1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany


1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany


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The Olympic Pause

By Carol Levy

The period during and immediately following the 1936 Olympics when the Nazis showed a benevolent face to the world

Forty-five foot high flags decorated with large, red, black and white swastikas fluttered over Unter den Linden, Berlin's main boulevard. The boom of cannons could be heard throughout the city. In the Olympic stadium one hundred and ten thousand spectators, mostly Germans, cheered, stamped their feet, wept. Men grew hoarse screaming; women fainted. The Hindenberg, the largest zeppelin airship in the world, 900 feet long and 160 feet wide, with huge swastika markings on its tail-fins, towed an Olympic flag above the crowd.

Richard Strauss, the most well-known composer and conductor in the nation, led his band triumphantly in a rousing rendition of Wagner's "March of Homage"; during the Nazi years Strauss would dutifully compose operas short enough so that the audience could get home before curfew. A runner, the 3,075th since the relay had begun 13 days before in Olympia, Greece, ran breathlessly into the stadium to light the Olympic flame.

Adolph Hitler, in full dress uniform, stood in the box of honor and officially opened the Berlin Olympics as twenty-thousand carrier pigeons were released into the sky. Four p.m., Saturday, August 1, 1936--the beginning of an extravaganza the likes of which the world had never seen--49 nations competing at the Nazi coming-out party!

Five feet, 10 inches, tall, green-eyed, blonde, with her hair braided tightly around her head, Helene Mayer, marched proudly into the stadium with the group of German athletes. Her height, good looks and Aryan appearance made her appear a stereotype of the Nazis' ideal woman. Helene was, in actuality, the only German Jew the Nazis were allowing to participate in the Games. Helene was an enthusiastic participant whose enthusiasm had dampened opposition to the Games taking place in Nazi Germany.

Born on December 10, 1912, Helene was the only daughter of three children--Eugen, one year older, and Ludwig, six years younger. Although their mother was Christian, the children's birth certificates listed them as Jewish, their father's religion, and they attended the local synagogue. The family, living in the city of Offenbach, was known as the "Jewish" Mayers, differentiating them from the "Christian" Mayers who lived next door. Helene's.father, who had died in 1933, was a prominent physician and president of the Federal League for Sports; his father had been the local mayor.

By the age of 12 Helene had distinguished herself in horseback riding, skiing, swimming and fencing and had been applauded enthusiastically at her public ballet performance. Even after stating that "horseback riding is my favorite sport," she concentrated on fencing, the next year winning the German foil championship for the Offenbach fencing club.

The 1916 Olympic Games, scheduled to be played in Berlin, had been cancelled at the outbreak of World War I. The International Olympic Committee then barred Germany, the accused aggressor in that war, from the Olympics in 1920 and 1924.

In 1928, the Germans, again allowed to participate, were delighted when Helene, the "Blonde He", won the gold medal for fencing at the Olympics in Amsterdam at the age of 17. One of her great delights in Amsterdam was riding up and down store elevators. Thousands of Helene figurines were sold all over Germany. Following an official ceremony in the capitol, a function in her honor at school was remembered by one of her classmates. "In the school yard, the smallest ones, dressed in light flowery dresses formed a guard of honor. I experienced her triumphant entrance."

Half a century later, a schoolmate recalled being amazed during the years they took the same streetcar to school when, although Helene moved in international circles, "she treated me with so much liking and respect . . . . .The fact that Helene was Jewish never played a role, it never came up . . . . . Her success in sports did not make her snooty or arrogant. She felt that something was given to her that she had to fulfill."

Helene was world-famous--a champion who did as she pleased. Flamboyant--she refused to wear a breast-plate for protection because it decreased her mobility; she grunted and shouted out of sheer exuberance while fencing.

In 1932 she came in fifth in the Los Angeles Olympics. Helene claimed that her low score was due to the fact that she had just received word that a good friend, a German army officer, had drowned while on maneuvers. She stayed in Los Angeles as an exchange student at Scripps, an exclusive college of about 200 students.

Soon after the Nazis came to power on March 5, 1933, a series of laws was promulgated directed against all Jews, as well as Christians with one Jewish parent or grandparent. When the stipend given to Helene by the German Academic Exchange Service was taken away, Scripps College immediately gave her a scholarship. Helene, having studied law at the Sorbonne and hoping to work for the German foreign embassy, realizing that the Nazis would never hire her, changed her major from international relations to foreign languages.

One student recalled her words after hearing Hitler's first radio speech as Chancellor. Hitler announced, "Yes, we are barbarians. We want to be." "Falupt, gans falupt (mad, totally mad) was Helene's response. At that time, Ada Kleet, a German professor at Scripps, wrote in the student newspaper, "Some policies of the new government have already become apparent. Its anti-Semitism has been sorely felt by Jews."

Early in 1931, two years before the Nazis were voted into office, as a conciliatory gesture, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 summer games to Berlin. At the time, Hitler called the Olympics a charade and found insulting the idea of competing with "inferior non-Aryans." Nazi spokesman, Bruno Malitz, in a letter sent to every sports club in Germany, condemned modern sports because they were international, "infested with Frenchmen, Belgians, Pollacks and Jew-N****rs." A Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer, denounced the Games as "an infamous festival dominated by Jews."

After winning office, Hitler suddenly did an about-face and saw the games as a unique opportunity to promote the Third Reich. Having already exhibited a flair for showmanship and pageantry unknown at the time, Hitler decided to make the Olympics a showcase for the extraordinary emphasis the Nazis placed on male physical conditioning and strength, adding a mythic link to ancient Greek supermen. The state began an unprecedented takeover of all sport facilities which then proceeded to exclude Jews. A Nazi decree declared, " . . . to gag the Jewish agitation from abroad . . . Jews (without any close contact with non-Jews) . . . are allowed to practice until the Olympics of 1936. A general regulation for Jewish sports will come out after the end of the Olympics."

Schwartze Korps (Black Corps), an official paper put out by Hitler's bodyguards, announced on July 3, 1935 "that there was criticism of the fact that in Berlin a group of Jewish women competed with a group of sports women of the police sports clubs of Berlin. We have investigated this fact and are glad to announce that all the members who have participated in this game have been excluded from German sports organizations."

On August 6, 1935, the Reich Sport Commissar announced that sports clubs in Germany would set aside the month of October for teaching anti-Semitism. The Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935 deprived Jews of citizenship--they became stateless in the land of their birth. Food stores and pharmacies refused to sell Jewish people basic goods and citizens were forbidden to shop in stores owned by Jews.

Led by the United States, citizens of Canada, Great Britain and France, massive protests among sports, newspaper, educational, church, labor and political figures pressured for a boycott of the Olympic Games. The boycotters argued that the 1936 Olympiad had been bestowed on the Weimar Republic, a democratic state, whereas the nation that would actually host the Olympics was the totalitarian Nazi regime. Both the American ambassador to Germany and the head of the U.S. Legation in Vienna opposed the Berlin Olympics. The National Council of the Methodist Church and the American Federation of Labor voiced opposition. Ten thousand people protested at Madison Square Garden. Seventy-five thousand German-American members of the German-American League for Culture asked for the removal of the Games from Berlin. The American Athletic Union received more than 100,000 individual protests. An argument raged for three days at their annual convention, ending with a narrow majority for keeping the Games in Berlin.

The persistence of two people was largely responsible for that decision--Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Organization and Helene Meyer, the German Jewish Olympic fencing champion.

Brundage, speaking at Madison Square Garden to the pro-Nazi American Bund, called the Olympics "a religion with universal appeal which incorporates all the basic values of other religions, a modern, exciting, virile, dynamic religion." The Nazis had already declared that non-political sport could not exist in Germany. Nevertheless, Brundage declared that, "Politics must not be brought into sports. I have not heard of anything to indicate discrimination of any race or religion."

In the fall of 1935, Time Magazine reported that Brundage had been assured that Jews were allowed on the Olympic team. Unable to speak German, he had "interviewed" Jewish sports officials in the company of the Reich sports leader and had determined that German Jews were satisfied with their treatment "from a sports point of view." Back in the United States, Brundage announced that it had taken him two years to accomplish his "purpose of getting at least one Jew on the German Olympic team, and "I feel that my job is finished."

That Jew was Helene Mayer! She announced publicly that she would be honored to fence on the German Olympic team.

As a non-Aryan, in addition to being denied her German citizenship, Helene had been removed in absentia from the Offenbach Fencing Club--which she had made famous by winning the gold medal at the 1928 Olympics.

She declared her readiness to compete for Germany if she would thereby regain her citizenship. (She could not fence for the United States even if she had wanted to, because, under IOC rules, once a person has competed under one flag, he or she can never compete under a different flag.) Helene went to the German Embassy in San Francisco twice to plead to be allowed to participate in the Games. The consulate wired the ministry in Germany that "Helene is a good German and has nothing to do with Jews. She should be granted Reich citizenship as soon as possible, because, otherwise, Helene Mayer who has an impulsive character and does not always weigh her words carefully, could be carried away into making remarks which will do us unnecessary harm considering the typical big spread of the press." His warning went unheeded, and, as it turned out, unnecessary. Helen never spoke publicly against the Third Reich.


Ernest Lee Jahncke, former assistant secretary of the Navy and an American member of the International Olympic Committee, wrote, "Americans cannot take part in the Games in Nazi Germany without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games." He called American participation a "calamity."

In a radio address, the German author, Thomas Mann, living then in Pacific Palisades, CA, begged Helene to boycott the Games as some other athletes and one country, Ireland were doing. Helene called him a "meddler." Mann, along with Albert Einstein, the brilliant physicist, and Kurt Weill, composer and dramatist, had been singled out by Hitler in a 1929 speech, as a trio of dangerous Jewish intellectuals who were mortal enemies of the German people. All three escaped from Germany and came to the United States.

In 1972, after Jewish athletes had been murdered by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization at the Munich Olympics, Brundage, still president of the IOC, again facing the intrusion of politics into the "purity" of the Olympics, refused to call a halt to the Games.

By the time of the 1936 Olympics, at least half the Jews in Germany were forcibly unemployed. Half an hour from the future Olympic site, in the northern suburbs of Berlin, a concentration camp, Orianeburg, held Communists, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons and Jews.

Easy denial of what the Nazis were really about was being given a huge helping hand by a lavish event the likes of which the world had never seen before. Berliners had been told to prepare themselves "for the ordeal of the Olympics." Authorities called for a "week of laughter." Berlin's residents were told to limit their egg-eating so visitors would not be deprived. They were also instructed not to discuss anti-Semitism between June 30th and September 1st. Still, Spanish athletes had to be protected. Their non-Nordic features led them to be mistaken as Jews, and treated accordingly.

The Ministry of Propaganda demanded that the northern section of the Olympic village, originally utilized by the Wehrmacht (German army), should not be referred to as 'Kasernel' (the barracks) but will hereafter be called "North Section Olympic Village." The additional barracks and the rest of the Olympic village, built for quick conversion to a military barracks as soon as the Games were over, housed 3,738 male athletes from forty-nine nations. No living quarters were provided for the 328 female athletes. A "love garden" located in the woods near the village housed the prettiest frauleins who offered themselves to the athletes. The girl would request her partner's Olympic badge number. In case of pregnancy, she was to give this information to prove the Olympic origin of her baby, who would then be cared for by the state.

Hitler found it hard to deny his hatred of Jews. At first, he had declared that he would never remove anti-Jewish signs because he would not modify "a question of highest importance within Germany." Later, after he conceded that anti-Semitic posters would be removed for the Olympics, the Bavarian police gave the order that "anti-Jewish boards and slogans which have criminal tendencies, are to be removed by all means at our disposal." "Juden unerwuenscht" (Jews not wanted) signs were torn down from shops, hotels and beer gardens.

Ilona Schacherer-Elek, a Jewish fencer from Hungary, won the gold medal. Statuesque Helene Mayer, came in second. Ellen Preis of Austria, also Jewish, came in third. Schacherer-Elek and Preis stood motionless on the dais as the medals were placed around their necks and the band played Auschland Uber Alles. Helene Mayer, with her head held high and her body rigid, gave the Nazis salute, as did all the other German winners. The crowd roared in approval. Later in the day, she shook hands with Hitler at an Olympic reception.

The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism. Virulent anti-Semitism in Germany dated back to Martin Luther, a sixteenth-century German priest-monk, founder of the Protestant Reformation, who wanted Jews kept in "misery and captivity." He also thought Jews should be deprived of all their cash, jewels, silver and gold, their synagogues set afire and their homes destroyed before they were driven out of Germany. (During the peasant revolt in 1525, the only popular revolt in German history, Luther advised the princes to put down the peasants--"mad dogs"--as he called them.)

Drawing on these old hatreds and jealousies, Hitler easily convinced most Germans that Jews were responsible for such crimes as the defeat of Germany in World War I, pornography, modernism in art, the exploitation of the German people by capitalism, and (the contrary) the exploitation of the German people by Communism. Many Germans "swallowed the line" that they were a special people ready for a special destiny.

So important was it for the Nazis to have Helene to take part in the Games, they temporarily changed their definition of a Jew from someone who had one Jewish grandparent to someone who had three Jewish grandparents so that she could participate. When Helena received her invitation, she reacted eagerly. She was the only German athlete who did not have to go through a sport qualification process. She expressed pride in being so honored and emphasized that she did not consider herself a Jew. To a few American friends at Mills she confided that being Jewish was a burden--a label thrust upon her that she did not embrace. The German Consulate in San Francisco sent a telegram to Berlin: "Helene is a good German and has nothing to do with Jews."

Helene continued fencing throughout the world, and in 1937, she won the world championship, defeating Olympic winner Schacher-Elek in Paris. On her way home, joyous at her victory, when the train stopped in Frankfurt, she asked a friend, "What is written in the press?" "Not a word," was the answer. "Then I have to remain in America after all." was her conclusion. "

No Jew living in Germany had been allowed to participate in the Olympics. Gretel Bergmann, a 20-year old high jumper from Stuttgart, was, among others, excluded because she was not a member of the German Track and Field Association, the official sports club. Jews were banned from membership! After world-wide protests the Nazis promised that Gretel would take part in the pre-Olympic qualifying meets. She jumped the record high of 5'4" centimeters, higher than her closest rival. Nevertheless, two weeks before the opening of the Olympic games she received notice that she would not be considered for the German team because of her "mediocre achievements." She was offered two standing-room-only tickets. Ironically, a Hungarian Jew won the event with a leap exactly the height that Bergmann had cleared in the tryouts.

The German team won 33 gold medals--more than any other country--which reinforced their myths of invincibility and the "rightness" of German ideology. Hitler declared that the Olympics would take place in Berlin for all time to come.

Helene returned to the United States, again a celebrity. She had "collected more stuff than ever before"--suits, sports outfits and fencing costumes, scarves, pins and leather bags and had had a "wonderful time." She carried a Zeiss camera, a present for her photographer friend Imogen Cunningham, in her underpants, in order to avoid paying a tariff. Helene delighted in showing her friends how it had forced her to walk. For several years, a photo of herself, shaking hands with Hitler, "a cute little man" was displayed in her cottage. (By the late thirties the picture disappeared.) In December she wrote to a friend in Germany, "We have advent wreaths, sing German Christmas songs and as often as possible have a big Christmas party, which consists of a nativity play and a banquet. I'm already tearing my hair, because Joseph says his lines again and again with the same awful pronunciation and Maria rocks her baby with such true American energy that the cradle almost tips over. I hope they will get it right by Christmas!!!"

Far from the power of the Third Reich, Helene is still a spokeswoman, reminiscing about wanting to return to Germany. "Here in America the press denigrated the Olympics on purpose. It's all propaganda against Germany!! Didn't do them much good because . . . I have given a lot of speeches at clubs, universities and once even on the radio and I let them have it! Those windbags, who still cannot get over the fact that the Olympics in Berlin were the highlight of all the Olympics.

So time goes by with a lot of work and homesickness. Sometimes I look at a world map and I see in horror how far away San Francisco really is from Germany! Just take a look for yourselves! Will we see each other in the future? I don't know. All I know is that I want to come back to Germany, but there surely is no room for me. I am one of those souls who was hit by a harsh fate. I love Germany just as much as you do and I feel and think just as German as you do!"

Handwritten in loyal camaraderie, yours, Helene

In truth, Helene had the great good fortune to spend the war years in the United States. Her uncle was murdered in a concentration camp. Athletic prowess did not protect Jewish athletes. Throughout the conquered countries, Jewish participants in the Berlin Games and former Olympians, were murdered.

In 1938 Helene accompanied Leni Riefenstahl, the gifted pro-Nazi film maker, a personal friend of Hitler's,on a U.S. tour to promote her film, Olympia, a spectacular work dedicated to the Nazi line of a mythical German link to the Olympians of ancient Greece which won first prize at the Venice Film Festival. Riefenstahl, utilizing innovative filming techniques to document the 1936 Olympics, began with scenes from Mt. Olympus in Greece. The two women, both apologists for the Third Reich, became good friends while putting a pretty blush on Naziism.

Helene changed the spelling of her name to Meyer, became a US citizen in 1940 and taught German and fencing at Mills, an elite all-women's college in Oakland, California, and German to GI's at the University of California in Berkeley. People today remember Helene as "happy all the time," fun-loving, witty," "always good-humored," --her linzensuppe (lentil soup) dinners in her home on campus where her female students and GI's met--several of whom later married. Helene served beer, strictly forbidden on campus, at these dinners. Cheerful and fun-loving, with a scarf draped around her head, she drove a red convertible, a 1936 Dodge, around campus with her puppy, "Boyshun", seeming to wear a mask, even when not fencing. She never talked about the war or her family..

Her brother, Eugin, a physician and Nazi sympathizer, had been conscripted into the army but was forced out because he was Jewish. He and his brother, Ludwig, worked as farm hands in the Black Forest during the war. Helene's paternal uncle was murdered in a concentration camp.

In 1950 Helene, suffering from bone cancer, after several surgeries, took a leave of absence from instructor's position at City College of San Francisco where she had been teaching German and Political Science and returned to Germany, and in May married for the first time, to an old friend, an engineer, the Baron Erwin Falkner von Sonnenburg. She told her friends, who were devastated at her once beautiful body wasting away, that she hated giving orders to the maid. Helene died of bone cancer in 1952

The Alumni Association of Mills College in California, her alma mater, founded a stipend in Helene's name which grants awards to outstanding students every year since her death. In an April 5, 1954 letter, her mother, Ida Mayer, thanked the college for this honor: "It is indeed a comfort to know that my Helene was loved and admired by so many wonderful people."

The United States Olympic Committee has conceded that Avery Brundage was guilty of discrimination and appeasement of Hitler by removing the only two American Jewish men on the American track and field team, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, from the meter relay team in order to appease Hitler. According to Glickman, "the track and field events were the most important activities in the Olympic Games of 1936. Their coach, Dean Cromwell, announced the day before the race that they would be replaced by Frank Metcalfe and Jesse Owens. Glickman said that Owens immediately asked not to run, saying "Coach, I have won my three gold medals; I have won the races I set out to win. I've had it. I am tired. I am beat. Let Marty and Sam run. They deserve it." Cromwell pointed his finger at Owens and said, 'You will do what you are told.' " Stoller, now dead, called his removal the "most humiliating" experience of his life and declared that he would never compete again. He said that whereas many other teams practically performed a military march walking into the stadium, the Americans "shlumped along" showing its irreverence. As he looks back, Glickman reserves most of his anger for the leaders of the AmericanOlympic team who "kowtowed " to the Nazis by removing him and Stoller.

In an emotional ceremony on March 29, 1998, Glickman, who had become a radio and television sports broadcaster, was presented with the Committee's first Douglas MacArthur award, in lieu of the medal he should have won. (General MacArthur was the committee's president in 1927 and 1928.)

The New York Times had originally supported the boycott. After the Games, reporter Frederick Burchall wrote that the Games put Germans "back in the fold of nations" and even made them "more human again." In his diary, foreign correspondent William Shirer wrote on August 16, 1936, "I'm afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the Games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen."

Helene was in a position to stand up against the Nazis. Instead, she cast Germany in a pleasant light. With the tacit approval of the United States and the countries which followed its lead, the Hitler movement quickly and easily reached national and international respectability.

Ireland was the only country to boycott the 1936 Olympics. Many Jewish athletes refused to participate; others went eagerly. Somehow, Helene's enthusiasm seems most egregious. She had felt the Nazi's hatred first-hand.


From the October High Holiday 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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