As International Holocaust Day is commemorated around the world on January 27th, it was less than there weeks ago on January 9th, 2021, that Holocaust survivor and former professional gymnast Agnes Keleti became the oldest living Olympic champion at 100 years old. Keleti began her Olympic career with the Hungarian gymnastics club in 1940, before being kicked off the team the following year for being Jewish. The story of Keleti’s success would feature quite a few similarly religion-charged disputes before eventual Olympic success.
Following Keleti’s 1941 expulsion from the Hungarian gymnastics club, the talented athlete was forced into hiding as World War II, and its fearful implications on those who identified as Jewish, became more inescapable. The Hungarian countryside served as an asylum for Keleti as she waited out the war working as a maid under a false Christian identity. However, her father was not as fortunate and was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Following the war Keleti continued her gymnastics career, accumulating ten Olympic medals for the Hungarian club, five of which were gold. In 1957 Keleti moved to Israel, where she first competed in the 1957 Maccabiah games before eventually becoming a coach for Israel’s national gymnastics team.
Nowadays Keleti is back in Hungary, a walking century-old inspiration to both gymnasts and Jewish people across the world. One of the most successful Jewish women in Olympic history, Keleti has created a global legacy despite beginning her professional career with a club that deemed her religion a deal-breaker.
In the year 2021, we have reached a point in which many of those who survived the Holocaust are no longer living, and the few that remain are sparse and likely nearing the final stages of their lives. The lack of remaining survivors makes Keleti’s recent 100th birthday a milestone to celebrate not only for the Hungarian legend but for Jews everywhere. Keleti is an inspiration because despite the anti-semitism that threatened not only her career but her life, she, just as the Jewish people, have prevailed.
Recently a brand new book about Keleti’s life was published by the Hungarian Gymnastics Federation entitled, Because I Love Life – The Queen of Gymnastics, 100 years of Agnes Keleti. The book features 300 photographs and goes through the story of Keleti’s life with 36 interviews from former teammates, family members along with students and friends from Israel, Hungary, the United States and other countries around the world.
As Keleti said in a recent interview, “I live well, and it’s great that I’m still healthy. I love life.” That should he a lesson to us all as one who not only survived the Holocaust but also lives life to its fullest.