interesting Jews in history, parts I and II

MARIA GOROKHOVSKAYA was a Soviet gymnast of Jewish descent. She participated in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, the first Olympic Games that the Soviet Union chose to attend.

Prior to 1952, the Soviets had considered the Olympics too “bourgeoisie.” However, by the 50s, the USSR changed its tune, seeing the sports arena as an opportunity to prove the dominance of Communism. However, the Soviets had to change public perception if they were to convince the population, so they engaged in heavy propaganda campaigns.

At the same time, the early 50s were the most dangerous period for Jews in the USSR, with Stalin planning a “purge” of the Jewish population (thankfully this never came to fruition due to his death in 1953). Had Gorokhovskaya performed poorly and her Jewish heritage been discovered, she would’ve been in grave danger, as she would’ve been accused of sabotaging the Soviet Olympic effort.

Thankfully, she won 7 medals — the most medals won by a woman in a single Olympics to this day.

Gorokhovskaya immigrated to Israel in 1990, where she worked as a gymnastics coach until her death in 2001.

 

MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD was a Jewish doctor and sexologist in Weimar Germany. Being a gay man himself, he is best known for advocating for sexual minorities at a time when doing so put him in grave danger. He founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which advocated for gay and transgender rights. 

Hirschfeld is also known for being one of the doctors that overlooked the first gender-confirmation surgeries.

Because he was Jewish and gay, Hirschfeld was beaten up in the 1920s and was later persecuted by the Nazis. In 1933, his institute was sacked and its books burned, causing him to flee. Initially he hoped to move to the United States, but he was received with hostility due to his homosexuality. He died in France in 1935. 

 

SULOCHANA (also known as Ruby Myers) was a Baghdadi Jewish Bollywood actress who debuted in silent films in the 1920s. Because Hindu and Muslim women were prohibited from acting at the time as it was considered immodest, many of the first Bollywood female stars were of Jewish descent.

Sulochana even started her own film studio in the 1930s and was one of the highest paid actors of her time. 

She died in Mumbai in 1983. 

 

HANNAH SZENES was a Jewish poet and recruit from Mandate (British) Palestine who was parachuted into Yugoslavia during WWII to try to rescue the Hungarian Jews that were to be deported to Auschwitz.

Szenes was born in Hungary and immigrated to British Palestine in 1939 to study at the Girls’ Agricultural School in Nahalal. In 1943, she enlisted into the British army and completed her parachute training in Egypt.

In 1943, Szenes and her crew parachuted into Yugoslavia to join a partisan (resistance) group. However, it wasn’t until they landed that they learned the Germans had already occupied Hungary, so the men decided to call off their mission. 

Szenes, however, continued toward the Hungarian border, where she was caught, arrested, and tortured. She was executed by firing squad in 1944. 

 

EMMA LAZARUS was a Sephardic Jewish poet and activist born in New York City. One of her poems, “The New Colossus,” is inscribed on a bronze plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Seeing the antisemitic violence that ravaged her Jewish counterparts in late 1800s Russia, Lazarus became a fierce advocate for Jewish immigration to the United States. She helped provide vocational training to help poverty-stricken Jewish immigrants become self-sufficient. Lazarus was also a Zionist, advocating for Jewish self-determination in Ottoman Palestine. 

Lazarus died in New York in 1887. 

 

LEILA MURAD was a an Egyptian Jewish singer and actress and one of the biggest superstars in the Arab world in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. 

Though Murad converted to Islam, her Jewish descent became a contentious issue in the Arab world, resulting in numerous boycotts of her work. At one point, even the Syrian government boycotted her films. She was baselessly accused of spying and many suggested that she should be expelled from Egypt and deported to Israel. 

In the 1960s and 70s, as the situation for Egyptian Jews worsened, her own brother was detained and arrested, though Murad never visited him in prison. 

She died in 1995. 

 

TAAMRAT EMMANUEL was a Beta Israel (Ethiopian) Jewish rabbi, professor, and intellectual and an influential part of the Jewish Enlightenment Movement in the late 1800s. He staunchly opposed the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. He was fascinated by Ashkenazi culture and was highly suspicious of those in power. 

In the early 1920s, Emmanuel relocated to British Palestine. When he returned to Ethiopia, he became the director of a Jewish school that trained teachers. He translated the Matzhaf Cadoussa — the scriptures of the Beta Israel community — into Amharic, making it more accessible for all to understand.  

Emmanuel died in 1963. 

 

PRIMO LEVI was an Italian Jewish chemist, writer, partisan (resistance fighter), and Holocaust survivor. He wrote a book called If This is a Man about his time in Auschwitz and a highly regarded scientific book, The Periodic Table.

Because of his science background and the fact that he paid another inmate in bread to receive German lessons, Levi was able to secure work in a laboratory during his time at Auschwitz, meaning that he didn’t have to work in the freezing cold temperatures. This is how he was able to survive. After the Holocaust, Levi spent time in a Soviet camp before he embarked on another journey back to Italy. 

Following the Holocaust, Levi suffered from serious bouts of depression, though at the time the link between depression and trauma was not well-understood. Though Levi sought treatment from doctors for his condition, nothing really seemed to help. 

In 1987, Levi died by falling out the window from a third-story apartment building. Because of his depression and trauma, it’s suspected that he might have purposefully taken his own life. Fellow Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later.” 

Some of his friends have disagreed with that assessment, claiming that his fall was accidental.