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