Gymnast Who Witnessed History – Hitler Refusing to Shake Jesse Owens’ Hand

Hildegard Fraser

Gymnast who witnessed Hitler refusing to shake Jesse Owens’ hand at 1936 Games to take part in second Olympics… in 2012 torch ceremony

By JONATHAN BROCKLEBANK
Last updated at 7:42 PM on 10th February 2012

As a gymnast at the closing ceremony of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin she witnessed one of the most notorious scenes in the Games’ history.

Hildegard Fraser had just turned 13 and had no idea why Adolf Hitler had refused to shake the hand of black athlete Jesse Owens, who had just won four gold medals.

Hildegard Fraser

Now, 76 years on, German-born Mrs Fraser is looking forward to her second Olympics – this time as a torch carrier in a ceremonial procession to mark the 2012 Games in London.

The 88-year-old grandmother, who has lived in Forres, Morayshire, for the last 60 years after marrying a Scottish soldier she met during World War 2, says she is thrilled to be back on Olympics duty after such a long break.

Back in 1936 she had no idea her country was on the brink of a world war sparked by the Nazi leader who, in her naivete, she admired at the time.

But her memories of the day remain fond. The performance she and around 1000 other gymnasts delivered on August 16, 1936, was a highlight of the first ever closing ceremony and she was thrilled to be chosen to be part of it.

She said: “Back then, I remember mostly Hitler moving away when Jesse Owens got all his prizes at the podium.”

I saw Jesse Owens go towards Hitler, and then Hitler got out of his way and walked away from him. We didn’t understand at the time that it was because of his colour.

I do remember some booing but it wasn’t enormous.’

She added: “We had trained for a full year and it was the first time gymnastic movements played to music was performed. To be chosen from thousands of schools in Germany made me feel very proud.”

This year Mrs Fraser will take part in Moray’s Olympic Flame Trail, organised by the Walk, Jog, Run Moray Partnership after it emerged the real Olympic Torch would only be passing through Tomintoul – some 67 miles away.

The pensioner will complete around 100 metres of the Forres leg in June with the aid of her daughter, Patsy Fraser-Mackenzie.

Mrs Fraser said: “It is very exciting, just like back in 1936.”

Both her parents, Richard and Klara Melke, were gymnasts, but the couple feared their daughter may be left unable even to walk when, at 20 months, she broke her neck after toppling from a treadle sewing machine.

She spent most of the next year in hospital, but gymnastics later restored her movement and the strength in her neck muscles returned.

At 12 she was her school’s top gymnast and won selection for the finale of the 1936 Games.

But it was the years which followed that truly shaped Mrs Fraser’s life. At the outbreak of war, her father, a sergeant in the German Army, was called into action. Her mother fled Berlin for the country when the bombs started to fall on the city and her sister, Traudi, went into the Women’s Land Army.

When a bombed-out family was moved into the Melke family home, young Hildegard left for the Rhineland with a friend in search of work.

On the trek to Essen, she dodged Allied planes flying low overhead by jumping through a window. She still has a large scar on her arm from the narrow escape.

She said: “We were running towards an old house for shelter and the window was cracked, so I just pushed it and jumped through. There was no hospital. We just tied a piece of cloth around it.”

In the spa town of Bad Oeynhausen was where she encountered her future husband, Lewis Fraser.

She said: “The British soldiers surrounded the town with barbed wire. They came into the villages with a megaphone and said, “Come and get a hot meal if you come and work for us.” That meant a hell of a lot.

She said the first time she was attracted to the Scot straight away – despite his initial distrust of her and her friend.

The first time we met he told us to take our hands out of our pockets because they thought we might have grenades.

The next thing he was saying, come and meet us at seven.

It was a real love story. We communicated by drawing pictures in the sand. He got dictionaries translating English to German and German to English.

I agreed to come back after the war and I was the first German girl to marry in Forres. I initially had a difficult time because of the war, but in the long term it made me stronger.

Her daughter Patsy said: “She was extremely brave, like a lot of other German women who returned with British soldiers.”

Mr. Fraser died in the 1960s but the couple had three daughters, including Patsy, who set up an award-winning gymnastics school in Forres.

Patsy said: “She has always been active until a knee operation in 2009. But she is looking forward to carrying the torch.”

This is a syndicated post by JONATHAN BROCKLEBANK originally posted at the Daily Mail Online.

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