Helene Mayer: The Jewish “Arayan” Who Won Silver in Berlin

Helene Mayer's Salute at 1936 Berlin Games
Helene Mayer’s Heil Hitler Salute at the 1936 Games
This is not a Hollywood script.

An Olympic fencer, gold medalist at the 1928 Amsterdam Games and six-time national champion in Germany, Helene Mayer was a golden girl and likely eager to participate in her country’s Olympics in 1936.

While studying international law in the US in the early 1930s, she got surprising news. Her membership in a major fencing organization, The Offenback Fencing Club, was rescinded. The reason? Her Jewish heritage.

Mayer was surprised to learn that her father was Jewish. And apparently, she denied that fact. As explained in the fun-fact-filled book, The Book of Olympic Lists by David Wallechinsky and Jamie Loucky:

She was the perfect embodiment of the Nazis’ conception of Aryan womanhood, except for one detail – her father, a doctor who had died before the Los Angeles Olympics (in 1932), was Jewish. Mayer did not think of herself as Jewish, particularly after her father’s death.

Naturally, the German authorities were not going to invite Mayer to the Berlin Games three years later. The Hitler regime intended to allow not a single Jewish athlete to compete. But the German authorities were also desirous of pulling off a public relations coup by hosting the Olympics, showing the world that Germany was a nation of superior standing, representing world peace and inclusion. Under pressure, they decided to ask two Jewish athletes to compete on the German national team – a high jumper, as well as a fencer – Helene Mayer.

While she received pressure from Jewish groups in the US to not go to the Olympics, Meyer was overjoyed to return to Germany for the Berlin Olympics. She was open for her love for her home country.

Helene Mayer portrait

And while she did not win the women’s individual foil championship for Germany, she placed second, good enough for silver and a spot on the medal stand. Quite amazingly, when the Hungarian national anthem was being played for gold medalist Ilona Elek, Mayer, one of only two Jewish athletes added to the team, reluctantly by the German authorities, held out her right arm in a Heil Hitler salute. As is described in this article, the image is striking: “Her face is determined. Her posture is perfect. Her arm points strong and fierce. She leaves no doubt as to what she is doing.”

What was Ilona Elek, whose father was Jewish, thinking when she saw Meyer to her left show her definitive support for the Arayan Race. What was Meyer feeling, as she stood in the midst of Nazi Germany’s international showcase, proudly rejecting her Jewish heritage?

Mayer returned to the United States, became an American citizen in 1940, and ironically, was employed by the US government to teach German to US soldiers before they left for the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

It would have to be in the hands of a skilled writer and director, but I’d love to see someone make a movie about Meyer, a perplexingly complex individual.