Obituary of Gerda Mayer | Poetry

My friend Gerda Mayer, who died at the age of 94, was a talented poet with a knack for expressing the deepest feelings in the simplest way. Her poetry is primarily observational, with her subjects being herself and those around her. As a refugee child, whose family largely perished during the Holocaust, she had a lot of personal experience to draw on.

Daughter of Erna (née Eisenberger) and Arnold Stein, Gerda was born in Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), a town in the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia, where her father ran a clothing store.

In September 1938, just before the annexation of these lands, his Jewish family fled east of Prague. In March 1939, a day before the arrival of the German army, Gerda fled to the UK by plane thanks to the efforts of her parents and a Dorset teacher, Trevor Chadwick, who was part of a British refugee relief team.

Gerda initially stayed with Chadwick’s wife and children in Swanage, after being sponsored by her mother, Muriel, before moving to a local boarding school. In 1942 she was sent to a second boarding school, Stoatley Rough, in Haslemere, Surrey, which had been established in 1934 for the education of refugee children.

There Gerda spent two “heavenly” years. For a while she continued to receive letters from her parents, but none survived the war. In 1989, she remembers “being already at Stoatley Rough, when I received my last letter from my mother”.

In 1946, she moved to London in search of office work and met Dolfi Mayer, a fellow Jew who had fled Vienna in 1939 and later joined the British Army. They married in 1949 and Gerda became a naturalized British citizen. In 1960, Dolfi started an import business, for which Gerda helped with paperwork while studying for a degree in English, German, and Art History at Bedford College London. Graduated in 1963, she worked for a time as a researcher for the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who was one of her lecturers, before leaving to devote herself to poetry.

Her parents, especially her mother, had encouraged Gerda to read poetry, and she wrote her first poem when she was four years old. Having to learn a new language set her poetry back a few years, but she continued to write and her poems were published in numerous magazines and anthologies.

Gerda’s first major publication, Treble Poets 2, appeared in 1975, with a full collection, Bernini’s Cat, in 1999. She was active in local poetry groups around Waltham Forest, north-east London, was a familiar voice on the poetry reading circuit, and featured on BBC radio programs.

A fellow poet, Frédéric Vanson, describes her as “a rare talent, combining tenderness, irony, correct observation, wit and fantasy. As an artist, she is totally assured.

Dolfi died in 2009.

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