At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the women’s fencing medal ceremony witnessed three medal winners with Jewish backgrounds. Ilona Elek, a Hungarian, won the gold medal. Helene Mayer, a German, won the silver. And Ellen Muller-Preis, an Austrian, won bronze. All of them stood together atop the medal platform. It should be noted that all three women were half-Jewish and none of them considered themselves Jewish. This denial made no difference to the Nazis, however, who deemed them to be Jewish. A photograph of the ceremony shows Mayer, the silver medal winner, standing on the podium and giving the Nazi salute.
Mayer’s bizarre gesture created consternation and a great deal of comment. She was born in 1910 to a Jewish father and a Lutheran mother. Although her physician father was active in Jewish organizations, Helene and her two brothers were raised in a secular home and she attended a Christian school. Before Hitler’s coming to power, Mayer had been one of Germany’s most beloved athletes. She won her first German foil championship in 1924 when she was 13. By 1930, she had won six German championships. She won a gold medal in fencing at the age of 17 at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Representing Germany, she won 18 bouts and lost only two. Attractive and vivacious, she was a fencing star and Germany’s most dazzling athlete.
Mayer’s father died in 1931 and her mother and brothers remained in Germany. After she competed for Germany in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics—finishing in fifth place—she decided to stay in California as an exchange student at Scripps College. When Hitler came to power, her exchange was terminated, as was her membership in her hometown fencing club. Returning home to Germany seemed impossible, so she finished her studies at Scripps and took a job teaching German at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she could also continue fencing. Nonetheless, she accepted an invitation to compete for Germany in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. This was arranged by Avery Brundage, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee. He convinced Germany to let one German-Jewish athlete onto the German team to quiet American calls for a U.S. boycott of the games. (According to German law, Mayer was a mischling, a German of mixed Jewish and Aryan blood.) Mayer was the only German athlete from a Jewish background to win a medal that year.
Despite winning a medal, she was not celebrated on her return to Germany. The Nazi government barely tolerated her. Joseph Goebbels, the government’s minister of propaganda, instructed the German press not to make any comments regarding Mayer’s non-Aryan ancestry. After the 1936 games, she never competed in the Olympics again. She returned to the United States and became a citizen in 1940. She won the U.S. women’s foil championship six times from 1937 to 1946. She was also world foil champion in 1937.
Mayer moved back to Germany in 1952 and married an old friend. She died of breast cancer in 1953. She was inducted into the United States Fencing Association Hall of Fame posthumously in 1963. In 2000, Sports Illustrated named her the greatest fencer of the 20th century.
American Jews generally have heard about Jewish-American athletes such as Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg in baseball, Sid Luckman and Benny Friedman in football, and Benny Leonard and Barney Ross in boxing. But they know practically nothing about the history of outstanding European Jewish athletes before WWII. Jewish Olympic fencers brought their home countries fame and international recognition, and brought honor to themselves and the Jewish people.
Young Jews have always viewed participating in sports as a means of integrating and gaining acceptance among their non-Jewish peers and within the larger society. This held true for Jewish university students in Germany, Austria, and Hungary during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only there, fencing and dueling with swords became the Jewish students’ sports of choice. They did so because fencing was considered a path to climb the social ladder. In addition, dueling against non-Jews was a way for Jews to show their mettle and offered a means to defend Jewish honor, especially in a time of rising anti-Semitism.
Even Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, enthused about fencing. As a journalist, Herzl wrote articles about fencing duels between Jews and French anti-Semites in the late 19th century. Herzl himself once offered to duel a Viennese anti-Semite. He was not bluffing. As a child, he had been trained to use a sword and fought a duel as part of his initiation into Albia, a German student dueling fraternity. Herzl believed that “a half dozen duels would very much raise the social position of Jews.”
Because of widespread anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish students were excluded from many university fraternities and athletic associations. Consequently, they created fraternities and sporting clubs of their own. Their dueling frequently took place within the confines of the Jewish environment. But once they engaged in competition with non-Jews, they achieved a reputation as fierce duelists. As a consequence of their ability and competitiveness, numbers of Jewish fencers became champions in their countries and in the Olympics. Olympic fencing competition was a means by which young Jews could express their patriotism and love of country and a way to show the world that Jews could compete with non-Jews at the highest level and win. In fact, Jewish athletes have won more Olympic medals for fencing than for any other sport.
The first Jewish fencing Olympic medal winner was Siegfried “Fritz” Flesch (1872-1939), who fenced for Austria. He won a bronze medal in the saber competition at the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. His was the first of 35 Olympic fencing medals, 17 of them gold, won by Jewish fencers from 1900 to 1936.
The next Jewish Olympic medal for fencing was won by an Englishman, Edgar Seligman (1867-1958). Seligman was born in San Francisco to German parents. After his parents moved to London, he became a naturalized British citizen. A talented artist by profession, he competed in five Olympic Games as a member of the British fencing team. He was the only man to win the British fencing championship in three fencing divisions: the epee in 1904 and 1906; the foil in 1906 and 1907; and the saber in 1923 and 1924. He first competed in the 1906 Intercalated Games, held in Athens to renew interest in the Olympic Games. The British team won the silver medal. Seligman competed again in the 1908 Olympic Games in London, where he and his teammates won the silver medal in the team epee competition. Four years later, Seligman captained the British fencing team at the Stockholm Olympics. He competed in three events and won another silver medal in the team epee competition. Although Seligman competed in four more Olympics—1920, 1924, 1928, and 1932—he never won another medal.
Hungarians had always taken pride in being descended from saber-wielding mounted warriors. For a Jew to become a saber champion was to fulfill a fantasy of acceptance. The first Hungarian Olympic champions were Jews who excelled in saber fencing, the most Hungarian of martial arts. In the 1908 London Olympic Games, four Hungarian-Jewish fencers—Dezso Foldes, Jeno Fuchs, Oskar Gerde, and Lajos Werkner—won a gold medal in the team saber competition. Fuchs also won a gold medal in the individual saber competition. He became the first Hungarian Olympic champion in fencing. In addition to his gold medals, Fuchs (1882-1955) won 22 individual matches in the 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games.
In the 1908 Olympics, two French Jews, Alexandre Lippmann and Jean Stern, won the gold medal for the team epee competition. In the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Foldes, Fuchs, Gerde, and Werkner once more won team gold medals for the fencing and team saber events. Fuchs won a gold medal in the individual saber competition and Werkner won a gold medal in the fencing competition. Two Belgian Jews, Gaston Salmon and Jacques Ochs, won gold medals for the fencing and team epee competition. Albert Bogen of Austria won a silver medal for the fencing and team saber competition, Ivan Osiier of Denmark won a silver medal for the individual epee competition. Otto Herschmann of Austria won a silver medal for the fencing and team saber competition.
After WWI, fencing became almost an obsession among Hungarian Jews. From 1920 to 1936, Hungarian-Jewish fencers won 11 Olympic medals. The Hungarian-Jewish prominence resulted from a number of factors. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had suffered defeat in the war. As a consequence, Hungary lost almost two-thirds of its territory and more than half its population. Before the war, the nation’s population numbered over 18 million. In 1920, the population of the new Hungary numbered 8 million. Before the war, the Jewish population numbered 911,227. After the war it numbered 473,000. And beginning in 1920 violent anti-Semitism erupted in Hungary and it became the first country in Eastern Europe to introduce anti-Jewish legislation: a 1920 quota on Jews in universities. This new situation spurred Jews to show their courage and display their loyalty and patriotism to the new Hungary. Fencing became their way to do so.
Hungarians associated the sport of fencing with courage, virility, masculinity, and honor. Since Jews sought to exemplify these qualities, they took to fencing and dueling with swords with unprecedented zeal. Fencing became almost an obsession among Hungarian Jews and became a key part of their efforts to identify with and be accepted by the country’s ruling classes. The victories of Jewish fencers in the Olympics provided the Jewish community with pride and served as a means to prove its courage and valor to the Hungarian public. The Hungarian-Jewish press regularly articulated the contributions of Jews to Hungary, giving special attention to Jewish victories in the Olympics. Hungary’s non-Jewish press also noted the Jewish victories and lauded the Jewish champions as representatives of the Magyar virtues of physical agility and power. Many Jewish journalists wrote for Hungary’s newspapers, so they likely were among the most vociferous of those who praised the Jews.
In the 1928 Amsterdam games, three Hungarian Jews—Janos Garay, Sandor Gombos, and Attila Petschauer—won gold medals for the team saber competition. Petschauer also won a silver medal for the individual saber competition. In the 1932 Lake Placid and Los Angeles games, Petschauer and Endre Kabos of Hungary won gold medals for the team saber competition. Kabos also won a bronze medal for the individual saber competition. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Kabos won gold medals for individual saber and team saber competitions. In those games, the three female fencing medal winners and Kabos, all of whom had Jewish backgrounds, took home five of the eight fencing medals.
Kabos was fully conscious of the symbolism of competing in the capital of the Third Reich. Before the games, he wrote an article in the Hungarian-Jewish newspaper Egyenloseg (Equality), in which he said that Jewish athletes have a psychological handicap. “We will go to a place to demonstrate our strength and ability where our Jewish brothers are considered another race, not humans created by God, even harmful, and they get a treatment according to this painful perception.” He concluded by saying that the Hungarian-Jewish Olympians “will fight not only for universal Hungarian nationhood and Hungarian pride in Berlin but we, Jewish sportsmen, must and want to show the image of Jewish power and virtue.”
Five Hungarian-Jewish Olympic champions did not survive the war. Lajos Werkner died in Budapest in November 1943 at the age of 60. Oscar Gerde died in the Budapest ghetto in October 1944. Janos Garay, who won a gold medal in the team saber in the 1918 Amsterdam Olympics and a silver medal for team saber at the 1924 Olympics, was deported and murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp.
The Hungarian gold medalists Attila Petschauer and Endre Kabos suffered similar fates. Petschauer was born in Hungary in 1904 and was a fencing prodigy before his teen years. His father named him Attila after Attila the Hun, an intrinsically gentile name. In the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, he won a silver medal in the individual competition and a gold medal in the team saber event, winning all 20 of his matches. When the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, Petschauer was deported to a labor camp in the Ukrainian town of Davidovka. During a lineup of prisoners, he was recognized by a military officer who had been his friend in Hungary. This did not save him. His former friend instructed the guards to taunt Petschauer. The guards shouted: “You, Olympic fencing medal winner, let’s see if you can climb trees.” It was midwinter and bitter cold, but the guards ordered him to undress then climb a tree. The amused guards ordered him to crow like a rooster and sprayed him with cold water. Covered with ice from the water, Petschauer froze to death. His life and death were dramatized in the 1999 film Sunshine, starring Ralph Fiennes.
Endre Kabos (1906-1944) was born in Hungary. He began fencing as a youngster after he received a fencing outfit as a birthday present. By the 1930s he had become one of the world’s greatest fencers. In addition to his four Olympic gold medals, he won multiple gold medals as an individual and as part of Hungarian teams in European fencing competitions. During WWII he was interned in a general labor camp. In June 1944 he was sent to a labor camp for Jews. He also taught some German army officers the use of saber fencing. He later was transferred to Budapest where he transported food and provisions for prisoners in the camps. On Nov. 4, 1944, he was on a bridge that German soldiers were preparing to blow up to prevent it from being used by the advancing Red Army. He was killed when a munitions truck he was driving exploded as a result of a pipe bomb. In 1986, he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Dezso Foldes (1880-1950) was the only Hungarian-Jewish Olympic champion who survived the war. After the 1912 Olympics he left Hungary for the United States. He opened a medical clinic for the poor in Cleveland, Ohio. He died in Cleveland in 1950.
The Hungarian-Jewish fencers loved Hungary. They believed that their victories in the Olympics brought honor and glory to their homeland. In the end, their Olympic medals and achievements did not save them. They suffered the same fate as other Jews.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.