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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Fisher explors Nazi effect on homosexuality in tennis

Published: November 8, 2009
Section: Sports

Brandies alum and recent sports novelist Marshall Jon Fisher ’85 presented his new novel “A Terrible Splendor” Tuesday in Usdan Student Center’s International Lounge. The book focuses on tennis players and what is historically of the one of the greatest matches of all time.

Hosted by the Center for German and European Studies, the event entitled “Homophobia, Anti-Semitism and Tennis” presented a narrative of historical athletic fiction—the story of the interaction of these three disparate ideas during one exciting sports championship.

The presentation was a unique venture on the part of the German-European center and other groups, including Triskelion and the Brandeis tennis team. The event was “the first time the center teamed up with Women and Gender Studies and the Tennis Club,” Professor Sabine von Mering (GRALL), the center’s director, said.

“A Terrible Splendor,” details the Davis Cup match between American Don Budge and German Baron Gottfried von Cramm in 1937. In addition, it portrays the conflicts of the American tennis champion and the then coach of the Nazi German international team, Bill Tilden.

Fisher’s presentation described the lives both as gay men and athletes n their respective contries at the beginning of World War II. The Baron von Cramm’s tennis partner, moreover, was removed from the German Davis Cup team because of his Jewish ancestry.

Fisher made clear his goals in writing his new book, seeking to differentiate it from any sports piece. “There are a lot of great matches, but I always wanted the meaning of the book to be more than that, with political background and high personal stakes of the players,” Fisher said.

The author presented his work as enlightening to the sports community and revealing of Western society as a whole. “Many people knew about the Nuremberg laws against the Jews [and homosexuals], but many people looked the other way,” Fisher said.

The presentation made clear that Tilden, who dominated tennis in the 1920s, and von Cramm escaped ridicule and ostracizing because they were excellent tennis players. However, they were only great while they were winning.

“A month after his [and Budge’s] famous match, von Cramm was arrested by the Nazis on ‘morals charges,’ believed to be homosexuality,” Fisher said. Tilden was also arrested twice throughout his life in the United States, though in his case both times were for relations with young boys.

The suprising moment of “Splendor,” is that von Cramm survived a low-security Nazi prison, served reluctantly in the German army, and was one of the few members of his brigade to survive the bloody Eastern front.

After the war, he continued to gain wins for Germany in international tennis and rose above persecution for his lifestyle.

The intersection of sports and discrimination was not lost on the writer. “Tilden [and von Cramm] were homosexuals when that wasn’t even something you could talk about,” Fisher said.

Fisher also spoke to the presentation’s audience about his joy of writing and the need for a topic in which the author can be involved.

“This is my first solo book for adults, and it’s a subject I love. I’ve written things that have felt like work, but this was near to my heart—the pre-war era in Germany—and I had a great time researching and writing,” he said.

In introducing the event, von Mering highlighted the importance of works such as Fisher’s to the Brandeis community.

“I’ve read the book, and it’s like a very exciting tennis match in itself,” she said, adding, “It’s about resilience in the face of adversity, so it is a really a logical book for a Brandeis alum to write.”

Students were surprised but pleased at the seemingly different groups’ joint presentation.

Even the Center for German and European Studies director had much to learn from the diverse presentation. “I’ve read so many books on that period,” von Mering said, “but to look at it from the angles of tennis and homosexuality was very powerful.”