Published in the Jewish Holocaust Centre’s The Voice newsletter
A relatively unknown effect of the antisemitic policies of Nazi Germany was the devastating impact that it had on its tennis players and their success.
Dr. Daniel Prenn was considered to be a superstar of the game in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He reached number 6 in the world and did not relinquish his ranking as the top German player between 1928-1932.
Born in Vilnius and raised in St Petersburg, Dr. Prenn (along with 500,000 other Russians) fled to Berlin as a refugee after the pogroms that ensued the Russian Revolution in 1917.
A clay-court specialist, Dr Prenn was described as “energetic, extremely steady and calm … endowed with a stocky but strong physique and [possessing] a wide variety of strokes and deadly placements which wore down his opponents.” In addition to his prowess on the court, he earned a Doctorate in Engineering from the Technical University of Charlottenberg.
Perhaps his greatest sporting achievement was leading Germany to an unlikely win against the dominant Great Britain in the 1932 Davis Cup European Zone semi-finals.
Following the victory a Berlin newspaper described it as “one of the most inconceivable and most fascinating results of all time in ‘the white sport’.”
Despite his achievements Daniel Prenn was not selected to represent Germany in the 1933 Davis Cup.
After rising to power as chancellor, Adolf Hitler was quick to put pressure on Germany’s sporting and athletic bodies to enforce his ‘Aryan only’ agenda.
That April, Germany’s reichssportführer issued a statement on behalf of the German Lawn Tennis Federation announcing that “non- Aryan players can no longer take part in international matches … [he also specified that] the player Dr Daniel Prenn (a Jew) will not be selected for the Davis Cup in 1933.”
Tennis champions Fred Perry and Henry Wilfred (Bunny) Austin penned a protest against the decision in the London Times.
“Sir, We have read with considerable dismay the official statement which has appeared in the press that Dr. D.D. Prenn is not to represent Germany in the Davis Cup on the grounds that he is of Jewish origin.
We cannot but recall the scene when, less than 12 months ago, Dr. Prenn before a large crowd at Berlin won for Germany against Great Britain the semi-final round of the European Zone of the Davis Cup, and was carried from the arena amidst spontaneous and tremendous enthusiasm.
We view with great misgivings any action which may well undermine all that is most valuable in international competitions.
After receiving similar treatment to Dr Prenn, German Jewish tennis champion Nelly Neppach tragically committed suicide in March 1933. Despite this, the International Lawn Tennis Federation did nothing.
Fortunately, Dr. Prenn and his wife Charlotte were sponsored by fan Simon Marks (the head of the Marks & Spencers department store). This allowed the two of them to emigrate to Kensington, London where Dr. Prenn achieved moderate tennis success and launched a string of successful businesses until his death in 1991.
Although Prenn was succeeded by the enormously talented Baron Gottfried von Cramm (who was later imprisoned by the Nazi Party for homosexuality) Germany did not achieve much success on the tennis court until 1937.
Author Marshall Jon Fisher encapsulates the sentiment of the Nazi party and the context of Dr Prenn’s treatment perfectly.
“The new regime was happier to lose with Aryans than to win with Prenn”.
Significantly, this story highlights another example of the persecution of Jews being met with silence by the community-at-large in the 1930s.