In the summer of 1948, at, age 40, John Slade marched into Wembley Stadium in London in front of 120,000 spectators. A goalie for the field hockey squad, Slade was one of the oldest athletes on the United States Olympic Team. According to Slade, "it was the proudest moment of my life."
Being a member of the U.S. Olympic team was particularly meaningful for this German-born Jew who adopted and was adopted by America. Born Hans Schlesinger in Frankfurt in 1908, Slade grew up in a family of, in his own words, "highly assimilated Jews" who had lived in Frankfurt continuously since the 13th century. Young Hans was given no Jewish education but — to his parents’ amazement — at age, 13 he asked to be bar-mitzvahed. Hans personally arranged for his own private Hebrew lessons. His bar-mitzvah marked the first time his parents had been inside a synagogue.
Like many young German Jews his age, Hans Schlesinger led a life in which anti-Semitism had played little part. Hans’ father headed a very successful real estate brokerage, a position which Hans expected to inherit. A star athlete, Schlesinger was arguably the best field hockey goalie in Germany arid, expected to compete in the 1936 Olympics in his nation’s capital, Berlin.
Hitler’s rise, to the chancellorship of Germany changed all that. In 1935, the Reichstag adopted the notorious Nuremberg Laws, shipping Germany’s Jews of most of their political, economic and social rights. These humiliating edicts effectively segregated Germany’s Jews from so-called "pure Aryan" Germans. Later that year, prior to an important match, the coach of the Frankfurt field hockey team at the club to which Schlesinger belonged told him that he could not compete because of the new, restrictive laws.
Schlesinger immediately resigned from the club. Its director begged him to stay so that the other Jewish members wouldn’t quit too, but Schlesinger was adamant. Instead, he helped form an all-Jewish sports club. Schlesinger remained an apprentice banker in Frankfurt and Berlin, and his father’s real estate business remained strong for a time. Schlesinger recalls that Germany’s all-Aryan field hockey team won the silver medal at the 1936 Olympics using his understudy in goal. When he heard that a Jew could be imprisoned for kissing an Aryan, Schlesinger decided it was time to leave Germany for the United States.
The banker who employed him in Frankfurt referred him to Joseph Bear of the New York investment firm of Bear, Stearns. Mr. Bear gave Hans a $15-a-week job as a messenger, despite the fact that he spoke only some English. Hans’ diligence made a good impression. By 1940, he was working in risk arbitrage and had earned enough to bring his family to America, saving them from the Holocaust. The Schlesingers were forced to leave their real estate business and most of their personal wealth behind.
In 1942, Schlesinger, who had changed his name to the more Americanized John Slade, decided to volunteer in the United States Army, even though he was now head of Bear, Stearns’ risk arbitrage desk. "I decided that if a guy from Oklahoma could fight against Hitler," said Slade in his still-strong German accent, "then I, too, must fight."
As a native German-speaker, Slade occasionally conducted important interrogations of captured Nazi officers, including Jurgen Stroop, the general who ordered the Warsaw Ghetto destroyed. In 1945, a company of soldiers under Slade’s command stumbled upon a Bavarian castle in which 100 SS soldiers were hiding. He boldly strode up to the door and announced that the SS men inside must surrender. They did without a fight, and Slade was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery.
At war’s end, Slade returned to Bear, Steams. Then, at age 40, he decided to try out for the 1948 American Olympic field hockey team. He and another German Jewish immigrant made the team.
If history were just, the 1948 United States Olympic field hockey team would have defeated Germany for the gold medal, and John Slade would have made a last-second save, to preserve the victory. But the outmanned American team lost every game, and Slade played through a head injury that required 10 stitches. Slade couldn’t have cared less. "Here I was a Jewish refugee, and I played on the American team. It meant, more to me than if I had won a medal for the German team in 1936."
When the 1948 Olympics ended, Bear, Stearns asked Slade to stay in Europe and create an overseas department for the firm. That department grew under Slade’s leadership to have offices all over Europe, including Germany. In the 1980s, the firm opened an office in Frankfurt, where Slade is now received as an honored native son. The Frankfurt club from which he resigned has offered a full apology.