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Lilli Henoch: Remembering a world-class athlete

In the 1920s, Lilli Henoch was Germany’s greatest multi-sport athlete. Martin-Heinz Ehlert has dedicated the past 25 years of his life to giving the young Jewish woman her rightful place in German sporting history.

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In 1924 Lilli Henoch was the German champion in all four of her favoured events: the shot, the discus, the long jump and the relay.

In the 1920s, Lilli Henoch was Germany’s greatest multi-sport athlete. Martin-Heinz Ehlert has dedicated the past 25 years of his life to giving the young Jewish woman her rightful place in German sporting history.

For the first time Martin-Heinz Ehlert seems almost pensive, for the slightest of moments his words falter almost imperceptibly. He has brilliantly thick white hair and is clearly as fit as he is fastidious (his email a week in advance said simply “I will be wearing a red pullover.” He is and it is immaculate). His false teeth betray a certain succumbing to age, but then he is a sportsman after all. Sportsmen, whether retired or not, like to look their best, especially when they still have much to achieve.

He produces a photograph of Henoch from his wallet. There is no steel in her eyes; hers is not the face of a competitor. It makes her achievements all the more incredible.

He is talking about a woman he has chased around the world and back. A woman he’s spent many intense, unforgettable moments with since he first encountered her some 25 years ago – at one of the quarterly meetings of the club at which he played hockey, when the name “Lilli Henoch” was suggested for a new cup. He was told about her, and almost immediately he was like a man possessed. That conversation was the starting pistol on a relationship that he describes as being “rich in discovery, full of surprising coincidences, uplifting and depressing, shameful and painful”.

Yet he’s never met Lilli. Germany’s greatest ever multi-sport athlete died in 1942, murdered by the Nazis outside Riga on September 8. Ehlert was nine at the time.

Ehlert is not the hard-nosed type: yet, he’s embarked on tracing Henoch’s life with the sober diligence of a policeman and the blind determination of a sportsman. Having spoken to many of the people in her life on his quest to “wrest away her forgottenness”, to get her the adulation she deserves in death that she rarely received in life, his existence seems to have become entwined with hers. His quest to piece together the missing parts and tell Henoch’s extraordinary story has consumed his life for the last 25 years, and it will continue to do so. Ehlert’s wife sometimes jokes that he spends his time between two women. There is a truth in that.

A born champion

Lilli Henoch was born in Königsberg in 1899. The second daughter in a middle-class Jewish family who, Ehlert says, saw their religion in much the same way that Christians who attend church once a year at Christmas see theirs. Her sister Suse played the piano – their neighbour, Albert Einstein, sometimes came by to listen – but Lilli Henoch was different. She loved to run and to jump and to throw, to compete. As a young girl she attended classes at two sports clubs. It was the death of her father that saw the family (Lilli, her mother Rose, Suse and her brother Max) move to Berlin sometime in 1918. Swiftly she joined the Berliner Sport-Club, among the most exalted in the country at the time, steeped in tradition and glory.

Henoch wasn’t just good at sport though. She was a natural, a genius. “Really, we will never see such a sportswoman ever again,” Ehlert says with unnecessary understatement. Her sporting achievements are gargantuan.

In 1924 she was the German champion in all four of her favoured events: the shot, the discus, the long jump and the relay. Between 1922 and 1926, Henoch held the world records for the discus (twice), and as part of an all-conquering 4x100m relay team that went unbeaten in the German Championships for four years. The second time she broke the shot put world record, in Leipzig at the German Championships in 1925, she hit a mark that wouldn’t be beaten for another three years, even though the weight of the ball was reduced by a kilo the following year.

If she was not feted by the press – women’s sport was, after all, still wearing what Ehlert beautifully describes as ”Kinderschuhe” in the 1920s – she was known and cautiously celebrated. “It is a question I have also asked myself – was she famous?” Ehlert muses. “She must have been known. There is a picture from 1925, at the yearly festival for the Berlin sports press, where she was presented as one of the German Champions of the Year. If she wasn’t famous, or known, then she wouldn’t have been there.”

A career cut short

Did Henoch ever get swept up in the glamour and celebrity of Berlin in the roaring 1920s? The reflected exotic glory of a Jewish sportswoman who was beating all comers fits perfectly alongside our often-cartoonish vision of the city then. But Berlin was as divided economically between the wars as it was physically years later. “It was a party city for whom? For the top 10,000, you could say…” says Ehlert. Henoch had money but not that much money. Berlin wasn’t as liberal back then as is often claimed, either. Ehlert talks quietly, yet archly of a malignant, latent anti-Semitism at the time and tells stories of other BSC club members who would travel with her to competitions, and spoke glowingly of her, before being the first to turn on her when the opportunities arose.

She would unlikely have been interested in the party that was Berlin, just as she wouldn’t have had time to join it, anyway, but again Ehlert holds his hands up. He just doesn’t know what life was like for Lilli Henoch in the 1920s and 1930s. He’s sure that she was moderate, a German who believed Zionism was a danger to Jewish lives, and who was anathema to the ideas about a muscular Judaism perpetuated through clubs like the hugely successful Bar Kochba. Sport for Henoch was about self-discipline, and about the joy of competition. It wasn’t a political tool.

Ehlert believes she never felt she represented her sex or her religion or her city (though he delights in telling the story about how she and a teammate travelled to Lilli’s birthplace of Königsberg without their two, sick, compatriots for the 4x100m – the Berliners ran two legs each and still won). She mostly just represented her club, BSC. In the spring of 1933 she rose to join their board. It was unprecedented, a recognition of everything that she had achieved for the Golden Eagle that they wore so proudly on their shirts. But within a few months she would be deserted, banned along with the other estimated 10 percent of members who were Jews. In the next few years she took control of the Jewish Turn- und Sportclub 1905, played handball, taught gymnastics and was a lead organiser in the yearly Jewish youth championships.

Unanswered questions

The rest of the story is left in hints, paint jobs of the past that are fading all too quickly. There are snapshots Ehlert remembers of papers talking about her later handball career, when she played as well as anyone else in Germany. They praised her innate understanding of the game, her ease of movement and her dedication, and Ehlert tells the story with the wonder of a schoolboy.

He produces the print of a photograph of Henoch from his wallet, a gift. It is awkwardly staged – her face is looking off into the distance, her left hand juts out forcefully and a five-kilo shot is cocked under her jaw, above a shoulder that shows just a hint of the muscle within. She is about to win the gold medal at the first German national championships in Duisburg in 1922, but something about it isn’t right. There is no steel in her eyes; hers is not the face of a competitor. It is that of an action figure, smiling sweetly for the camera, and, as Ehlert points out, she has the body of a runner, not a thrower. It makes her achievements all the more incredible.

Her sister, Suse, told him that Lilli had an offer to go to the Netherlands as a trainer. They all knew it was becoming dangerous to stay in Germany, but she would never leave her mother. He struggles without the plain facts at hand. “It was out of a feeling of responsibility… well… one cannot put yourself there, what thoughts they had.” The first time he met Suse, in 1988, was also the first time he’d ever met a Holocaust survivor. “There was a certain sensibility, there were things I wouldn’t have dared to ask… About her private life, I don’t know a lot.” Suse Henoch has since passed away. Notes Ehlert regretfully: “I was a little naïve – this was not my job – and I had a certain shyness. If I was more hard-nosed, if I may say, then I could have asked different questions…”

But this is a story without an end, outside of the tragic one that came to Henoch and her mother and over a thousand others outside of Riga on that morning of 1942. Seventy years on, largely thanks to Ehlert’s efforts, a school gymnastics hall in Schöneberg, a soccer field in Kreuzberg and one Prenzlauer Berg street are today named after Lilli Henoch. But Ehlert’s quest goes on. He is soon due to meet a woman whose mother had exchanged correspondence with Henoch. He hopes the letters might fill in a couple of those gaps, but he knows that most of his questions will remain either unasked or unanswered. Maybe there is a part of him that is loath to take a 25-year relationship with a woman he’s never met to its natural conclusion.