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In Memoriam: Five Members of the 1928 Gold-Medal-Winning Dutch Gymnastics Team Died During Holocaust

The 1928 Dutch gymnastics team. Photograph: Wikipedia The 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam were the first in which women participate...

The 1928 Dutch gymnastics team. Photograph: Wikipedia

The 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam were the first in which women participated in artistic gymnastics. The only competition was the team all around and the women competed on three apparatuses, drill, apparatus and jumps.

The twelve women composing the Dutch team won the team competition with a score of 316.75 points, beating Italy and Great Britain. It was one of the only six gold medals won by the Netherlands in 1928. They became national heroes.

In the twelve-woman team, five gymnasts, Estella Agsteribbe, Elka de Levie, Helena Nordheim, Anna Polak and Judikje Simons, as well as the Dutch coach Gerrit Kleerekoper, were Jewish.
During the Second World War, the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany and most Dutch Jews were deported in concentration camps in Central Europe. All five Jewish gymnasts and coach Kleerekoper were deported in death camps. Elka de Levie was the only one to survive.

Estella Agsterribe (married Estella Blits-Agsterribe) was born on 6 April 1909. She died on 17 September 1943 at Auschwitz, together with her six-year-old daughter Nanny and her two-year-old son Alfred. Her husband, Samuel Blits, died on 28 April 1944 at Auschwitz.

Helena Nordheim (married Helena Kloot-Nordheim) was born on 1 August 1903. She was murdered in a gas chamber on 2 July 1943 at Sobibor, together with her husband, Abraham, and their 10-year-old daughter Rebecca.

Anna Polak (married Anna Dresden-Polak) was born on 24 November 1906. She died on 23 July 1943 at Sobibor, together with her six-year-old daughter, Eva. Her husband, Barend, died at Auschwitz on 30 November 1944.

Judikje Simons, (married Judikje Themans-Simons) was born on 20 August 1904. She died on 3 March 1943 at Sobibor, together with her husband, Bernard, their five-year-old daughter Sonja, and their three-year-old son Leon.

Coach Gerrit Kleerekoper was a diamond cutter, but his real passion was gymnastics. He was born on 15 February 1897. He died at Sobibor on 2 July 1943, together with his wife, Kaatje, and their fourteen-year-old daughter Elisabeth. His eighteen-year-old son Leendert died at Auschwitz on 31 July 1944.

The tragic fate of Gerrit Kleerekoper was soon revealed after the Holocaust. The fate of Estella Agsterribe, Helena Nordheim, Anna Polak and Judikje Simons, on the contrary, remained unknown for a long time. The Nazi administration had indeed registered the deported women with their married names only, and their identity was therefore difficult to recognise.

The tragic stories of the four gymnasts and their coach came to light thanks to the relentless work of Dutch engineer Fred A. Lobatto and the Dutch Society of Jewish Genealogy, who tracked down the maiden names of thousands of Dutch women victims of the Holocaust, until the four gymnasts were found.

Estella Agsteribbe, Helena Nordheim, Anna Polak, Judikje Simons and Gerrit Kleerekoper, together with their families, were murdered in Nazi death camps and their lives cannot be brought back. Their memory, however, can live in us and through us. Let us keep their memory alive.

27 January 2017, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

By Talitha Ilacqua


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