Helene Mayer (as seen in the photograph) was an athlete competing at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. She was also Jewish. She won a silver medal and on being presented with the silver medal at the medal presentation she did the Hitler Salute. Why is this important 80 years later? Why did she give the Hitler salute? The Guardian also asks that very question
The simplest answer is that she had no choice but to give the Nazi salute that day. For a German athlete, the thrusting of her arm on the medal stand was a non-negotiable requirement of the state. Failure to do so would have led to serious repercussions. But the bigger question, the one that has vexed historians, biographers and holocaust experts for eight decades, is why she was there. Was she naive? Was she oblivious to the atrocities Adolf Hitler was already committing? Did she know how the world would view her participation on what would become known as the Nazi Games? Did she care? Was she protecting her family? Was she protecting herself?
Before we get to the ‘why’ – let’s find out WHO she was:
She was the German national champion at 13 and then won gold at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam when she was just 18. Her country was enchanted. She was tall, blonde, elegant and vivacious. Her picture was everywhere. Pinkhasov says statues of her were sold in souvenir shops. She was, he says, as big in late 1920s Germany as Michael Jordan in the US.
So she was famous and a big deal. She was a world famous fencer and the Americans were going to boycott the games so the Nazis “allowed” this half Jewish woman (there was no half Jewish term in Nazi Germany..you either were or were not a Jew) into the German team.
News accounts at the time say Mayer tried to get full citizenship rights as a condition for her return. But she also desperately wanted to go back. She missed her family but even more she wanted to seize something that had been lost, an entitlement that had been snatched away by a force that had overwhelmed her country and was spilling into the rest of Europe. To Mogulof, Mayer almost believed she could charm the Nazis the way she had once-hypnotized her homeland:
The ability to endure suffering while showing a serene and confident face came from years of managing a celebrity status. Her worst dreams would be replaced by a new reality; a fencing victory in Berlin, Germany’s urbane capital. She had once been the Golden “He.” It must happen again. It was not only ambition that moved her, she was also driven by the need to recapture her archetypal role as the radiant and beautiful Helene who would soften the iron hearts of her slanderers. Participation in the Games granted her a platform to prove her skill, allegiance and staying power. The Nazis accepted the disdainful necessity of allowing this “half-Jew” to fence on the German team as a political necessity. It was as if the state and one individual had struck a toxic bargain bereft of any intervening moral judgement.
How naive to think that she would soften the hearts of the Nazis. They had no heart to soften. Naive or stupid?
Helene was famous and a celebrity. This wasn’t her first Olympics – she went to two olympics prior to the Berlin Games. So why did she do it?
Several years ago, Pinkhasov met Mayer’s sister-in-law Erika Mayer in Germany who told him that Helene, who had already fenced in two Olympics, yearned to be in a third. “She wanted to compete, she wanted to be famous again,” Pinkhasov says Erika Mayer told him. She was so driven to be a star once more she never realized how much her country had changed, that it would never allow her to be beloved once more.
The article goes on to say that this woman, this talented sportswoman, would never receive the adulation she craved from the Nazis and would live in the US until her death in 1953. Fame, adulation and fortune in her homeland were her only desires…and she never got them.
To achieve that fame, adulation and fortune she debased herself by saluting the man that was murdering millions of her fellow Jews. This selfish woman who had achieved her dreams of being a famous sportswoman was willing to sacrifice her loyalty for fame and riches.
She is remembered not for her prowess as a fencer but as the Jewish woman who willingly saluted Hitler and gave him glory. Fame, glory, riches…she debased herself to feel the adulation she had lost. Sad. Pathetic.
An old bible proverb (4:14) says
“Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil.”