With all the sad, dispiriting stories that have been dominating the news recently, we could all appreciate a “feel good” story. Well, the following is such a story. It is a story about courage, endurance, will, survival, and the determination to never give up, never surrender one’s dream. It is the story of a Hungarian woman who survived the Holocaust and went on to become the most successful Jewish female athlete in Olympic history as well as a positive influence on others.
Agnes Keleti was born Agnes Klein on January 9, 1921 in Budapest, Hungary. She commenced gymnastics at the tender age of four. Through a combination of hard work, dedication and natural talent, by sixteen she was the Hungarian national champion. She was a “shoo-in” for the 1940 Olympics and, possibly, an Olympic medal or two. But, as we know, WWII intervened, and there were no Olympics contested in either 1940 or 1944. It appeared as though Agnes’ gymnastics Olympic career was over before it started.
Moreover, early in the War the Nazis invaded Hungary, and Anna’s focus shifted from gymnastics to survival. Anna managed to avoid being sent to a concentration camp. (Her mother and sister survived by going into hiding and, eventually, were saved by Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, whose exploits saving Jews were legendary. Her father was not so fortunate. He was killed at Auschwitz.) Anna’s survival involved some luck, but also skill. First of all, having heard that married women were not being sent to concentration camps, she married Istvan Sarkany, a Hungarian national champion gymnast who had competed in the 1936 Olympics. (They divorced in 1950.) In addition, she managed to purchase documents that identified her as a Christian and was able to find work at various low profile jobs, such as a furrier and as a maid in a small village off the beaten track. Towards the end of the War she had the gruesome job of going around Budapest every morning collecting the bodies of those who had died in the streets the previous night.
After the war, Anna was on track to compete in the 1948 Olympics and made the Hungarian team, but was unable to do so due to injury. Nevertheless, she was awarded a silver medal when the team finished second in the team all-around. Since she would be 31 at the next Olympics, which is old for a gymnast, it appeared her Olympic career was over. However, she did not give up. She made the 1952 Olympic team and won four medals in Helsinki, including gold on the floor exercise. She continued to train, and in 1956 in Melbourne at the age of 35 she became the oldest female gymnast to win a gold medal. She won gold medals in three of the four events and silver in the all-around. Overall, she won ten medals in her Olympic career — six gold, three silver, and one bronze, plus three additional medals at the 1954 World Championships.
In a final twist of fate, while she was competing in Melbourne, the Soviets invaded Hungary. Being in Australia already, Anna was able to gain political asylum. She remained in Australia until 1957 when she emigrated to Israel. Eventually, her mother and sister were able to join her there.
In Israel, Anna coached the national Israeli gymnastics team, and she taught physical education at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sport for many years. During this time she not only imparted her knowledge, skills and training methods to generations of athletes, but she also upgraded the training equipment considerably. Her strong influence on gymnastics is exemplified by one former student who is now a colleague who characterized Anna as “the foundation stone of gymnastics in Israel.”
Anna was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, the Hungarian Sports HOF in 1991 and the International Gymnastics HOF in 2002.
Anna has remarried and lives in Israel with her husband and two sons.