The tragic story of the champion Jewish fencer who fought for Hitler

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In 1924, Helene Mayer won the German national championship in women's foil fencing at the age of 13. She went on to successfully defend her title six years in a row.

Her extraordinary talent dazzled the country, earning her fame and adulation. Statues of her were sold in souvenir shops throughout Germany.

Many considered her to be the greatest female fencer in history.

See more about her story:

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Helene Mayer, the champion Jewish fencer who fought for Hilter
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Helene Mayer, the champion Jewish fencer who fought for Hilter

Helene Mayer in 1927

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Helene Mayer in 1927

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Helene Mayer in 1927

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

German fencer Helene Mayer won the gold medal in the 1928 Olympic Games. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

German fencer and Olympic champion in Amsterdam 1928: Helene Mayer (1910-1953).

(Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) 

Helene Mayer in 1928

(Photo by Martin Munkacsi/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Helene Mayer in 1928

(Photo by Martin Munkacsi/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Helene Mayer in 1928

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Helene Mayer in 1928

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Helene Mayer in 1929

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Mayer, Helene -- Fencer, Germany with the Swedish gymnastic teacher Eric Fribongat the Luzern lido in 1930.

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 04: Fraulein Helene Mayer, the champion swordswoman, practicing at Bertrands Fencing Academy, London, for the Hutton International Fencing Trophy, which is being competed for throughout the week by representatives of several nations. (Photo by Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Helene Mayer - Sportswoman, Fencing, Germany - 10th olympic games in Los Angeles in 1932 (Photo by Stary/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Berlin Olympics - 1936, The victors in the (foil) fencing during the medal ceremony in the Olympic stadium: (from left to right) Ellen Preis (Austria) 3rd, Ilona Elek-Schakerer (Hungary) 1st and Helene Mayer (Germany) 2nd. (Photo by Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images)

German fencer (Olympic champion in Amsterdam 1928) Helene Mayer (1910-1953) as the winner in the Fencing World Championships 1937 in Paris.

(Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) 

German fencer (Olympic champion in Amsterdam 1928) Helene Mayer (1910-1953) with a statue of her created by sculptor Lilli Finzelberg. 1937. Photograph. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) 
A portrait of German Olympic Gold Medalist and European Champion fencer Helene Mayer stands backdropped by the chancellery in Berlin, on July 26, 2015 as part of the exhibition 'Between Success and Persecution Jewish Stars in German Sports till 1933 and beyond' (Zwischen Erfolg und Verfolgung- Juedische Stars im deutschen Sport bis 1933 und danach). Seventy years after the end of World War II, Berlin from July 27, 2015 hosts the European Maccabi Games, dubbed the Jewish Olympics, at the site of the 1936 'Nazi Games'. AFP PHOTO / DPA / SOEREN STACHE GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read SOEREN STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JULY 23: The life-sized sculpture of the jewish athlete Helene Mayer is pictured during the exhibition opening 'Between Success And Persecution' at Washingtonplatz on July 23, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
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She represented Germany at the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics, bringing home a gold medal. Four years later, she competed in the Los Angeles Games. Two hours before her final matches, she learned that her boyfriend had died in a military training accident. She finished fifth.

Mayer stayed in California and attended college for international law, hoping to perhaps become a diplomat for her country one day.

In 1933, Hitler and the Nazi Party took power in Germany, and quickly set to work stripping away the rights of Jewish citizens — including Mayer, whose father was Jewish.

Mayer's membership in her hometown fencing club was revoked, and it became clear she could not return to Germany. The former celebrity was reduced to teaching German at a college in Oakland.

She continued to fence successfully in the United States, but pined for her homeland and the fame that had been snatched away from her.

In the run-up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, many in the United States were advocating a boycott of the games as a rebuke to Hitler's regime.

Regarding the prospect of a boycott as a potential disaster, American Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage convinced Germany to allow a Jewish-German athlete to compete — a public relations stunt to mask the Nazi's heinous treatment of Jews.

An invitation was extended to Mayer to try out for the German team. Homesick and desperate to reclaim her lost Olympic glory, she ignored the Nazis' atrocities and accepted.

Her return to Germany was far from triumphant. The press ignored her and the government tolerated her presence with thinly veiled disdain.

She fought in the Olympics with determined ferocity, but ultimately lost her final duel against Ilona Elek of Hungary.

Standing on the winner's podium to accept her silver medal, Mayer concluded her last Olympics with a Nazi salute to Hitler, the leader of the regime that would soon carry out the genocide of her people.

Mayer returned to the United States, where she continued to win championships. She finally returned to Germany in 1952, but died of cancer just a year later at the age of 42.

In her tragically short life, she gave few interviews and left behind little correspondence, making the reasoning behind her deal with Nazi Germany, and her feelings about it, an enduring mystery.

See a film about Mayer's experience:

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