Son Of Lazarus: The Martin Gordan Story


Born October 15, 1876 in Berlin, Germany, Moritz Rudolph Martin Gordan was the son of Lazarus Louis Gordan and Caroline (Lamm) Gordan. Martin's father was a wealthy Jewish merchant who sold shoes and fabrics for clothing at his store Gordan & Burchard zu Berlin. Martin and his younger sister Gertrud grew up wanting for very little at the family's home at Oranienstraße 42. Sadly, Martin's father passed away in January 1892, when he was only fifteen.

At a very young age, Martin took up figure skating at the Berliner Schlittschuhclub. He soon proved to be a precocious talent who showed an unusual skill for special figures. After finishing second to Gustav Euler in a junior competition in Berlin in 1897, he won an international competition in similar pairs skating with British skater Edgar Syers the following year. In 1899, he entered the European Championships, placing fourth in the men's event behind Ulrich Salchow, Gustav Hügel and Ernst Fellner. In 1900, he competed in an pairs competition held in conjunction with the World Championships with partner Hedwig Müller. These events were held in Davos, the famous Swiss winter sports mecca where he spent considerable time training during the long winters alongside a who's who of European figure skating.


In 1901, Martin travelled to Scandinavia, where he competed in the Championships of the Copenhagen Skojtelöberforening and the Nordic Games. In Denmark, he finished second in the men's event behind Copenhagen's Erik Lagergren and second in pairs behind Edgar and Madge Syers. His partner in this event was Great Britain's Phyllis Squire, later known as Phyllis Johnson. At the Nordic Games, he was third in singles behind Oscar Holthe and Einar de Flon and second in pairs behind Christa von Szabo and Gustav Euler. This time, his partner was again Hedwig Müller. The February 19, 1901 issue of "Päivälehti no 16" described his performance at the Nordic Games thusly: "Yes, he knows how to turn and bend. His strengths, on the other hand, are those patterns that require strength and adversity."

Martin Gordan, Edgar Syers and Ernst Fellner in Davos. Photo courtesy Stadsarkivet Stockholm.

In 1902, Martin travelled to London, England to compete in the World Championships held at the National Skating Palace. He and Fraulein Weingartner placed third in the pairs event. In singles, he finished third behind Ulrich Salchow and Madge Syers. Cojntemporary sources have consistently claimed that many people believed that Syers outskated Salchow and should have won this event... but Martin actually defeated Madge Syers in the free skating phase of the competition. There have also been modern claims that Martin was outraged by being defeated by a woman, but primary sources don't support any of these arguments... good stories they may make, notwithstanding.

Photo courtesy Dutch National Archive

In the years that followed, Martin won a second bronze medal at the World Championships and two medals at the German Championships. He also competed at three other European and World Championships, though his results were far less impressive. On January 20, 1908 in Celerina, Switzerland, Martin participated in what was perhaps his final figure skating competition - the contest for the Engadine Challenge Cup. Great Britain's John Keiller Greig won the event by over eighty points; Martin finished last, earning more points but fewer placements than Gwendolyn Lycett. After retiring, he judged at the 1910 European Championships in Davos and the women's and pairs events at both the 1911 World Championships and 1931 European Championships.

An account of one of Martin's free skating programs from one of Robert Holletschek's books noted that his program consisted of "cross over left forward outside, curve right forward outside, three turn step, spectacle (Brille)-Rocker, Wing Eight figure with loops, Cross over right backward outside, Waltz jump, two three turns with toe pointing, jump, eight figure with grapevines, two Spectacle (Brillen)-Rocker, dance steps to the music, double three, toe spins, eight figure with three turns and loops, bracket, cross over, counter, stand on toes." Interestingly, he performed only two smalls jumps, one dance sequence and a couple of short spins, but excelled at a variety of step combinations, field movements and special figures. German skating historian Dr. Matthias Hampe - whose assistance in researching this article was invaluable - noted, "Martin Gordan from the Berliner Schlittschuhclub had moved farthest from the Viennese School among the German skaters and was described as a follower of the skating style of Henning Grenander."

Special figures of Martin Gordan's design

An account of Martin's skating from the March 29, 1902 issue of "The Leader" noted his "Berlin style was different to the others, and slightly more rough and unfinished. He confirmed that impression when he chose his own figures, but he is, of course, a strong and bold skater, with plenty of confidence [and] a very firm edge."

Off of the ice, Martin was an avid amateur photographer and entrepreneur. In 1900, he founded the Berliner Illustrations-Gesellschaft (Association of German Illustration Photographers) with school friends Karl Ferdinand Delius and Heinrich Sanden. It was the first company in Berlin devoted to the production and distribution of press photos. By the end of World War I, there were nearly twenty such agencies in the city. Martin married at least twice (in 1909 and 1909) and both of his wives names were Anna. According to an article by Nathalie Neumann in the "Journal Of Photo History", Gordan "continued [with] the BIG [Berliner Illustrations-Gesellschaft] until its closure in 1934 by the National Socialists [and was] active in the relevant photography committees during the Weimar Republic and the heyday of the illustrated press." Along with Karl Ferdinand Delius and Heinrich Sanden, he was considered one of the pioneers of sports photography in Germany.

Little is known of Martin's fate during World War II. Numerous historical documents confirm that he was Jewish, but databases of Holocaust survivors make absolutely no mention of him being detained or interred in any of the larger concentration camps. Genealogist Renee Steinig, whose assistance in researching Martin's story was vital, learned that Martin's sister Gertrud and her son Dr. Erich Faerber escaped to Shanghai, Lutheran birth record or not. Following the War, Gertrud emigrated to America, passing away in Ohio in 1966. The January 28, 1972 issue of the "Cleveland Jewish News" noted that Martin's nephew Erich "devoted his law practice to aiding refugees in their restitution claims against Germany." What we do know is that Martin survived the War, passing away on June 22, 1961 in the spa town of Baden-Baden, West Germany at the age of eighty four.

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