We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

The Canadian Boxers Who Thumbed Their Noses at Nazis

Eighty years ago, athletes spurned Hitler by gathering in Barcelona for the ‘People’s Olympics.’

By Tom Hawthorn 26 Jul 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria writer and a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

In the summer of 1936, athletes around the globe prepared to contest an Olympic Games now remembered as a grotesquery of Nazi pageantry.

Among them was young Sammy Luftspring, aged just 20. The son of a bootlegger, Sammy had grown up in a tough Toronto immigrant neighbourhood known as The Ward. Slight in physique, he learned to protect himself from local bullies at a boxing club at the local Young Men’s Hebrew Association. In the ring, Luftspring wore trunks embroidered with a blue Star of David. By 1933, he was an Ontario amateur champion. 

That same year, Luftspring took part in the wild street brawl dubbed the Christie Pits Riot. Members of a local pro-Nazi Swastika club unfurled a large banner with the hateful symbol, leading to a confrontation with a rival Jewish baseball team in the park. The battle lasted for hours.

The Olympics had been assigned to Berlin before the rise of Hitler. As the starting date for the Games neared, a boycott movement found little support. In the United States, Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, complained the boycott movement was part of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the country from participating. Canadian officials followed Britain’s lead in agreeing to take part even after it became clear the Nazis intended to use the games as a propaganda stage.

Luftspring was a cinch to win a spot on Canada’s Olympic boxing team. He wanted to go overseas to show the Nazis the same fighting spirit he had shown their sympathizers on the streets of his hometown. 

He did not win approval at home.

“My parents feared for my life if I went to Berlin,” Luftspring once told Bruce Kidd, the Olympic runner who became an academic. “They thought I would be killed. I was an obedient son, so I decided they were right.”

Berlin was out. Luftspring decided to go to Barcelona instead.

Eighty years ago last weekend, a handful of Canadians and thousands of others opposed to the Nazis were gathering in the Spanish city for a festival of art and sport. What was to be a peaceful celebration and a defiant snub of Hitler instead became a forgotten footnote, overtaken by events.

‘Neither chauvinistic, nor commercialized’

In May, 1936, the government of autonomous Catalonia in Spain announced it would play host to a Popular Olympiad, also known as the People’s Olympics and the Workers’ Olympics, for athletes who wanted no part in supporting the Nazi regime.

“The People’s Olympiad of Barcelona revives the original spirit of the Games,” the organizers declared, “and accomplishes this great task under the banner of the brotherhood of men and races.”

The Barcelona Games “must show the sport-loving masses that it is neither chauvinistic, nor commercialized, with the production of sensational publicity for ’stars’ as its objective, but rather a popular movement which springs from the activity of the toiling masses and which gives impetus to progress and culture.”

With that, the two great, rising rival ideologies of the 1930s — Communism and Naziism — had their own Games.

The Barcelona Games, organized under the auspices of Catalan president Lluís Companys, whose name appeared on all official documents, were ambitious. Planned athletic competitions included track and field, soccer, rugby, swimming, water polo, tennis, basketball, cycling, wrestling, gymnastics, shooting, and table tennis. As well, the regional sports of French boule, and Basque pelota were on the agenda.

An athlete merely needed to make his or her way to the Games to take part. The organizers promised room and board for all competitors, and a seven-story hotel was reserved to room 1,600 participants. The hotel had been built for the International Exposition held in Barcelona in 1929, as had been the 54,000-seat Montjuic Stadium, which was to be the site for track and field events.

A program of arts performances, a sports conference, and an international chess tournament were to be held simultaneously with the Games.

Back in Toronto, Luftspring convinced a fellow boxer to join him in boycotting Hitler and instead making the long trek to Spain. Benjamin Norman Yakubowitz learned to scrap as a boy protecting from older predators the lucrative corner in downtown Toronto where he sold newspapers. A ferocious bantamweight, he fought under the nickname Baby Yack.

The two young men wrote a letter to The Globe, which was published on July 6, explaining their decision to skip the Canadian Olympic boxing trials and, with it, Hitler’s Games.

“We know that we, as Canadian boys, would be personally safe, and perhaps well received in Germany,” they wrote. “But can we forget the way the German government is treating the Jewish boys in Germany? No athlete or sportsman would think of engaging in a sporting contest with a bully who would ill-treat even a dumb animal. The German government is treating our brothers and sisters worse than dogs.”

The boxers said it would have been “very low to hurt the feelings of our fellow Jews by going to a land that would exterminate them if it could.” They didn’t call on other athletes to join them in the boycott, instead wishing their fellow Canadians every success.

582px version of Sammy Luftspring (left) and Baby Yack spar aboard the Alaunia
Sammy Luftspring (left) and Baby Yack spar aboard the Alaunia on route to the People’s Olympics in Barcelona, 1936. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 82, item 13.

In the depths of the Depression, the two amateur fighters did not have the funds to travel to Europe. (Luftspring would later quip that he had been no farther afield than the Toronto Islands, a short ferry ride from downtown.) The Daily Clarion, a Communist newspaper based in Toronto, announced the Catalonia government would cover the expenses of a handful of athletes to travel from Canada.

The boxers were going to accept the round-trip fares until Harry Sniderman, a well-known Toronto sportsman, convinced them it would be better to be supported by Jewish backers than Communist ones. Businessmen donated funds and more money was raised from the pass-the-hat proceeds from Jewish Community Softball league games. Sniderman also organized a stag at the YMHA at which bookies and bootleggers were in the unaccustomed role of giving — not taking — money. In the end, more than $2,000 was raised to send the fighters abroad. Sniderman would join them as a team manager.

Meanwhile, the sprinter Bill Christie and quarter-miler Tom Ritchie, both apolitical and uncertain of making the Canadian Olympic team, accepted the Catalonian government invitation. Both were keen for the adventure and a chance at competition.

Four women track athletes were invited to attend the anti-fascist Olympics. Two refused because they hoped to qualify for the Berlin Olympics and anyone competing at Barcelona would have been suspended by the Canadian sports governing body. Another, hurdler Alda Wilson, could not get permission to leave her job.

The one who accepted was the best athlete of them all. Eva Dawes, a lean and lanky former Canadian high-jump champion, won a bronze medal at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and a silver at the 1934 British Empire Games in London. She was already under suspension for having taken part in a sporting tour of the Soviet Union the previous year.

An impromptu parade of about 500 supporters marched the athletes through Toronto streets to Union Station where they caught a train to Montreal, where they were to board a European-bound ocean liner. The two boxers arrived at the pier with flags emblazoned with the Star of David.

582px version of Sammy Luftspring and Baby Yack
The boxers Sammy Luftspring and Baby Yack posed with Toronto sportsman Harry Sniderman aboard the Alaunia en route to the People’s Olympics in Barcelona in July, 1936. The photograph is from Luftspring’s scrapbook and the handwriting is his own. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 82, item 17.

The voyage aboard the Cunard liner Alaunia lasted more than a week, during which the boxers put on a training exhibition on deck to stay in shape.

Meanwhile, athletes from other participating countries began converging on Barcelona from neighbouring Portugal, Morocco and France, as well as Scandinavia, Britain and the Soviet Union. Germans who had fled the Nazis and living in exile had a delegation, while a team of Jewish athletes represented Palestine. The American team included nine athletes — a gymnast, a cyclist, two boxers, and five runners.

France, which had elected a leftist Popular Front government, kicked in a half-million francs to help finance the games.

Some of the early arrivals in Barcelona were delighted to hear what they thought were fireworks being exploded in their honour. Instead, the Spanish army and its supporters had launched a rebellion against the Republic. Rebelling soldiers and loyal troops joined by citizen militias exchanged gunfire in Madrid and Barcelona.

Two American athletes, Myron Dickes and Al Chakin, watched from the Hotel Europa as fighting raged in the Plaza Catalonia. Severed trolley wires dangled into the street, while newspaper kiosks along the Rambla boulevard were peppered with shot. Many churches had been burned, though the famous uncompleted cathedral remained untouched.

The Americans later told the New York Times they had the “experience of being shot at, of taking part in looting under the necessity of having to get themselves something to eat, of helping to build barricades, of addressing Spanish crowds in English on the solidarity of the workingmen’s interests in every country, of being appointed food collectors for the women and children in their hotel and of being in some measure advisers to the government in Barcelona.”

Days went by without word from the Canadian contingent.

“They have lots of soldiers to protect the visitors,” Charles Stewart, secretary of the Canadian committee for the People’s Olympics, assured the Toronto Star. “What difference can a few bullets make?”

The athletes’ parents were not so sanguine.

“I couldn’t sleep all night for wondering whether my son was all right,” said Bill Christie’s mother. Eva Dawes’ mother told the Star: “I’m worried, but I try to not feel depressed. There is nothing I can do except wait, and I am making the best of it I can.”

As it turned out, the Canadians were waiting for a train in Toulouse, France, when word reached them about the uprising. The People’s Olympics were cancelled.

The Canadians returned to Paris, where, at the train station, they bumped into their countrymen headed to Berlin. The two runners asked to accompany the team to the Olympics, but were rejected.

The fascists won the Spanish Civil War and Companys and others fled to France. He was handed over to Spain after the Nazis occupied France, and was executed by firing squad at Montjuic Castle in 1940.

Luftspring and Yack turned professional soon after returning to Toronto. Both had some success, though Luftspring’s career ended prematurely after being accidentally thumbed in the eye during a fight. He went on to become a distinguished boxing referee and co-owned a popular Toronto nightspot. He wrote an autobiography in 1975 titled Call Me Sammy and he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. He died in 2000, age 84.

Yack won the Canadian bantamweight title in 1937. After retiring from the ring, he struggled to find his place, serving in the armed services during the Second World War before becoming a bookie. He spent some time in prison. When the journalist William Stephenson profiled the fighter in 1979, he was a recovering alcoholic driving a cab for a living while resident in a fleabag hotel. Yack died in 1987, age 71.

On the way home to Canada, Dawes stopped in London to visit a cousin. She met a young man and returned a year later to marry him. Eva Dawes Spink died in England in 2009, aged 96. As one of the last medalists surviving from the ’32 Games, she was asked her opinion about the Olympics. She said she had lost interest in an event that had become about money, not fun.

The Olympics finally were held in Barcelona in 1992. The track events were held in the stadium reserved for the People’s Olympics. It had since been renamed after Companys, a Republican martyr.

On occasion, Luftspring was asked if he ever regretted the decision to boycott Hitler, even at the cost of a possible Olympic medal. He did not. In fact, it was a source of pride.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Should We Cancel Canada Day Celebrations This Year?

Take this week's poll