Helene Mayer

Fencer

born December 20, 1910 in Offenbach am Main – died October 15, 1953 in Heidelberg

  • Six-time German Champion 1925–1930 
  • Olympic Gold Medalist 1928, Olympic Silver Medalist 1936
  • European Champion 1929 and 1931
  • First World Foil Champion 1937
  • Eight-time US Champion 1934–1946

Helene Mayer is the first german world-class female fencer. In the summer of 1925, at the young age of 14, she fought to win the German Foil Fencing Championship – a title she continued to effortlessly defend for five consecutive years. It was not only Helen Mayer’s athletic performance that impressed fans, but also her commanding stature and fascinating charisma. Fans regularly recognized the fencer from a distance when she arrived: tall, wearing a white fencing uniform, her blonde hair tucked into a bun and fastened to her head with a white headband.

She celebrated her greatest athletic achievement by winning the gold medal at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Overnight, the “blonde He” (short for Helene) became a celebrated star and in high demand for photographers wanting to capture her iconic look. Celebrated as a true German beauty, the Jewish Central Press Association Newspaper publicly revealed that she was in fact of daughter of a Jewish physician. Her and her family were displeased with the claims made from different sides.

Highly focused on her training, in 1929 Helene Mayer began studying International Law in Frankfurt am Main, then at Sorbonne in Paris, and finally earned a scholarship to study in California. She wanted to qualify for entry in the diplomatic corps.

The Nazi take-over of power is something Mayer only experienced from a far. She felt the consequences, however, immediately. As a so-called “half Jew” her scholarship was revoked and, without fanfare, the Offenbacher Fencing Club removed her name from the membership list. Due to her popularity, she received financial support from the USA until she finished her exams in 1934. Furthermore, the renowned Mills College in Oakland, California offered her a position teaching both German language and fencing.

In order to further demonstrate its alleged tolerance, the Nazi regime endorsed Mayer’s participation in the 1936 Olympic Games. This was her chance to take on the challenge that she, as an athlete, always aspired to experience. Helene Mayer’s participation in the games meant that those who threatened a boycott could no longer argue that Jews were left out of the 1936 Olympics. Mayer, however, did not see herself as Jewish. The role and identity assigned to her by controversial reports from the press made Mayer very uncomfortable. At the Olympic Games, Helene Mayer won the silver medal in fencing. Supposedly, she barely missed capturing the gold in a dramatic match with Ilona Schacherer-Elek. 

In 1937 Mayer permanently settled in the USA and acquired her U.S. American citizenship in 1940. She returned to Germany in 1952, but her personal happiness was brief. In October of 1953, shortly after her marriage to Baron Erwin Falkner von Sonnenburg, she died of cancer.

In 1968, the Federal Mail (German postal service) created special limited edition Olympic stamps and Helene Mayer was the only woman featured among the other famous athletes. Since 1972, in the north of Munich, you can find the Helene-Mayer-Ring. It lies directly to the east of the Olympic village built in the 1970s. Even in the USA her memory is kept alive – at Mills College a scholarship is awarded in her name.

Berno Bahro

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Video Helene Mayer, 1:14 min (© Bundesarchiv Filmarchiv / Transit Film GmbH und onlinefootage.tv)

References