Yeshiva's Olympic Hero

Reflections on Henry Wittenberg, Olympic Gold Medalist and YU Wrestling Coach

As the 2012 Olympics kick off in London, YUNews looks back at Yeshiva University’s very own London Olympian—a Jewish American wrestler named Henry Wittenberg, who took home the gold in 1948.

Wittenberg, top, won gold at the 1948 London Olympic Games. (© International Olympic Committee )

It was no easy win. Wittenberg, who was 30 at the time, had already missed his prime competitive years—the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were cancelled due to World War II, in which he served in the Navy. At the 1948 London Games, Wittenberg tore muscle tendons in his chest in the semifinals and his coach didn’t want him to wrestle in the final rounds. But the wrestler fought on to win first place in the light heavyweight freestyle competition and received a hero’s welcome upon his return to New York.

Four years later, with a push from his wife, Edith (who wanted to see Finland), Wittenberg would compete again at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and win the silver, becoming the first American wrestler to medal at successive Olympic Games since 1908. He would go on to become Yeshiva University’s first wrestling coach.

“He was a world-class athlete and a world-class person,” said Neil Ellman ’68YC, a member of Wittenberg’s 1968 team who eventually assumed his mantle as YU wrestling coach in 1970. “He never displayed the medals in his house—he kept them all in a drawer. He was all about strength of character.”

Ellman recalled a story he’d heard from Wittenberg’s coach after Wittenberg had been hospitalized for a knee operation: “The doctor told him to do a few leg-lifts in bed to exercise the muscles, thinking Henry would do three or four. The doctor came back to check on him and he’d done 1,000… That’s the type of guy he was. It didn’t matter if it hurt, he had tremendous self-discipline.”

Born in Jersey City, NJ, in 1918, Wittenberg didn’t start out as an athlete. His wrestling career began as an undergraduate at City College, when he first became intrigued with the sport and discovered himself a natural. He eventually went on to go undefeated in more than 300 consecutive wrestling matches.

Wittenberg founded the Yeshiva University wrestling program in 1955.

Wittenberg graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in education and made a name for himself on the New York City Police force. By 1952, he had also won eight Amateur Athletic Union National Wrestling Championships, an American record at the time. In addition to his Olympic medals, Wittenberg came in first place at two Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1950 and 1953, coached the U.S. Greco-Roman team at the 1968 Olympics, contributed articles to Sports Illustrated and Ski Magazine and wrote the best-selling Isometric Exercises.

Wittenberg came to YU in 1955 at the request of the school’s fencing coach, Arthur Tauber, a former Olympian and war hero in his own right. Tauber was in good company.

“In the 1950s, several of our devoted sports teachers, possessed of their own world-class élan, gained recognition beyond the playing courts, stripes and mats of Amsterdam Avenue,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and author of Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports. “In addition to Tauber, Bernard ‘Red’ Sarachek was a coach of coaches, a source of wisdom to men like Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina, who coached the 1976 U.S. Olympic basketball team. Eli Epstein, tennis pro at the Grossinger’s Hotel, lent his expertise to our tennis team… Of course, YU’s most renowned international star athlete would be wrestling coach, Henry Wittenberg.”

Wittenberg brought his Olympic experience to YU in more ways than one. When the wrestling program started, the University didn’t have a wrestling mat, so Wittenberg convinced the US Olympic team to donate theirs. He also revolutionized the way wrestling was taught at Yeshiva. “I did one practice with him after transferring to YU from the University of Tennessee—an NCAA Division I school—where I was on an athletic scholarship, had already made the wrestling team, and was pretty good,” said Ellman. “He told me, ‘You have potential, but you don’t know what you’re doing.’ He then proceeded to make me unlearn everything I knew and relearn it in a new way.”

Most wrestlers at college level or below are trained in folkstyle, allowing wrestlers’ backs to be exposed. But Wittenberg trained his team to wrestle like Olympians—freestyle. “His style made sure you never exposed your back, which cut a better balance for each move,” explained Ellman. There was also something intuitive about Wittenberg’s coaching. “To this day, as coaching becomes more scientific, they all come around to coaching exactly the way he said it should be done.”

Neil Ellman, a Wittenberg protege, has coached YU's wrestling team for 42 years.

For Wittenberg, that meant pushing students to their limits, providing every possible opportunity and standing up for his principles. In the 1960s, he was frequently asked to join the New York Athletic Club, a premier venue for wrestling in New York. This was especially unusual because the club enforced harsh membership restrictions against blacks and Jews at the time, disbanding their track team rather than admitting a black member following a lawsuit. Wittenberg turned down the club’s requests for him to join and coach there.

“He had deep feelings for Judaism as an identity and that was why he came here when he could have coached anywhere in the world,” said Ellman, recalling how Wittenberg arranged extra practices for him at Columbia University. “Columbia never would have let a guy from YU work out there, but when Henry Wittenberg came down to the gym with me to personally shake everyone’s hands, it was ‘sure, whatever you want, Mr. Wittenberg.’”

In 1996, the national Yeshiva high school wrestling tournament held at Yeshiva University was named in Wittenberg’s honor. He died in 2010 at the age of 91.

“A good coach is a cross between a rebbe and a well-liked professor,” said Ellman. “I developed a deep respect and admiration for him and I always knew I could go to him with any problem or issue I had.”

Though Ellman has now been coaching the YU wrestling team for more than 40 years, aspects of Wittenberg’s coaching have stuck with him. “One thing I talked a lot about with him after he left was strategy, manipulating weight, maneuvering your lineup to put forth the strongest team to win,” he said. But in many ways Ellman’s style is his own, and he feels Wittenberg wouldn’t have it any other way. “He was a real man,” Ellman said. “Like it says in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers], ‘Where there is no man, you have to be a man.’ He was it. He transcended the sport.”

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