Yogi Mayer

The Jewish Chronicle - - Obit­u­ar­ies - RUTH ROTHEN­BERG

ADY­NAMIC PER­SON­AL­ITY and pow­er­ful sports­man, Olympic-stan­dard pen­tath­lete Paul Mayer – al­ways known as Yogi though the rea­sons were never ex­plained – was an out­stand­ing youth leader and a se­ri­ous sports his­to­rian and ethi­cist.

Grow­ing up in south west Ger­many with step-par­ents – his mother died when he was six and his fa­ther, a seed mer­chant, when he was 12 – he stud­ied art and sport at Berlin and Frank­furt Uni­ver­si­ties un­til Hitler, on com­ing to power in 1933, ex­pelled Jews from higher ed­u­ca­tion. He then taught phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion at a Jewish school in the Black For­est. He was deeply in­volved in the Jewish youth move­ment, for which he was taken to task by the Gestapo.

In the months be­fore the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he trained for the pen­tathlon at Et­tlin­gen, near the Black For­est, at a spe­cial Olympics camp for Jews – but, with one ex­cep­tion, Jews were ex­cluded. How­ever, Yogi re­ported on the games and saw Jesse Owens’ tri­umph.

In May, 1939, he left Ger­many for Bri­tain with his wife, Ilse, whom he had met at Berlin Univer­sity, and their baby son. He worked in a leather fac­tory but en­rolled in the Pioneer Corps as soon as it ac­cepted Ger­man Jews. In the Bri­tish army he served with the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive (SOE), teach­ing agents to speak flu­ent Ger­man be­fore they parachuted be­hind en­emy lines. He also saw ser­vice in oc­cu­pied Europe.

Af­ter the war Yogi con­tin­ued work­ing in sport with young peo­ple, and he re­turned to Ger­many as a vis­i­tor and am­bas­sador for mu­tual un­der­stand­ing.

He worked in Step­ney as a sports and art in­struc­tor at Brady Boys’ Club, to which he re­turned af­ter run­ning the Prim­rose Club from 1947-51. Named af­ter the premises’ tele­phone ex­change, the club was set up by the Jewish Refugees Com­mit­tee to help in­te­grate the 732 teenage sur­vivors of Nazi camps into nor­mal life, who later be­came known as “the boys”, de­spite the in­clu­sion of girls.

Yogi be­came their fa­ther fig­ure, of­fer­ing sports and so­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties as well as con­ti­nen­tal food from an Aus­trian refugee cook, and a place to call home. He helped chan­nel their en­er­gies into fu­ture hope rather than vengeance or dwelling on the past.

When “the boys” later be­came the 45 Aid So­ci­ety, named af­ter the year they ar­rived in Bri­tain, Yogi was made life deputy pres­i­dent.

Back at Brady as club leader and then direc­tor from 1951-65, he fo­cussed on shap­ing their as­pi­ra­tions. With a full pro­gramme of sport, art, de­bate and drama, he in­tro­duced them to a wider world. He took them camp­ing around Bri­tain and on Alpine treks, and made full use of week­ends at Skeet, the Kent coun­try house bought for the club as a re­treat dur­ing the war. Brady boys were among the first to take part in the Duke of Ed­in­burgh Award scheme, ini­ti­ated in 1956. The Duke vis­ited the re­built club in 1960.

From 1965 to 1980 Yogi was youth of­fi­cer for Is­ling­ton Coun­cil. Its huge coun­cil es­tates of­fered scope for his pi­o­neer­ing ideas to har­ness youth­ful en­ergy. He gave lo­cal boys time and space for foot­ball by per­suad­ing the coun­cil to in­stall flood­light­ing and newly in­vented AstroTurf. He started a boat club and youth theatre, brought in “un­at­tached” youth work­ers to en­gage with boys who did not join in com­mu­nal ac­tiv­i­ties, and de­vel­oped drop-in cen­tres for tru­ants and nonat­ten­ders.

In re­tire­ment he con­trib­uted his ex­per­tise and ex­pe­ri­ence in train­ing youth work­ers and was a gov­er­nor of Is­ling­ton Col­lege. But he turned in­creas­ingly to doc­u­ment­ing sport, from the start of the mod­ern Olympic Games and, in par­tic­u­lar, the con­tri­bu­tion made by Jews. Af­ter long re­search, his book, Jews & the Olympic Games – Sport a Spring­board for Mi­nori­ties was pub­lished in 2004, when he was 90.

In Sir Martin Gil­bert’s book, The Boys, he con­trib­uted sto­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences of his young charges at the Prim­rose Club, and in­sti­gated the book’s Ger­man trans­la­tion and pub­li­ca­tion. He made many school vis­its to Ger­many to de­scribe life un­der the Nazis, and was adopted by one head­mas­ter and his fam­ily as a “grand­fa­ther”.

In 1997 he was ap­pointed MBE for ser­vices to young peo­ple. In 1998 he was awarded an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from Pots­dam Univer­sity in recog­ni­tion of his life­time de­vo­tion to sport prac­tice, the­ory, ethics and his­tory.

His wife, Ilse, died in 2006 af­ter 65 years of mar­riage. With his daugh­ters’ de­voted care, he re­mained in­de­pen­dent at home un­til this year when he moved into a Jewish Care home.

“If Yogi Mayer had any one re­gret it was that he did not live long enough to see Lon­don’s 2012 Olympic Games,” adds Manny Robin­son.

“He has left be­hind a legacy of ser­vice to Jewish youth that may never be sur­passed. To pos­si­bly thou­sands of ex-Brady club boys Yogi was the finest man­ager a youth club could have had. Yogi was The Spe­cial One, a fact borne out by so many ex-Bra­di­ans who came to pay a fi­nal trib­ute at his fu­neral.

“His era as man­ager proved, be­yond doubt, to be the golden age of Brady in the East End of Lon­don. He turned it into the finest youth club in Bri­tain and he sought – and re­ceived in re­turn – 100 per cent ef­fort from ‘his boys’ in what­ever ac­tiv­ity they par­tic­i­pated. I can still re­mem­ber with af­fec­tion his voice shout­ing out at a camp in Fresh­wa­ter, Isle of Wight: ‘’Tent Twenty Plays Tent Twenty One at Wolly­ball.’’

He is sur­vived his son Thomas, two daugh­ters, Mon­ica and Carol, four grand­chil­dren and five great-grand­chil­dren.

Mayer: Olympic chron­i­cler and fa­ther fig­ure to the Brady boys and girls

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