A mind of her own: the papers of Lola Mayer

Wednesday 18 August 2021

In the second of a series of blog posts about the Archive of European intellectual life, project archivist Miriam Buncombe, looks at the archival record of Lola Mayer within the papers of Jacob Peter Mayer.

Lola Mayer (nee Grusemann). Image courtesy of family.

As is so often the case, the archival record of Lola Mayer occupies just a small corner of the papers of her husband, intellectual historian Jacob Peter Mayer. It is only through happy accident that Lola’s papers – as a footnote to those of Peter – find themselves preserved in St Andrews Special Collections. This is fortunate indeed, as on top of providing an insider’s point of view on the work and thought of her husband, the papers of Lola Mayer reveal a life and mind brilliant, vivid and fascinating in their own right.

The papers preserved relating to Lola Mayer (born Grusemann) reveal little about her personal history, other than that she married Jacob Peter in Berlin in 1935. One anonymous typed account, probably written by Peter, recounts the story of a stubborn poetess wooed by a persistent letter-writer – perhaps this is his version of their early romance! Yet Lola’s intellectual work is quietly interspersed throughout these papers. In annotated draft typescripts for ‘The History of the First International Workers’ association’, written around 1930, the palaeography of the textual corrections, re-writing and research notes indicate that this was as much Lola’s work as Jacob Peter’s, and that passionate support for the Sozialdemokratische Partei (Social Democrat Party) was an interest the couple clearly shared. In JP Mayer’s brief recollections, recorded by his third wife Edna, it is clear that both Lola and Peter worked for the anti-national socialist resistance in Berlin, smuggling messages out of the country through the British Embassy. Certainly, both Lola and Peter were arrested during the National Socialist years for distributing flyers, a factor in their decision to leave Germany.

Lola’s work appears again supporting her husband’s research into the sociology of film. Here, she attends children’s film club screenings to provide a report on the young audience’s responses to the film and provides her own assessment of the films being screened. In a somewhat disparaging assessment, Lola concludes that the quality of British children’s films of the 1940s does not compare favourably to the quality of Soviet children’s films of the same period. Lola should know: in conducting research for the same project on the impacts of cinema viewing on children, she appears to have transcribed the script of the Soviet film ‘Life of Toys’, translating this into English, giving an indication of her skill as a linguist and researcher. Nor does her critical assistance with research end there. The front pages of a later edition of the correspondence between Tocqueville and Nassau Senior indicates that it was Lola Mayer who conducted a significant portion of the archival research and work to determine the extent and order of the extant manuscript material for this volume.

Lola’s business card (ID: ms39108/1/6)

Such work was conducted on top of running her own business as a bookseller. If the recollections of her son, Karl Peter, are accurate, this business she established as a new immigrant in England with the purpose of providing cultural reading material for German Prisoners of War held on British soil, in the hope of encouraging their re-education. It appears that a quiet hope that Germans were not inherently unredeemable was another belief fervently shared by both Lola and Peter Mayer. Such similarities in political and moral outlook, however, did not translate into equality within their personal relationship. Peter travelled frequently for work leaving Lola alone to care for a young child with poor health. Yet Lola comes across as capable and determined, becoming a much-loved local councilwoman for Stoke Poges in later life, to whom a clock in the town was dedicated upon her death.

Lola’s own thoughts and experience are most extensively captured in her extraordinary, self-reflective diary. In a series of typed accounts, with intermittent entries spanning 1936 – 1960, Lola details the minutiae of life in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, as mother to a young child coping in an unfamiliar country, keeping a house, garden and business going almost always singlehandedly. But beyond the everyday, her writing grapples with questions of gender equality within a marriage to man singularly focussed on his career. Considering her recollections of life in Germany before the war, Lola recalls the early stages of her relationship with Jacob Peter and examines the impacts of the German political turmoil of the 1930s and 40s on their personal relationship, reflecting, with great perception, on the connections between this traumatic history and her struggles with personal identity and faith.

Just as her diary points to the devastation brought into the life of a confident, modern Berlin intellectual through the harsh strokes of the outbreak of war, motherhood and exile, her family letters, too, convey this change. Warm and loving correspondence between Lola and her family before the war, with long rambling letters sent to ‘mein liebes Lolachen’ (my dear little Lola), recounting the familiar rhythms of life back at the family home, stand in bleak contrast to later recollections preserved in Lola’s diary. Here she reveals that she never looked into what had become of her family following the war. Knowing they had fled Germany for the Soviet Union to escape the war, friends had discouraged her from seeking them in case calling attention to them should place them in further danger.

Through their perceptive commentary and intelligence, the preserved papers of Lola Mayer create an important window into a life and worldview which continued to be indirectly shaped by war, long after its close.

Miriam Buncombe
Project Archivist

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3 thoughts on "A mind of her own: the papers of Lola Mayer"

  • Thomas Ventzke
    Thomas Ventzke
    Saturday 12 August 2023, 4.13pm

    Dear Miriam Buncombe, in Nov. 2020, I bought an old pocket- book written by H.G.Wells. This book is a compressed German edition of his three volume edition "Weltgeschichte". Inside I found the sticker of Lola Mayers book-shop. I also found a the rubber stamp of the P.O.W. Camp Number 296 in Rotherham/Yorkshire. It was situated in Ravensfield Park, a farming plant. (As far as my researches were showing). The book has been read intensively, al lot of markers. I think, a German P.O.W. read it so intensively. Somehow, this book came to Germany. I was interested in the fate of Lola Mayer and found your research. Thank you for your good work, you see, someone reads it surely. If you want, I have sent you some photos of the book in a separate mail. Best regards from the Black Forest Thomas Ventzke

    • skr23
      Monday 14 August 2023, 5.21pm

      Dear Thomas, thank you for getting in touch. Please could you send the photos of the book to [email protected].

      • Ventzke Thomas
        Ventzke Thomas
        Friday 17 November 2023, 6.53pm

        Sorry for my late answer. I will do that immediately. Kind regards Thomas


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