By Jacob Miller
The Running Aces, Ida Crown’s cross country team, attended a practice at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in September, where they heard from a Holocaust survivor and then ran through the Skokie forest preserve adjacent to the museum. The practice, which took place Erev Yom Kippur, was organized by Cross Country Coach Ezra Jaffe to teach athletes about having a “strong heart and strong will.” Tova Kahan, a cross country athlete, said the practice was “motivational and added purpose to participating in sports.”
Ellie Merar, a Holocaust survivor born in Germany, spoke at the practice, describing her experiences during the war. Ellie grew up in Lauterecken, Germany, and attended public school where she was one of only two Jewish girls. At school, students completed classes in ‘raciology’ and were taught hate and how to stereotype people. Ellie was ostracized by the rest of her class, who participated in Hitler Youth. “I often felt like ‘please open up a pit and let me fall in,’ or ‘please find me a rug and let me crawl under,” Ellie said about her childhood during the war.
During the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany, when Hitler refused to shake Jesse Owens hand because he was black, Ellie’s school held mini-Olympics for the students’ entertainment. Ellie was selected to run a race and was pitted against the tallest girl in school. Although no one admitted it outright, Ellie was intentionally chosen to race the tallest girl to reinforce Nazi stereotypes that depicted Jews as weak and helpless. Ellie lost the race.
Ellie eventually moved to France, but returned to Germany when it appeared likely Hitler would invade France. Her family obtained visas to the United States and moved to Chicago, where her father found work.
Generations later, Ida Crown students challenge Jewish stereotypes about being weak by competing athletically against local schools.
Coach Jaffe told the Running Aces at the practice, “You are in a unique position as an athlete at Ida Crown. People talk about the dual curriculum, but you also get to go out and beat schools like Saint Patrick. You can be the strong Jews who wear kippot and skirts and congratulate the other team.”