking whether the fate of Karpati is known to them.

My response was: “Karoly Karpati was my gym teacher while I was a student at a gymnasium, (preparatory school) in Debrecen, Hungary. I took from him also private lessons, as a light-weight wrestler... He was a wonderful person.”

He was born in 1906 under the name Karoly Kellner to a Jewish family in Eger, Hungary. As a boy, he was underweight and often bullied at school. To gain strength, his parents enrolled him in a private school where he chose Greco-Roman wrestling — then a popular sport — as his field.

In his hometown, the sports clubs refused him membership because he was Jewish. He changed his name to Karoly Karpati, but refused to convert to Christianity.

In 1925 he won his first Hungarian National Junior title and then he won 10 National Championships in a row. He won the European Lightweight wrestling crown in 1927 and, in 1932, the silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. In 1936, when he was 30 years old and at his physical peak, he was chosen to represent the Hungarian team at the Berlin Olympics.

Hitler wanted to ban all Jews from competing in the Games, but a threat from the International Olympic Committee to cancel the games forced him to change his mind.

Through four rounds, Karpati overpowered his competitors from France, Australia, Italy and Finland; in a dramatic fifth round, he defeated the Nazi champion Wolfgang Ehrl, who was unbeaten going into the competition. Karpati won the gold medal.

It was reported that before the final match, Karpati told his Hungarian teammates, “I either come out of this with the gold medal or I don’t come out at all.”

After the games, Karpati returned home to Hungary, which was aligned with Nazi-Germany and had his own anti-Jewish laws on the books. He was forced out of sports clubs and took a physical-education teaching position at a private preparatory school, in Debrecen. Our paths crossed when he became my gym teacher and wrestling trainer.

I recall this story about Karpati: A young rabbi was trying out for a post in Debrecen. Returning to his hotel after Friday night services, he was warned he may be attacked by a gang of anti-Semitic youths. Karpati overheard the conversation and offered to escort the rabbi back to the hotel.

As predicted, while walking the two of them were attacked by a gang. Karpati grabbed two of them and used them as cudgels to beat the others, routing the whole band. Jews walking home after the Friday evening service were never attacked again.

Years later, Hungary, in close alliance with Nazi Germany, conscripted Jews into forced labor units. Karpati was transferred to a Nazi concentration camp in Nadvina, Poland. Witnesses described, Karpati showing incredible courage. On one occasion, he threw a Nazi guard who, for no apparent reason, hit him in the back with his rifle, shoving him off a bridge and into brook.

The 100 or so Jews in the work detail were sure their death was imminent. But nothing happened. The Nazi officers chose to punish the guard who embarrassed them, and Karpati was transferred to another camp.

In 1944, Karpati escaped from the slave labor camp and returned to Hungary, where he joined his wife who was hidden by Victor Papp, a friend of her sister. Remarkably, while in hiding, the Karpatis had a child. His wife gave birth in a hospital, using forged papers.

After the war, Karpati remained in Budapest and became coach of the Hungarian wrestling team. He died at the age of 91.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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