In the midst of preparation, the 17th Maccabiah volunteer department received one emotional letter: "My father is alive because of you," wrote 53-year-old Euromart Managing Director Yoram Hirschler. "He was saved from the Holocaust and started a family. I now feel indebted to volunteer and help you."
The Hirschler story in fact began 70 year earlier, in 1935, the year of the second Maccabiah. Yona Oigen Hirschler, then 22, was one of the biggest water polo players in Hungary. Trying to get accepted to the Hungarian team, he was rejected by the German organizer, who said that Jews cannot join.
Yona then joined the Maccabi Bar-Kochva Club, where only Jews competed. This was the first time he encountered an athletic organization that included only Jews.
"I was a defense player," Yona remembers now, at 92. "My job was to prevent the conquest of the goalposts," he said, standing up to show how long his arms are.
'They put a cap on me and threw me in water'
At that time Yona received the invitation from Palestine; the Yishuv, the Jewish community here, wanted him to participate in the second Maccabiah on the local team.
"He was the first Israeli purchased player," Yoram said.
But the way to Palestine was not simple; to get permission to leave Hungary in 1935 was impossible, and as a last resort, Yona turned to the police in Budapest.
"By chance, the station commander was someone I knew, who had coached us in the past," he said. "He asked me, 'Yona, what are you doing here? You should be competing in Palestine.' He immediately sent me to a high-ranking officer in the Athletics Department, and they gave me permission.
Yona arrived in Jaffa on the passenger ship "Jerusalem." He was immediately brought to Haifa, where the water polo competitions took place. Before he had time to rest or eat, he was put to work.
"They put the Israel cap on my head and practically threw me into the water," he said. "I introduced myself to the teammates and began playing. We played against the Libyan team, and we won. From that point on my life revolved around the pool and around Israel."
'I would have fallen into Nazis' hands'
Hirschler decided not to return to Hungary, also because the Nazis gained power.
"If it was not for the Maccabiah, I would have stayed in the Hungarian army like my brother, who disappeared without a trace, or would have fallen in the hands of the Nazis later," he said. "Here I started a family and devoted my life to Maccabi ever since. I lived for the pool and the sport."
Yona, who studied textile manufacturing in Czechoslovakia, found a job in a factory and a cloth-coloring workshop in Tel Aviv. The pool that he chose to swim in was the watering pool of an orchard. Since then it has been replaced by a shopping mall and City Hall.
Yona soon became one of the founders of the Future Maccabim Union, an organization that encouraged young athletes, which is not active anymore. He used his skills to coach and create a new generation of swimmers and water polo players.
Some of the union's athletes even reached the Olympics, including Nachum Boch (Helsinki, 1952,) Yoav Raanan, Shoshana Rivner (Melbourne, 1956) and Ami Trauber (Rome, 1960.)
There he also met his wife Truda, who ran away from Nazi Austria in 1938. They got married about a year after meeting in Tel Aviv, and recently celebrated their 60th anniversary.
"I believe that it saved our lives," Truda, 84, said. "Swimming was a way of life."
Second generation gives back
The couple had three children, Daniel, Yoram and Dorit. Yoram's daughter, Meirav, was the Israeli swimming champion in the 12-13 age group in the 200-meter medley. His 2-year-old grandchild, Yoav, is already a fourth generation swimmer.
Yoram can be found on weekend evening in the Maccabiah "war room." He is not satisfied by volunteering, though, and recruits volunteers as well.
"I owe this, in a way, to what saved my parents," he said. "Once people were there for my father, now it is my turn. It is the little that I can contribute."
The volunteer department of the Maccabiah has recruited an unprecedented number of volunteers, who will be performing various tasks according to their abilities.