And now the “the rest of the story” to last week’s Slice of Life column.
To honor Black History Month, last week’s column featured the inspiring true story of African-American Olympian Jesse Owens and the unlikely friendship that he developed with German long-jumper, Luz Long, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A discouraged Owens had failed his first two trial attempts to qualify for the Finals in the long jump, and Long, who had been closely observing, walked up and explained that he was jumping too late and that Owens make a new takeoff mark with a towel about a foot before the takeoff board. With that advice, Owens easily qualified for the Finals on his last try, and ultimately went on to set a new record and win the Gold, with Luz Long earning silver. Hitler hoped to use the Berlin Olympics as propaganda to promote his wicked Nazi cause of racial “superiority”– however, Long and Owens foiled that plan. They walked arm in arm around the stadium to a wildly cheering crowd.
The new friends stayed connected after the Games, referring to each other as “brothers.” Long was killed during the Battle of St Pietro in Italy in December 1943 but wrote a letter to Owens before he died. Although English is not his native tongue, his touching words contain the deep emotion he needed to share with his friend:
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 am honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is 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
Owens did deliver that message to Long’s son Karl and continued to correspond with Long’s family. The tragic irony of war is heartbreaking. “Brothers,” as Luz referred to Jesse–yet on different “sides.” Very sadly, this past week’s turn of events in Eastern Europe makes today’s column is even more timely than I’d anticipated.
My brother and his family live in the Czech Republic. I asked him on a Zoom call today how things are going there in Eastern Europe for them, as Ukraine is under siege by Russia. He told of the refugees fleeing Ukraine, with many more surely to come. He said he and his wife tell their young girls that it is Putin, not the good Russian people, who are waging war against the innocent people of Ukraine
We must, all of us, teach our children, as Luz Long asked Jesse Owens to tell his young son:
“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.”
Luz Long was awarded The True Spirit of Sportsmanship Award posthumously in 1964 for suggesting Owens make that takeoff mark about a foot before the takeoff board. View footage of that remarkable record-setting long jump (link below,)and see the friendship expressed between the two, before a cheering crowd.
Note: Luz Long’s letter to Jesse Owens from“Letters of Note”. Retrieved 2022-02/06
Telefunken and Fernseh broadcasted the 1936 Olympics. Clip of the friendly spirit between Owens and Long. (Telefunken and Fernsen © 1936)