PARIS — While strapping youths from many a land battled on the clay at Roland Garros, there were shadows of other battles, other wars.
The echoes of WWII still sound, however softly, in this game. Old-timers will remind you that the Roland Garros complex itself was used as an internment camp during the Paris occupation. Similarly, German Boris Becker once spoke of WWII camps. His German mother, a Jew, was held in a labor camp in Czechoslovakia.
And just last year, RG champ Svetlana Kuznetsova connected the seemingly distant dots between the (60 years ago) war and the astounding success of Russian tennis.
Last year, when six of the eight quarterfinalists were Eastern Euros, Kuznetsova suggested, “The war made [a] big change in everybody — even to this point…[We Russians] work hard to have a different mentality — completely…It’s not only coming when we grow up [that] it was so difficult. It’s also coming through the war, because our grandparents were fighting in the war and things were extremely hard. They had to go with nothing, without maybe bullets, only with knife…They teach their kids to be always strong.”
Another player who’s been strong of late is Israeli Shahar Peer. She was infamously denied a visa last year by the United Arab Emirates and therefore couldn’t play the Dubai tournament. This year, amidst astounding security (she had an ENTIRE hotel floor to herself), she beat top seed Caroline Wozniacki en route to the semis. Earlier in the year, protesters, seeking rights for Palestinians, emphatically made their feelings known at her matches.
Through all of this, the former secretary in the Israeli military remained zealously apolitical. But recently, her grandmother — a Holocaust survivor — opened up. Like soldiers, Holocaust survivors are often reluctant to remember and recall. It’s just too painful. Call it disassociation. But, for whatever reason, Peer’s grandmother at last told of her harrowing war years and in April. Peer, her mom and grandma were invited to the annual March of the Living in Poland.
In just slightly tattered jeans and carrying an Israeli flag, flanked by ambassadors, rabbis and her family, the tennis player led a procession of 10,000 who (in the shadow of the infamous Auschwitz sign, “work makes you free”) recalled the devastation.
After Peer’s first round win in Paris, Inside Tennis chatted with the Israeli, who spoke of Poland and revealed her grandmother’s extraordinary history.
INSIDE TENNIS: You had an incredible experience in Poland.
SHAHAR PEER: It was amazing. We were there, three generations — me, my mom and my grandma. To see my grandma going back to where she was when she was 14-years old, it was quite amazing to lead the March of the Living with 10,000 people behind us. For me, it was very emotional and I was excited to see my grandma going to where she had been and [hearing] her stories. It’s very important. We are a very small country, but we went through so many things. They always say the Holocaust survivors never really tell the stories. So I only heard in part, but never from the first day to the end…So then when we were there she was talking a little more about. I knew kind of what was happening, but some stories you don’t even get it. She was saying that she they walked for days and it was minus 30 degrees and they were in the snow for two days with no food and with only one dress, like short dress, no underwear, no nothing and barefoot, so it’s like how can a person survive from this? It’s amazing how much power they have.
IT: Was this through the woods or to escape?
SP: No, no. They [the Nazis] were moving them from one concentration camp to another.
IT: Last year, Kuznetsova spoke of how the hardships of World War II somehow have helped the Russian players. Do the experiences of Israel…
SP: I’m just 23 and I have experience so many things in my career already — the good things and the bad. But, of course, you cannot forget the history of Israel and what our country went through and what we are still going through. It’s just incredible how much strength we have as a country and how much power we have. So I guess that’s what helps me out on the court sometimes when I come out of nowhere.