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Europe’s largest Jewish sporting event opens in Germany

From left, Israel's Arman Vanaian, Larry Sherman, Greg Meyers and Victor Hugo Carmona try to block the ball during the Open men hockey match between Israel and Germany at the European Maccabi Games in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, July 28, 2015. More than 2,000 Jewish athletes are gathering in Berlin for the European Maccabi Games, being held for the first time in Germany, and at sites constructed by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)

BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s president welcomed Jewish athletes on Tuesday to the first European Maccabi Games to be held in the country, at a site built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics.

About 2,300 athletes from 38 countries are expected to compete in 19 events at the games. President Joachim Gauck stressed the symbolism of holding a Jewish sporting event at a site built under the Nazis, and in a year when Germany and Israel are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations.

“I’m glad and I think it is significant that you chose this place, and I am very moved that this country and this city will now see the Jewish games,” he said at the opening ceremony.

Organizers have said it was a difficult decision to host the games in Berlin, but that it should be seen as a sign of reconciliation seven decades after the end of World War II. A Holocaust memorial event was held ahead of the opening ceremony.

“I would like to ask you to take part … in memory of my brother and all other athletes who did not survive,” said Holocaust survivor Margot Friedlander, whose brother, Ralph, was killed at the Auschwitz death camp.

The spirit of the games “stands for tolerance, being open to the world, and for a peaceful living together, and there is no better place to send this message into the world than here, 70 years after the war,” said Friedlander, 93.

The World Jewish Congress’ president, Ronald Lauder, said that holding the games at the Nazi-built venue “represents a triumph of good over evil.”

In a note of greeting, Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote that “in view of the past, Germany may truly be thankful for the restored diversity of Jewish life in our country and for the renewed trust of the guests from abroad.”

The European Maccabi Games, which take place every four years and were last held in Vienna, feature traditional sports like basketball, football, field hockey, and swimming, but also chess and bridge.

Though only Jewish athletes can compete, “let’s play together” matches are also being staged with non-Jewish professional and celebrity teams. The Berlin games are the event’s 14th edition.

Training events and some competitions began before the opening ceremony.

About 600 police officers are providing security. The games run through Aug. 5.

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