When Paul Mahrer proudly donned the broad red-striped jersey of the Czech national soccer team to represent his country in the 1924 0lympics in Paris, he could not have guessed that barely a generation later he would be a prisoner in his country’s capital. In 1942, Mahrer was arrested and taken to the Gestapo prison in Karlplatz, in Prague.
Gifted with athletic ability, Paul Mahrer spent much of the 1920s and 1930s touring the world as a professional soccer player. He married Betty Gutmann, daughter of a distinguished Prague family whose relatives included singers, cantors, and even a friend of the great Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka.
As an accomplished Jewish athlete, Mahrer frequently traveled abroad to play with the American Jewish teams, such as the Brooklyn Wanderers, in the HaKoah league of the New York metropolitan area. Teams with which Paul Mahrer was associated also played games and put on demonstrations in South and Central America.
Mahrer’s son, Jerry, was born in the United States in 1929, giving him what would turn out to be lifesaving American citizenship. However, the Great Depression forced the family to return to Prague in 1932, not long before the National Socialists’ rise to power in neighboring Germany in 1933.
The German invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 resulted in roundups and arrests of Jews, public humiliations, synagogue arson, compulsory registration, and confiscation of Jewish wealth and property. With the arrival of Adolf Eichmann in Prague in the summer of 1939, the pace of anti-Jewish measures increased dramatically.
Paul Mahrer’s parents and extended family came to live near him after the German occupation. With the outbreak of war in September, however, arrests and deportations of prominent Jews began. Mahrer’s parents were eventually taken to Terezin, the garrison town near Prague, which had been converted by the Nazis into a “model” ghetto. Here, among others, many of the notable Jews from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were imprisoned—the wealthy, the famous, World War I veterans, and those well-connected Jews whom the Nazis might want to preserve, at least for now, for barter, bargaining, or ransom.
Throughout this accelerating crisis, Paul Mahrer played soccer for a well-known German club in Prague. He refused to wear the compulsory Jewish badge, the yellow star, and got away with this because of his “Aryan” appearance. However, mass deportations began in November 1941, and the Mahrer family was caught in the Nazi net.
In 1942, Paul Mahrer was arrested and sent to Terezin after a year in a Gestapo prison in Prague. The Nazi terror then closed around other family members. In May 1943, Mahrer’s sons, Jerry and Peter, were arrested. Because of Jerry’s American citizenship, they were taken to an internment camp in the castle at Tittmoning, in Germany. The following day, Betty Mahrer was also arrested. Although not an American citizen like her sons, Betty Mahrer was interned at Biberach, a camp for American women in Liebenau, Germany; Nazi logic insisted that she be in the same type of facility as her children, who were minors.
Tittmoning, where the Mahrer boys were sent, was a camp that housed American citizens, including a number of African American boxers and several musicians, such as jazz pianist Freddy Johnson. These performers, marooned by World War II in Europe, befriended Jerry Mahrer, who, at age thirteen, was the youngest internee. He became the camp “mascot,” and in his rounds created an album of cartoon sketches of prisoners and guards, drawn by one of the prisoners.
The Jewish internees, targets of antisemitism in the camp, were segregated from the others, while the Nazis also separately segregated the black prisoners. The Mahrer boys had mail contact with their mother via the Red Cross but not with their father in Terezin. Paul Mahrer worked in the camp kitchen there and was allowed limited mail contact with his wife. Severely censored, Paul Mahrer’s postcards from Terezin demonstrate how the writer was compelled to say that conditions were good—in effect to lie about the true conditions—or risk losing writing privileges in the future. However, the cards still convey Mahrer’s love for his family, his pride in his sons, and in the athlete’s profession: “We have enough. Tell our boy that I played soccer again and even played well and was successful. My beloved, just stay healthy and well. I love you. Kisses … ”
In February 1945, Jerry and Peter were reunited with their mother and put on a train bound for Switzerland. They were part of an exchange for German POWs. Assembled from their various camps, the internees traveled through Switzerland to the French border. There, American soldiers escorted them to Marseille, where they sailed on a Swedish ship, arriving in New York two weeks later. When Terezin was liberated by the Soviets in May, Paul Mahrer was among the 17,000 Jews still alive there. He was able to join his family in New York a year later.