By Eliana Rudee, Originally published in the New York Observer
This week, as the sports world focuses on Rio de Janeiro, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, commemorates athletes who may not have earned a gold medal in competition, but certainly possessed hearts of gold.
One of Yad Vashem’s online exhibitions, “The Game of Their Lives,” tells the stories of Righteous Amongst the Nations who devoted their lives to sport. In these stories, sports often served as a bridge between Jewish and non-Jewish people, forging solidarity and friendship. These bonds would later help save Jews from Nazi persecution during the Holocaust, as non-Jewish athletes risked their lives rescuing their Jewish peers. Featured are 10 stories of brave athletes, coaches, instructors and sports reporters who have set an example of what it means to be a hero for today’s Olympic athletes.
One story tells of Ona Žilevičienė, her football player husband Danielius, and his mother, Adolfina. Ona worked at the Vilnius Football Club and often saw a Jewish woman from the ghetto who came to clean the nearby courts with her four-year-old daughter Genia. Ona and her family agreed to take Genia in, as she could pass as her own daughter if inspectors came. Genia stayed with the family, disguised as their daughter, until liberation. Unfortunately, Genia’s family was never heard from again, but Genia survived and immigrated to Israel in 1957.