Gerda Mayer obituary

Other lives: Poet who drew on her experiences as a child refugee from the Holocaust

My friend Gerda Mayer, who has died aged 94, was a talented poet with a gift for expressing the deepest of feelings in the simplest of ways. Her poetry is mostly observational, with its subjects being herself and those around her. As a child refugee, whose family largely perished during the Holocaust, she had much personal experience on which to draw.

The daughter of Erna (nee 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 shop.

In September 1938, just before the annexation of those lands, her Jewish family fled east to Prague. In March 1939, one day before the German army arrived, Gerda escaped to the UK by plane thanks to the efforts of her parents and a Dorset schoolteacher, Trevor Chadwick, who was part of a British refugee rescue team there.

Gerda initially stayed with Chadwick’s wife and children in Swanage, having been sponsored by his 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 neither survived the war. In 1989 she recalled “already being in Stoatley Rough, when I had my last letter from my mother”.

In 1946 she moved to London seeking 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 naturalised British citizen. In 1960 Dolfi started an import business, for which Gerda helped with the paperwork while studying for a degree in English, German and history of art at Bedford College, London. She graduated in 1963 and worked for a while as a researcher for the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who had been one of her lecturers, before leaving to dedicate her time to poetry.

Her parents, particularly her mother, had encouraged Gerda to read poetry, and she wrote her first poem at the age of four. Having to learn a new language put her poetry back a few years, but she continued to write and her poems were published in many magazines and anthologies.

Gerda’s first major publication, Treble Poets 2, appeared in 1975, with a comprehensive 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 programmes.

A fellow poet, Frederic Vanson, described her as “a rare talent, combining tenderness, irony, accuracy of observation, wit and fantasy. As an artist she is utterly assured.”

Dolfi died in 2009.

David Plaice

The GuardianTramp

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