Holocaust Survivor and Olympic Champion Agnes Keleti Turns 100! by ShareGood Author David Weiss
Born on January 9th, 1921 in Budapest, Hungary, Agnes Keleti is a hero to gymnastics fans worldwide for her love of life and her priceless words of inspiration. But Keleti’s ten Olympic medals are just a small part of her life’s journey.
Agnes Keleti survived the Holocaust by purchasing and using a false set of identification documents. She left Budapest and used her new identity to work as a maid in a small Hungarian village. Keleti later worked in an ammunition factory until her liberation. Her mother and sister were saved by the work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who has been recognized for saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Unfortunately, Agnes Keleti’s father and uncles were murdered at Auschwitz. In all, over 500,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, with just over half that number surviving.
A five-time Olympic gold medalist with three silver and two bronze medals, Agnes Keleti’s 100th birthday was January 9th, 2021. Although she spent many years in Israel, Keleti’s life has come full-circle and she celebrated her 100th birthday at her home in downtown Budapest.
Keleti began training in gymnastics when she was four years old, but she did not compete until she was sixteen-years old. Even as a child, Agnes Keleti was more concerned about collecting experiences than awards.
After the war and the tragedy of the Holocaust, Keleti returned to gymnastics and began winning tournaments throughout Hungary. An ankle injury prevented her from competing at the 1948 Olympics but she was back at the Olympic Games in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland. Keleti won one gold medal as well as a silver and two bronze medals. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Keleti won four gold and two silver medals. She was thirty-one-years-old in 1952 and thirty-five-years-old in 1956, much older than her opponents and teammates. But Keleti’s time in Australia was memorable for more than her Olympic accomplishments.
While she was in Australia, a rebellion in Hungary was brutally suppressed by the Soviet military. Almost half of all Hungarian Olympic athletes, including Keleti, appealed to the Australian government for asylum. Their request was granted. Keleti had already begun planning her possible defection from Hungary even before leaving Budapest for the Melbourne Olympics. She hated the communist way of life and was further motivated to defect when she was asked by the government to spy on her teammates. The extreme violence by the Soviets in Hungary was the last straw.
In 1957, while Agnes Keleti was in Australia, she received a telegram from her former coach who had moved to Israel. He offered Keleti a coaching and teaching job which she accepted. Keleti also continued her other true love while in Israel, playing the cello. She played cello professionally and continued her training whenever possible.
Upon arriving in Israel, Keleti competed in the Maccabiah Games which allowed Israelis to see her perform in-person for the first time. Soon after, she was able to send for her mother and sister and they were reunited in Israel. In 1959, Ketel married a fellow Israeli-Hungarian physical education teacher, Robert Biro. They had two sons, Daniel and Rafael. She continued to work as a physical education instructor at Tel Aviv University and at the Wingate Institute for Sports. Keleti also used her experience and expertise to help coach Israel’s national gymnastics team all the way until the mid-1990’s.
When asked about her many accomplishments, Keleti said “It’s not the medals that are significant. It’s the experiences that came with them. I loved gymnastics because it allowed me to travel for free”. Keleti also deflects talk about her accomplishments and about the past in general. She would rather talk about the future and the endless ways to enrich and improve our personal journey.
What is Keleti’s advice for the generations that follow her? “Children should learn about the joy of life”. Keleti also wants young children to do a variety of activities and not focus solely on gymnastics. Keleti said “It’s the children’s minds that should be developed more. Not their bodies”. When asked how she developed her mind during her long, phenomenal life, Keleti said “I studied languages and I saw the world”.
Agnes Keleti has remained spirited and humble while inspiring future generations. How can we further her legacy? We can take Agnes Keleti’s great advice and Spend time learning about the joys of life and seeking out new, enlightening experiences.
Want to see more of Agnes Keleti? Take a look at these youtube videos;
**Pics are compliments of March of the Living**
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