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How to Love a Nazi
The Friendship of Jesse Owens and Luz Long
In Open Letter to a Young Negro, Jesse Owens, the black American who won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games, said this about Luz Long:
He was a white man—a Nazi white man who fought to destroy my country. I loved Luz Long, as much as my own brothers. I still love Luz Long.
How did this happen? For the friendship between Jesse Owens and Luz Long was not only forged in the competition of the Berlin Olympics, but it also survived being on opposite sides of World War 2 and stood firm even through death.
The Simulated Battleground of the 1936 Olympic Games
Hitler had gotten his house in order. To show the world that Germany could outdo the 1932 Olympics, Hitler built a huge 100,000-seat stadium, along with lots of other smaller arenas. The first televised Olympics was to show the triumph of Hitler’s master race and the truth of Nazi propaganda.
The vagaries of the Nazi’s racial biases now seem comical. For example, the Nazis considered Indians as Indo-Aryans so there were no controversies surrounding their victories. But an organ of the Nazi party, Völkisch Observer, called for the refusal of blacks and Jews to participate.
After vigorous debate, the United States agreed to send its athletes to compete, partly because black victories would serve to undermine Nazi propaganda. Jesse Owens ended up winning four gold medals and setting two world records, but his victory in the long jump became unsure early on. In fact, Owens almost didn’t qualify for the main event.
Enter Luz Long.
The Beginning of a Friendship
Long was one of those strapping German youths who epitomized Hitler’s ideal. Tall, sandy-haired, and blue-eyed. He had already won the German long jump championship three times and would go on to win it three more times.
Long’s first jump during the trials broke an Olympic record. Owens’s first jump, on the other hand, was a foul. His foot had slipped past the takeoff board. He played it safe on the second jump. Too safe. His distance wouldn’t qualify him for the main event.
He had one more jump to make to qualify.
But he began to panic. He started to feel faint and breath became shallow. The chanting of the crowed congealed into a drone that hammered his head. He wasn’t ready. He would fail!
In the midst of this chaos someone grabbed his arm. It was Luz Long.
“Hello, Jesse Owens,” he said. “I am Luz Long.” Owens didn’t answer. He only nodded. “Look,” Long said. “There is no time to waste with manners. What has taken your goat?” He had mixed up the idiom and Owens had to smile.
“I know how it is,” Long said. “But I also know you are a better jumper than this. Now you must jump. And you must qualify.” Long gave Owens a few tips about re-measuring his steps from six inches off the foul line and go 100% so he wouldn’t have to worry about a foul.
The simple advice brought clarity back to Owens’s mind. The panic lifted. Owens qualified.
Owens and Long became inseparable, having conversations in the Olympic village every evening, even about contentious topics like Hitler’s racial policies. Owens couldn’t believe how Long could go along with Hitler. Long couldn’t understand how the United States, with their own racial problems, could point fingers.
But they found they had more in common than not. They both had uncertainties about how to transition to civilian life after their athletic careers. Owens had a wife and a young daughter. Long had a wife and a young son. And on and on. Many nights, they stayed up longer than Olympic competitors should have.
Every time Owens competed, Long was there on the sideline cheering him on. Except for the long jump. There, Long became his fiercest competitor.
Forged in Competition
Hitler watched as Long jumped his final jump and failed to beat Owens by a handful of inches. As soon as Long realized he had only gotten second place, he jumped up, raced over to Owens, and walked him over to stands while holding up his arm.
“Jesse Owens,” Long shouted. “Jesse Owens!” The crowd took up the chant while Hitler glared. For the remainder of the games, the German crowds would continue to cheer on Jesse Owens every time he competed.
Owens and Long vowed to keep in touch by letter and they did. They wrote each other back and forth for three years, even through the first year of World War 2. But things got harder and harder for Long and the letters were never as happy as the times they spent at the Olympic games. Several times he expressed doubt over what he was doing, but he worried about his wife and son.
Owens received Long’s last letter in 1939.
The Last Letter
Luz Long was stationed in North Africa when Owens received his final letter. This is the text:
I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father. My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war is done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we were not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.
If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true. That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer. Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade. And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship. I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about.
This is what I have to tell you, Jesse. I think I might believe in God. And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.
Your brother, Luz
Luz Long was killed in 1943.
After the war, Jesse Owens went to Germany, found Karl, and told him about his father. He told Karl how things could be between men on earth. He told him that, even though the gulf seems insurmountable and filled with buckets and buckets of shed blood, true men can rise so high that it seems like they are flying over it. Luz Long was such a man.
Owens went on to be the best man at Karl’s wedding, and the two remained friends.
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