More than 2,000 Jewish athletes from 42 countries and thousands of spectators gathered at a stadium in the Hungarian capital for the opening of the 15th European Maccabi Games.
This year’s games, which takes place at several venues, includes 20 categories, including swimming, chess, fencing, football and boxing. It was the first time since the first European Maccabi Games in 1929 in Prague that Central Europe hosted the event.
The United States was not far behind with about 150 athletes, followed by France, South Africa and Germany. Among the smaller delegations, with fewer than 10 athletes, was that of North Macedonia, where the Nazis killed more than 98 percent of the Jewish community – their highest death rate anywhere. Andorra, a tiny principality bordering on Spain, sent two athletes, as did Poland.
Some of the athletes marched in the stadium with their children riding on their shoulders. The French delegation’s enthusiastic entrance featured athletes riding on the shoulders of other athletes. And the Dutch delegation, wearing the national color orange, had its own drummer.
The opening ceremony was attended by Hungarian President Janos Ader, Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Galant and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder.
András Heisler, President of MAZSIHISZ, the country’s EJC affiliate addressed the ceremony, expressing his hope that the Games will deliver the Hungarian Jewish community’s pride and greatness into the world.
Following the raising of the Hungarian flag and the singing of the Hungarian anthem, the crowd joined in the singing of Hatikva.
After the delegations’ entrance, the games’ ceremonial flame was lit by one of the world’s best chess players, Judit Polgar. A Hungarian descendant of Holocaust survivors, Polgar, a 43-year-old mother of two, became a grandmaster at the age of 15, at the time the youngest to attain the title, beating the record of former world champion Bobby Fischer.
“What’s special about Maccabi games is that participation is important here, not just winning,” Polgar, who has participated in several European Maccabi Games in the past, wrote in a statement ahead of the opening.
Addressing both the devastating effect of the Holocaust on Hungarian Jewry and the fact that Hungary’s first Olympic champion, swimmer Alfred Hajos, was Jewish, Polgar added: “The games represent the past, the present and the future.”
Agnes Keleti, a 98-year-old Hungary-born Israeli gymnast who has won 10 Olympic medals including five gold medals, also attended the ceremony.
During the event, a rabbi recited the Yizkor mourning prayer, mentioning Jewish athletes who were murdered in the Holocaust, among other victims.