On August 5, 1936, Helene Mayer, one of two Jews permitted to compete for Nazi Germany in the Berlin Olympics, won a silver medal in the individual fencing competition. Although Mayer, one of the finest fencers of all time, apparently did not think of her herself as Jewish, the regime did: Her father was a Jew, and she had been classified as such after the adoption of the Nuremberg Laws, in 1935.
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Helene Mayer was born on December 20, 1910, in Offenbach-am-Main, near Frankfurt. Her father, Ludwig Mayer, a physician, was Jewish, as noted. Her mother, the former Ida Becker was a Lutheran (and a nurse).
'A blue eye, a German skull'
By age 13, Helene had won her first women’s fencing championship. If Germany had not still been subject to sanctions following World War I, and thus not invited to the 1924 Olympic Games, she might well have competed in Paris that year.
Four years later, however, in 1928, Mayer did fence for Germany at the Games in Amsterdam, and she brought home the gold medal – winning 18 of her 20 bouts – and became her country’s sweetheart.
In his essay about Mayer in the 2012 book “Jewish Jocks,” Joshua Cohen quotes a verse about her that appeared that year in a German newspaper:
“A female creature of modern times,
she wins handily in her fencing costume,
and behold she has blonde braids,
and ties around them a white band.
A blue eye, a German skull,
youth’s grace in her countenance,
awell-built girl from the Rhineland,
But she fences like the devil.
Fans could even buy little plaster-of-Paris busts of Helene.
In Los Angeles in 1932, however, Mayer came in in fifth place, a performance perhaps explainable by the fact that just hours before the finals, she learned that her boyfriend had drowned when his German naval training schooner, the Niobe, had sunk in the Baltic Sea.
Following that tragedy, Mayer remained in Los Angeles, studying as an exchange student in European languages at Scripps College, with her ambition being to eventually return to Germany and work for its foreign service. In the meantime, she helped Scripps set up a fencing program.
Swastika on sweater and hailing Hitler
In April 1933, shortly after the rise of the Nazi party to power, and the expulsion of Jews from all civil service jobs, Mayer found herself kicked out of the Offenbach Fencing Club, even though as a private organization, it was then under no legal obligation to expunge its Jews. Later, when Germany withdrew her scholarship, Scripps came up with the money to allow her to finish her bachelor's degree. But none of these developments induced Mayer to speak out about Germany's treatment of its Jews.
Three years later, Germany hosted both the winter and summer Olympics. Initially, it intended to keep its own team Judenfrei, but after the United States threatened to boycott, Hitler and Goebbels agreed to allow two Mischlinge (half-breeds) compete, Mayer and the high jumper Gretel Bermann.
Mayer was at Mills College, in Oakland, teaching German and coaching fencing, when she received the invitation to join the team. As she prepared to return to Germany, she found herself criticized by American Jews: the Yiddish newspapers called her “calculating” and “cynical.” Meanwhile, in Germany, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels issued a press blackout on Helene Mayer, instructing that “no comments may be made regarding Helene Mayer’s non-Aryan ancestry or her expectations for a gold medal.”
Mayer won the silver medal in the individual women’s foil competition, and when she stood on the platform to receive her prize, her white sweater bedecked with a large red swastika, she proudly held her right up arm to "heil" the Fuehrer. Her father had died in 1931, while her two brothers spent the war in labor camps, which they both survived.
Mayer returned to the United States following the games and continued teaching, first at Mills, and later at San Francisco State College.
In 1952, she learned that she had breast cancer, and soon after that returned to Germany, where she married the Baron Erwin Falkner von Sonnenburg. By then, the cancer had already spread to her spine.
Helene Mayer died on October 13, 1953, at the age of 43. She was buried in Munich.