Mayer, Helen Julie, born 20-12-1910 in Offenbach am Main, a suburb of Frankfurt. Her mother lda Anna Bertha (born Becker) was Lutheran, and her father Ludwig Karl Mayer, a physician, was Jewish and was born in 1876. Emmanuel Mayer, her paternal great-grandfather, and Jule Weissman, his wife, were the parents of Martin Mayer, her paternal grandfather who was born in 1841 and who married Rosalie Hamburg, her paternal grandmother.
Mayer was the subject of the book Foiled: Hitler’s Jewish Olympian: the Helene Mayer Story , which focused on how “the Nazis brought Mayer home from self-imposed exile in California to be the token Jew on their team.” Her birth certificate listed her as “Israelitischen”; as Jewish. As a child, she was called the “Jewish Mayer,” to distinguish her from the “Christian Mayer”, a child who lived next door to her, as was reported by the press of the time. In January 1933, the Offenbach Fencing Club rescinded her membership on the basis of new Nazi legislation banning Jews. Her religious identity reportedly did not become an issue until Adolf Hitler rose to power in the 1930s.
Mayer was only 13 when she won the German women’s foil championship in 1924. Her technique and talent were spectacular, according to fencing experts who have seen footage of her fencing. By 1930, she had won six German championships.
Mayer won a gold medal in fencing at the age of 17 at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, representing Germany, winning 18 bouts and losing only 2. She became a national hero in Germany and was celebrated, with her photo plastered everyone. According to a profile in The Guardian, “She was tall, blonde, elegant and vivacious.” In 1931, her father died of a heart attack. She finished fifth at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, having learned, two hours prior to the match, that her boyfriend had died in a military training exercise in Germany. She then remained in the U.S. to study for two years as an exchange student at Scripps College, earning a certificate in social work in 1934. She later studied towards a master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley, and fenced for the USC Fencing Club. She hoped to join the German diplomatic corps.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, anti-Jewish laws put in place nearly ended her career. Her membership at her German fencing club was terminated, as was her study exchange. She found work teaching German at Mills College in Oakland, California, and later taught at San Francisco City College. She was stripped of her citizenship in Germany in 1935 by the Nuremberg Laws, which considered her non-German.
She accepted an invitation to compete for Germany at the 1936 Summer Olympics,
held in Berlin.
The International Olympic Committee insisted that a Jewish athlete be placed on the German team as proof that Jews were not being denied the opportunity to compete, and the German Olympic Committee, which was then under the control of Nazi Reichssportführer Hans von Tschammer und Osten, was hesitant to make such a concession. Only under threat of a cancellation of the Games did Germany finally allow Mayer, a statuesque blonde with a Christian mother, to join the team.Hans von Tschammer und Osten died from pneumonia in Berlin on 25-03-1943, age 55.
Goebbels required of the press that “no comments may be made regarding Helene Mayer’s non-Aryan ancestry” She won a silver medal in individual women’s foil. She was the only German athlete with a Jewish background. Gold and bronze were for the two Jewish fencers Ellen Preis from Austria and Ilona Elek from Hungary. She gave a Nazi salute on the podium and she wore a swastika on her fencing uniform. Later she said it might have protected her family that was still in Germany, in labor camps. Several talented German Jewish athletes, including high jumper Gretel Bergmann, were not allowed a chance to qualify for the Olympic squad.
In 1928 Helene won the Italian national championship. She was the European champion in 1929 and 1931. She was World Foil Champion in 1929–31 and 1937.
Ultimately, she settled in the United States and had a successful fencing career, winning the US women’s foil championship 8 times from 1934–1946 (1934, 1935, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1942, and 1946).
Mayer had been called the greatest female fencer of all time, and was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 100 Female Athletes of the 20th Century, but her legacy remains clouded. Some consider her a traitor and opportunist, while others consider her a tragic figure who was used not only by Nazi Germany but by the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee to prevent a boycott of the Games.
After the Olympics, she returned to the United States and became a nine-time U.S. champion. She received citizenship in 1941 but returned to Germany in 1952. Mayer died the following year, leaving few interviews and little correspondence
Death and burial ground of Mayer, Helene Julie.
here with Olga Oelkers a medal winner of Olympic 1928 in Amsterdam.
In 1952, Mayer returned to Germany, where she married an old friend, Erwin Falkner von Sonnenburg, in a quiet May ceremony in Munich. The couple moved to the hills above Stuttgart before setting in Heidelberg where she died of breast cancer in October 1953, two months before her 43rd birthday. She is buried at Waldfriedhof München Grosshadern, Stadtkreis München, Bavaria.