Following the death of Gershon Huberman
Following the death of Gershon Huberman late 2009 we invited Ian Brittain to write about his life and work in the Paralympic Movement
Huberman, a Polish Jew, immigrated to Palestine in 1937 and soon after joined the British army, where he was trained as a physiotherapist. In 1946 he completed his service and returned to settle in Palestine. In the late 1940s he attended an 18-month long course in physical education at the recently established Wingate Institute. As part of this course Huberman came into contact with orthopaedic surgeons and because of his physiotherapy training they began to send him their private patients for treatment. The two major sources of sport participants with a disability at that time were veterans of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), who were injured during their military service, including the War of Independence, and victims of the polio epidemics breaking out in the early 1950s.
One source of professional knowledge was Ludwig Guttmann who visited Israel in 1949 and 1956 and shared his medical and rehabilitation perspective with professionals, including Huberman. Another important source was the German physical educator and sports teacher Konrad Lorenzen, who published in German a masterpiece of professional guidance to sports for participants with a physical disability. He was a personal friend of Huberman and his book together with Guttmann’s writings influenced Huberman’s early experiences of introducing swimming, table tennis, athletics and wheelchair basketball to participants with disabilities.
Huberman was affiliated with the Israeli Association for Children with a Disability (ILAN) which, due to its major impact on the polio vaccination campaign and establishment of the first physiotherapy school in Israel and other rehabilitation endeavours, received a piece of land especially for the practice of sport for participants with a disability. This land was used for summer camps and in 1958 a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the construction of an adapted sports hall, which was officially opened on 1 September 1960. It was named the ‘Spewack Centre’ after its principal benefactors and is better known today as the Israel Sports Centre for the Disabled (ISCD) operated by the ILAN Organization.
In the early 1960s, with a growing knowledge and expertise in the use of adapted physical exercise, particularly for participants with neuro-muscular impairments such as spinal cord injury, polio and cerebral palsy, Huberman introduced to the programme two annual events. These particular events appear quite surprising, given that the maximum distance raced at the Stoke Mandeville or Paralympic Games was fifty metres for swimming events and about forty metres for the wheelchair dash on the track. The first was suggested after a trip by the Centre’s athletes to Eilat in 1962 for a cross country march. Upon their return the participants asked if they could take part in the annual March to Jerusalem, which consisted of four days of walking, covering about 120 km in four days over difficult terrain. Following some haggling with the organizers who were at first incredulous at the request, Huberman was eventually given permission for participants from the Centre to take part. They immediately began training each weekend, increasing the difficulty and distance they covered with each walk until they were ready. The march eventually became an annual event for the Centre. The same year they participated in their first March to Jerusalem (1963) the centre also entered participants in the swim across the Sea of Galilee, which could be anywhere from 3.5 to 4.5 km depending upon the water levels in the lake. The successful completion of these events by athletes with a disability was one of the reasons that led to the introduction of two open 100 metre swimming races for men in breaststroke and freestyle at the 1968 Paralympic Games in Israel for which Huberman was Chairman of the Sports Committee.
By Ian Brittain and Yeshayahu Hutzler