Helene Mayer was Germany's only known Jewish member of its Olympic national team in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. The fencer competed in what derisively came to be called "Hitler's Games," for German chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party commandeered this particular Olympiad and refashioned it into a blatant display of nationalist propaganda. Germany had recently stripped its large Jewish population of citizenship, and Mayer was initially one of several talented Jewish athletes ejected from official sporting organizations. International pressure forced Germany Olympic officials to allow Mayer, who had won a gold medal in her sport eight years earlier, to compete.
Mayer was born in 1910 in Offenbach, a town near Frankfurt am Main in central Germany. Only one parent—her father, Dr. Ludwig Mayer—was Jewish, but this later classified Mayer as a "Mischling," or person of mixed blood, when Nazi Germany began enacting and enforcing anti-Semitic statutes in 1935. Mayer's father headed the sanitation department in Offenbach, where she grew up with two brothers. Her fencing career began at an early age and she soon proved to be a formidable opponent in this sport, which is known for its blend of athletic skill and nerve. She began competing in the women's foil class at the age of just 13 and proved a tremendous talent, winning the German national title in 1925. At 17, she took the gold medal at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.
A celebrity in Germany, Mayer was regularly feted as one of the most impressive feminine competitors in the history of fencing. She continued to hold the women's national title in Germany, and in both 1929 and 1931 she took the women's world title in foil as well. She was deemed by the Times of London "admittedly the finest amateur swordswoman in the world." Mayer arrived in the United States in 1932 to compete in the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but fenced poorly and placed only fifth. Liking the area, however, she decided to stay. She enrolled in Scripps College in Claremont, California, and later entered the University of Southern California, where she took postgraduate courses in international law. By 1934, she had returned to top form and took the U.S. indoor women's title in foil.
During Mayer's absence, the fascist Nazi Party gained full political control of Germany, and the party's anti-Semitic political rhetoric quickly evolved into a series of repressive laws. The Nazis blamed Germany's Jewish population—many of whom were successful professionals, entrepreneurs, or artisans—for the economic woes that plagued the country after its defeat in World War I. In November of 1933 it was announced that Mayer had been expelled from her Offenbach Fencing Club. As its most famous member, the ejection was unusual, but even odder was the second official announcement that followed, which noted that Mayer would be allowed to keep her spot on the national federation.
In September of 1935, Germany enacted the Nuremberg Law, which revoked German citizenship for Jews and those with one Jewish parent, like Mayer. She remained in the United States, eventually finding a permanent job as a German instructor and fencing coach at an elite women's college, Mills College, in Oakland. As preparations were underway for Germany's first hosting of the Olympic Games in 1936, International Olympic Committee (IOC) members resisted Nazi-ordered attempts to turn the peacetime contest into a belligerent display of German superiority. At one point, Germany even tried to bar all Jewish athletes from competing; others protested so vehemently that there was a threat to remove the Games from Berlin altogether.
Pressured to allow Jewish athletes on their own national team, the Germans granted Mayer and a top women's track star, Gretel Bergmann, a place. Mayer was the sole Jewish athlete, however, to march in the opening ceremonies on August 1, 1936, at Berlin's new Olympic Stadium. Bergmann, who qualified for the high jump in trials, was told just days before the Games were to begin that Germany would use only two of its three allotted spots for the event and that she was being dropped from the team. The president of the Germany Olympic Committee, Captain Hans von Tschammer und Osten, claimed she Mayer was actually "Aryan," and with her blond hair, green eyes, and lithe height, she ironically exemplified a Nordic physique that the Nazis idealized.
|1910||Born in Offenbach, Germany|
|1914||Begins competing at the national level in women's fencing|
|1925||Wins first German women's title|
|1928||Wins gold medal at Amsterdam Games|
|1932||Places fifth in women's foil at Los Angeles Summer Games; settles in California|
|1933||Offenbach Fencing Club expels her|
|1936||Wins silver medal at Berlin Games|
|1952||Marries Baron von Sonnenburg and returns to Germany|
|1953||Dies of cancer in Frankfurt, Germany on October 16|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1925-30||German women's foil champion|
|1928||Gold medalist in women's foil, Amsterdam Olympics|
|1929, 1931, 1937||World Fencing Championship title in women's foil|
|1934-35, 1937-39, 1941-42, 1946||U.S. Women's National Fencing Championship title|
|1936||Silver medalist in women's foil, Berlin Olympics|
In this era, women's Olympic fencing had just one event: the individual foil, and Mayer emerged as a frontrunner along with Ilona Schacherer-Elek of Hungary, who was also half-Jewish, and Austria's Ellen Preis, who had won the gold medal at the 1932 Games. The Berlin meets featured a new electronic-touch scoring apparatus, and in the trials Schacherer-Elek beat Mayer. Facing Preis in what Richard D. Mandell's The Nazi Olympics deemed "a contest that perhaps was the most dramatic fencing match of the age," Mayer parried and thrust into a three-draw score. Schacherer-Elek was awarded the gold medal, and Mayer's points earned her the silver. On the victory podium, she delivered the obligatory "Heil, Hitler" salute to the Fuehrer with her right arm, as the German athletes were compelled to do.
Mayer returned to California, joined the Los Angeles Fencing Club, and became a U.S. citizen. She won the U.S. women's national fencing title in 1937, and bested Schacherer-Elek that same year at the women's world championships in Paris. Mayer won the U.S. women's title five more times between 1939 and 1946. In 1952, she returned to Germany to become Baroness von Sonnenburg after her marriage to an engineer from Stuttgart. She died of cancer in October of 1953, and it was revealed that she had requested full German citizenship in exchange for competing for Germany in the 1936 Olympics.
Mayer endured some criticism for her participation in the "Nazi Olympics" from the American Jewish community, who felt that she served as Germany's token Jew. Her performance and silver medal—along with that of the first-place Schacherer-Elek, another "Mischling"—did serve to debunk Nazi claims of Aryan athletic superiority. Several other impressive feats during the Berlin Games also made a mockery of the racist atmosphere, most notably those of a black American, Jesse Owens , who set world records in the broad jump and 200-meter race. Other African Americans also had medal finishes, as did Jews and a slew of "non-Aryans" from around the globe. "The Olympics and sporting competitions," observed Mandell, "exist partly for this purpose."
Hart-Davis, Dan. Hitler's Games: The 1936 Olympics. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Mandell, Richard D. The Nazi Olympics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
"Baroness von Sonnenburg." Times (London, England), (October 19, 1953): 10.
Berkow, Ira. "After 60 Years, Going for the Gold." Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), (June 23, 1996): N15.
"Foil Play for Women." Times (London, England), (December 3, 1930): 7.
"Helene Mayer, 43, Fencing Star, Dies." New York Times (October 16, 1953): 27.
Katz, Ian. "Leap of Faith Takes Athlete to the Games at 82." Guardian (London, England), (June 24, 1996): 9.
Sketch by Carol Brennan