Mayer, Helene (1910–1953)

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Mayer, Helene (1910–1953)

World-class athlete and winner of Olympic, national and international medals in fencing, who struggled against Nazi racial oppression and continued to compete successfully despite intolerance . Name variations: Hèléne Mayer. Born Helene Mayer on December 20, 1910, in Offenbach, Germany; died on October 15, 1953, in Heidelberg, Germany; daughter of Ludwig Mayer (1876–1931, a prominent Jewish physician) and Ida (Becker) Mayer (1883–1958, a Lutheran); attended public schools in Offenbach; studied international law at the University of Frankfurt, the Sorbonne, and obtained a degree in that field from Scripps College in Claremont, California; married Erwin Falkner von Sonnenburg, in 1952.

Won German foil championship at age 14 (1925); won the gold medal in the Amsterdam Olympics at age 17 (1928); won World championships (1929 and 1931); expelled from the Offenbach Fencing Club for being half Jewish, excluding her from competition (1933); won silver medal at the Berlin Olympics (1936); won U.S. indoor championships (1934, 1935, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1942, 1946).

Born on December 20, 1910, in Offenbach, Germany, Helene Mayer was the product of a mixed marriage, a common occurrence in Germany's upper-middle class: her father Ludwig Mayer was a prominent Jewish physician, whereas her mother Ida Becker Mayer was Lutheran. Mayer enjoyed a conventional middle-class childhood in Offenbach. She was athletic and took ballet lessons, but by age nine she showed great interest in fencing and began taking lessons at the town's excellent fencing club. Her teacher was the famous "Cavaliere" Arturo Gazzera, under whose tutelage she made great progress. In 1925, at age 14, she won the German foil championship.

The skill and art of using a sword was not commonly acquired by women until the late 19th century, when it was often part of the finishing school curriculum. Fencing was one of the few sports in which women could compete at national and international levels. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic Games which first took place in Athens in 1896, the games were created for gentlemen amateurs. (One woman, Melpomene , did participate in the 1896 Olympics, albeit illicitly.) Coubertin vehemently opposed female participation on the basis that women had no role in the original games. Furthermore, he felt that strenuous sports activities destroyed feminine charm. The objection was overcome, however, in 1900, when golf and lawn tennis were introduced as female events, followed by tennis and archery in 1904. In 1908, skating and gymnastics appeared, then swimming in 1912. Fencing was introduced in 1924 at the games held in Paris. The first female Olympic fencing champion was Ellen Osiier , a Dane, who won all 16 of her bouts, scoring 80 touches and receiving only 34. One of the U.S. entrants at these same games was Adeline Gehrig , sister of the great New York baseball player Lou Gehrig.

At age 17, Helene Mayer represented Germany at the 1928 games held in Amsterdam, sweeping through the tournament with surprising ease, winning 18 bouts and losing two to win the gold medal. From this point forward, she was the sovereign master of women's fencing, winning the European championship in 1929 in Naples and again in 1931 in Vienna (these were later declared to be World championships). Catapulted into national fame, she was known as "die blonde He." Her only setback took place in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, when she was off form and was only able to achieve a fifth place. Despite this, she continued to compete.

An all-around athlete, Mayer enjoyed skiing, tennis, rowing, swimming, and hockey. She did not confine her fencing skill to female opponents; Mayer was a match for men as well. "As for any mental hazard men may feel at lunging toward a woman," said one admirer, "it soon disappears when they meet her skillful foil."

In addition to her athletic prowess, Mayer was academically ambitious and looked forward to a career in the diplomatic service. She took courses in international law at the University of Frankfurt in 1929 and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in the winter of 1930–31. She left Germany in 1932 to study international law at Scripps College in Claremont, California. Fiercely independent, she paid for her education by working as a governess, teaching German, and coaching to earn spending money, tuition, room and board. She bought a Plymouth roadster, which she named "Asthma" because of its leaky radiator, and liked her American classmates' open-mindedness, remarking, "Nobody minds what religion or sect I belong to."

The Nazi seizure of power in the first months of 1933 did not initially affect Mayer personally; indeed, the striking 5'10" green-eyed blonde was portrayed as a national hero in Nazi propaganda until her half-Jewish origins were discovered. Then she was expelled from the Offenbach Fencing Club. The German Fencing Association announced at the same time that the action of the local club did not affect her membership in the German National Fencing Federation. Despite this "exceptional" treatment, Mayer chose to continue her studies in the United States.

Harsh Nazi treatment of German Jews upset many American athletic leaders. They were shocked by the removal of Dr. Theodor Lewald from his post as president of the German Olympic Committee because of his partly Jewish ancestry. On June 6, 1933, at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee, American delegates threatened to remove the games from Germany if discrimination did not cease. On the next day, Lewald, who had been given the post of "adviser" to the German Olympic Organizing Committee, announced that the government would observe all Olympic resolutions and that "on principle" Jews would not be excluded from the German teams.

Brigadier General Charles E. Sherrill, U.S. delegate to the International Olympic Committee, was not convinced of Germany's good faith and demanded that Helene Mayer be invited to join the German Olympic team as concrete proof of compliance. Under the Nazis, Jews were barred from practice and from the clubs whose members had access to the Olympic trials, which effectively kept them from participating in the trials to make the German team. American athletic leaders were aware of this ongoing discrimination. At a meeting of the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union on November 21, 1933, the delegates, with one exception, voted to boycott the 1936 Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Berlin unless Germany changed its treatment of Jewish athletes "in fact as well as theory." Quickly responding to the threat of exclusion, German Olympic officials announced that Helene Mayer would be allowed to participate in the games as a member of the German team. Then with a further fanfare of international publicity, the German Olympic Committee announced in June 1934 that 21 Jewish athletes had been nominated for their training camps. Hitler's Reichssportsführer Hans von Tschammer und Osten recognized the importance of public relations and explained German acquiescence saying, "You are probably astonished by the decision in Vienna, but we had to consider the foreign political situation." Meanwhile, at a closed meeting of officials, he declared his pleasure at the ongoing racial cleansing of German sporting clubs.

The American Olympic Committee dispatched its president, Avery Brundage, to make an on-the-spot investigation. Brundage was dazzled by the "order and prosperity" which many then felt characterized the Nazi regime. Interviews with Jewish leaders convinced Brundage all was well despite one critical journalist's observation that they were always accompanied by Nazi officials. On the basis of Brundage's recommendations, the American committee voted to participate in the 1936 Olympics. Later it was learned that although 21 Jewish athletes had been nominated for participation in training camps, none were actually invited to attend.

[T]he tall, statuesque, green-eyed blonde was portrayed in Nazi propaganda as a national heroine, until her half Jewish origins were discovered.

—Robert Wistrich

The true face of the regime was revealed once again in September 1935 when the Nuremberg laws were proclaimed, officially transforming German Jews into second-class citizens. At this point, General Sherrill decided to make the best of a bad situation. Returning from a trip to Germany, he condemned Americans advocating a boycott of the games and claimed he knew many American Jews who opposed such a boycott. The secretary of the American Olympic Committee, Frederick W. Rubien, seconded this position, asserting, "Germans are not discriminating against Jews in their Olympic tryouts. The Jews are eliminated because they are not good enough as athletes. Why are there not a dozen Jews in the world of Olympic caliber?"

Osiier, Ellen (1890–1962)

Danish fencer . Name variations: Ellen Ottilia Osiier; Ellen Osiier-Thomsen. Born on August 13, 1890; died in September 1962; married Dr. Ivan Osiier (1888–1965, an Olympic fencer who won the gold medal in individual epee in Stockholm in 1912).

In 1924, 33-year-old Ellen Osiier became the first female Olympic fencing champion, winning the gold medal for individual foil in Paris. Her husband Ivan Osiier competed as a fencer in the Olympics over a span of 40 years, holding the competitive longevity record.

Continuing American pressure did produce results on the German team. Rudi Ball, a star ice hockey player who had fled to France, returned to Germany and rejoined the team. Gretel Bergmann (Margaret Bergmann Lambert ), a world-class high jumper, was allowed to compete in the "advanced" Olympic tryouts although as a "Jewess" she was excluded from the German championships. Reassured by these concessions by the Nazis, a number of Jewish athletes from other countries agreed to participate in the games. The Polish, Czechoslovakian, and Hungarian teams all included Jewish athletes.

Americans continued to be concerned about the inclusion of Jewish athletes on the German Olympic team, fearing the Nazis would renege on their promises. Although Helene Mayer had been assured a place on the team in 1933, no further invitations had been extended, and she continued to live in the United States. In the summer of 1935, Sherrill hectored Nazi sporting officials to make good on their two-year-old promise to include Mayer. Reichssportsführer Hans von Tschammer und Osten reextended the invitation and attempted to defuse the racial issue by declaring Mayer to be "Aryan," an easy assertion to make about the tall Teutonic athlete. Meanwhile, Mayer had already stated publicly she would be pleased to represent Germany as she had done in two previous Olympiads. Furthermore, she was eager to visit her mother and two brothers, one of whom, Eugen Mayer, was also a star fencer.

Nevertheless, some athletes decided to boycott the games. The president of the Maccabi World Union, an international organization of Jewish sporting clubs, urged "all Jewish sportsmen, for their own self-respect, to refrain from competing in a country where they are discriminated against as a race and our Jewish brethren are treated with unexampled brutality." Among those declining to attend were Judith Deutsch , an Austrian swimmer of world-record caliber, Philippe de Rothschild and Jean Rheims, French bobsled champions, and Albert Wolff, the famous French fencer.

The 1936 Olympic Games provided Hitler's regime with an opportunity to advertise the benefits of Nazism. As early as January 1934, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had taken over control of Olympic publicity. No expense was spared to create a superb venue for the games. A new Olympic stadium with seating for 110,000 was built, as well as a village for the almost 4,000 athletes from 50 nations. Great attention was paid to creature comforts. American mattresses were provided for the American athletes, the Swiss and Austrians slept under feather comforters, while the Japanese slept on floor mats. A sauna was provided for the Finns. Recipes of favorite foods were researched, and North German Lloyd, the shipping line, supplied individualized cuisines for each nation in order to make the athletes feel at home. Afterward the Americans declared, "The best place to eat in Berlin was the Olympic Village."

This careful attention to the needs of male athletes, however, did not extend to women competitors. The women's dormitory was a utilitarian structure surrounded by a high wroughtiron fence. For some time, the rooms went unheated. Food was inadequate, and its quality far below what male athletes enjoyed. The men's needs were catered to by Captain Wolfgang Fuerstner, chief of the German army's athletic program and also a part Jew. The women, on the other hand, were strictly supervised by Baroness von Wangenheim who was indifferent to their complaints about poor housing and food.

Hitler's regime was determined to put its best foot forward during the games. Anti-Semitic propaganda was discouraged. The storm-troopers were reminded to be courteous to everyone, including Jews, during the months of July and August. Goebbels issued an order forbidding political meetings from August 1 to September 7 to ensure that no anti-Semitic incidents would occur.

As usual the Nazis' split personality emerged. One song popular among Nazi activists urged them to "have patience" stating, "When once Olympia is past, then boys, the spring cleaning comes at last." Blatant anti-Semitism had already surfaced during the Winter Games held at the two villages of Garmisch and Partenkirchen. Although the German goal was to present typical Bavarian Gemütlichkeit, the effort failed at times. Count Baillet-Latour, president of the International Olympic Committee, had toured the winter games facilities and come across signs at the toilet facilities stating, "Dogs and Jews are not allowed." Requesting an interview with Hitler, he informed the chancellor that the signs were "not in conformity with Olympic principles." Hitler replied, "Mr. President, when you are invited to a friend's home, you don't tell him how to run it." After a moment Baillet-Latour responded, "Excuse me, Mr. Chancellor, when the five-circled flag is raised over the stadium it is no longer Germany. It is Olympia and we are masters there." The signs were removed.

No other Olympic sport in 1936 was as cosmopolitan as fencing. Three hundred contestants from 31 nations joined Helene Mayer in competition. Two gymnasiums and an amphitheater in Berlin as well as some hard clay tennis courts near the main stadium were the site of the matches, and eliminations went on for two weeks. As a competitor in a demanding sport which requires great stamina, it was not unusual for a fencer to begin early in the morning and compete until late at night. This was

particularly true in 1936 when the long elimination trials shifted the balance toward youthful vigor. As well, for the first time the electrical touch apparatus had been adopted, which may have lessened the effect of dramatics and the confidence that comes with age.

In 1936, the only Olympic fencing competition for women was the individual foils. Elimination matches had narrowed the field to eight continental contestants, including three of the greatest fencers of the modern era. Helene Mayer was joined by Ellen Preis , the Austrian who won the Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1932, as well as Ilona Schacherer-Elek , the 1934 and 1935 European champion from Hungary. According to reports, all three had never been in better form. Although fencing matches were often sparsely attended, theirs were sold out, and despite its size, the audience was hushed as the matches proceeded.

Helene Mayer was the star of two of the most hotly contested events. One match was with Schacherer-Elek who perceived Mayer's weakness and used a provocative air to make her nervous. At the end of three encounters, the Hungarian led 3:2, 4:4, and 5:4. In subsequent matches, however, Mayer improved her position and picked up more points than her rival. The two were tied before Mayer and Preis began their match, which has been described as the most dramatic fencing match of modern times. The Austrian, like her German opponent, was in deadly earnest. Tension was so high in the stadium that the crowd was absolutely silent. The two great athletes lunged at each other with un-canny skill, and the results for three matches were 2:2, 3:3 and 4:4—a draw. However, points decided the victor and in the end Ilona Schacherer-Elek won the gold. Mayer had to be content with the silver while Ellen Preis took the bronze. All three champions were Jewish. Nonetheless, in the victory ceremony, Mayer held her profile high and offered a faultless "Heil Hitler!" salute.

Preis, Ellen (1912—)

Austrian-Jewish fencing champion . Name variations: Ellen Müller-Preis; Ellen Mueller or Muller-Preis. Born Ellen Preis in Berlin, Germany, on May 6, 1912.

A sports prodigy, Ellen Preis became an Austrian fencing champion in Damenflorett at the age of 12. She participated in five Olympics, winning a gold medal in individual foil in Los Angeles in 1932 (Heather Guinness of Great Britain won the silver, Erna Bogen of Hungary took the bronze). Preis also won a bronze medal in Berlin in 1936, and, as Ellen Müller-Preis, another bronze medal in London in 1948 (Ilona Schacherer-Elek of Hungary won the gold, Karen Lachmann of Denmark won the silver). Preis was still competing for World championships as late as 1959.

Schacherer-Elek, Ilona (1907–1988)

Hungarian-Jewish fencer . Name variations: Ilona Elek; Ilona Elek-Schacherer. Born Ilona Elek on May 17, 1907; died on July 24, 1988.

For 60 years, the Hungarians dominated fencing. Ilona Schacherer-Elek won her first Olympic gold medal in Berlin in 1936 in the individual foil events. She took her second gold in London in 1948, and then a silver in Helsinki in 1952. She was world champion in 1934, 1935, and again, an amazing 16 years later, in 1951.

After visiting her family, Helene Mayer returned to the United States. Her last great international victory came in Paris in 1937 when she won the World fencing championship, but she also won the U.S. indoor championship eight times (1934, 1935, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1942, 1946). Mayer earned her living teaching German at Mills College and later at the University of California, Berkeley. The war years brought her anguish, particularly as her family faced great danger. In 1952, she returned to Germany and married Erwin Falkner von Sonnenburg (1901–1980), an engineer. The following year, on October 15, 1953, Helene Mayer died of cancer in Heidelberg. She is still well known in Germany and was honored on an Olympic commemorative stamp issued by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1972.


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