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Teens > Hitler's Jewish Olympian

By Adina Erdfarb

Foiled: Hitler's Jewish Olympian by Milly Mogulof, is the story of Helene Mayer, a world-renowned German fencer living during the World War II era. Helene had been the top foil fencer in the world. She won the gold at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam at the age of 17, as well as winning many other fencing competitions, both in Europe and the United States. The respected and loved Helene, a young woman poised both socially and athletically, was a heroine to the Germans. Helene gave Germany a sense of pride for having raised such a talented Olympian. Perhaps that was the only pride at that time for Germany. However, Helene's talents could not save her from the persecution that befell her, as she was of Jewish descent.

In Germany in the 1930s, the rising Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, oppressed all Jews harshly. Jews were discriminated against even if they did not practice Judaism and even if they were not Jews according to Jewish law. Helene was one of the so-called Jews; technically, she was not a Jew. According to Jewish law, the birth mother is the determinant of her child's religion. Helene's father was Jewish, but her mother was Christian; therefore, Helene was not Jewish according to Jewish law, known as halakha. Furthermore, the Mayer family did not practice Judaism. Helene's father even tried to distance Helene from the Jewish religion. Helene was not a Jew in any meaningful sense of the word, but that did not save her from the fate which befell Germany's Jews.

After graduating from Schillerschule in Germany, Helene traveled to America to compete in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, California, where she placed fifth. She then enrolled in Scripps College for Women. After completing her masters program in 1934, Helene accepted a teaching job at Mills College in northern California. While life in American was good for Helene, there was complete mayhem in her homeland of Germany.

Germany began raising armies and occupying territories, while continuing to torture Jews. People across the globe were concerned about the situation in Germany, and not just because the chances of war increased every day. The 1936 Olympics were scheduled to take place in Berlin, Germany, and many people believed Germany was incapable of, or rather did not deserve, to be the host country of such a dignified event. After a long span of debates, the International Olympic Committee came to the conclusion that Germany would host the 1936 Olympics.

Germany was permitted to host the Olympics, and stuck to their ideals when selecting athletes to compete. Ultimately, Jews were forbidden from competing. This meant that even Helene Mayer, one-time gold medalist, could not compete for Germany. This unjust discrimination angered many people, especially Americans. The German government came up with a plan to please everybody, by selecting a "designated Jew": Helene Mayer. Helene reluctantly accepted the invitation, satisfying both the German government and people throughout the world.

Helene ended up placing second in the 1936 Olympics. During the Olympics, she even met Hitler, who put on a happy face even though he hated what she represented: Judaism. Helene went on to win a myriad of national and other championships throughout her lifetime.

Foiled: Hitler's Jewish Olympian is a great book for any teenager, athlete or non-athlete, who wants to learn about Jewish life in Germany before and during World War II. Although Helene was not Jewish by law, therefore making the book's title somewhat of a lie, Mogulof does a great job at portraying the feelings of despair felt by a young woman persecuted in her time just because of her roots.

Adina Erdfarb, from Highland Park, NJ, is a member of the Center for Sport and Jewish Life's Teen Advisory Council.

If you are interested in reviewing a book of Jewish sports interest for this website, please write us at: info@csjl.org.

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