A medal lost, a country gained

NY resident Margaret Lambert has a movie made about her Olympic hopes under the Nazis.

January 25, 2010 05:42
Karoline Herfurth plays Bergmann.

berlin 36 311. (photo credit: Screencap)

NEW YORK - Like many Olympic athletes, Margaret Lambert is enjoying the fruits of her celebrity. In recent months, she's been featured in German Vogue and was recognized by the country's track and field association. She enjoyed an even rarer distinction in September when a movie based on her story opened in Germany.

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But Lambert, despite her athletic prowess, never became an Olympic athlete, and unlike most sports movies, hers is not about a triumph against the odds. Instead, the drama - which screened Sunday and last Thursday at the New York Jewish Film Festival - focuses on the obstacle she never overcame: being a Jew in Nazi Germany.

Though you'd never guess it from her easygoing manner, Lambert - born Gretel Bergmann in southern Germany - was once viewed as a major threat to the Nazi propaganda machine. The country's top female high jumper, the dark-haired Bergmann served as a living refutation against claims of Aryan superiority, an acute potential embarrassment for Hitler as he prepared to host the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In a step that further complicated the situation, the United States threatened a boycott if Germany barred its Jewish athletes from competing - a development that would severely diminish the Olympics' value as a demonstration of Nazi might.

Determined to avoid such an outcome, German officials coerced Bergmann to return from England, where she had begun training after Hitler's rise to power, and where she had won the British national title in 1934. With her parents and brothers still in Germany, Bergmann returned for a bizarre and painful charade, training with other Olympic hopefuls as Nazi officials sought a pretext for excluding her from the Games.

As Berlin '36 - the new film - shows, Germany ultimately adopted one of the strangest strategies imaginable for dealing with its Jewish star. In Dora Rotjen, a potential teen replacement, the Nazis found a rival who was talented, powerful, and, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, a man. Assigned to room with Bergmann at the pre-Olympic training camp, Rotjen would eventually claim one of the two spots on the German team, even though Bergmann had set a national record - in a competition at Stuttgart's Adolf Hitler Stadium - just weeks before the Games. Once the Reichsport Ministry learned that the American team had set sail for Germany, it sent Bergmann a letter that cited her "poor performances in recent days," and then announced she would not be allowed to compete. "Heil Hitler!" it concluded.

"I HAVE ABSOLUTELY no recollection about the Olympics, whether I listened about it or read the paper," the 95-year-old Bergmann, now Margaret Lambert, recently told The Jerusalem Post, speaking from her longtime home in Queens. (Bergmann changed her first and last names following her marriage - husband Bruno is 99 - and pre-war arrival in the US.)

As an honored guest at last week's screening of Berlin '36, Lambert viewed a story which likely resurrected painful feelings - particularly in scenes from her pre-Olympic training.

"That was the worst thing I had to cope with: 'What will I do if they let me compete? Do I have to make the Hitler salute?'" says Lambert, who was 22 at the time. "It was a very worrisome period for me."

In parallel, she recalls, the bitterness of the situation propelled her upward, even if she couldn't reveal her inner anger. "The madder I got, the better I jumped," she says.

For the German leadership, even Lambert's absence at the Olympics proved important - enough so that Hitler's favored propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, devoted a segment of Olympia, her "documentary" about the Games, to the women's high jump.

"The central point of focus in this sequence is not the victory of Ibolya Csak from Hungary," Harvard film historian Eric Rentschler writes in an e-mail to the Post, "but rather the attempts of the German athlete Elfriede Kaun to leap over" the national record previously set by Bergmann.

In one of the Games' sweeter ironies, Csak, the event's Hungarian winner, was herself a Jew - a detail Riefenstahl neglected to acknowledge. Csak, who would survive the war, achieved her victory at the same height, 1.60 meters, that Bergmann had achieved just weeks before. (Kaun would take bronze; Rotjen, despite her/his putative advantage, placed fourth. )

More than seven decades later, Lambert wavers about how she might have fared had she been allowed to jump in Berlin.

"The possibility was there," she says of her chances at victory. "The gold medal was at 1.60, which I had done just two weeks before." She pauses a beat - she's thinking it over - and concludes, "There was a very good chance."

THOUGH IN many ways a negative climax, the Olympics weren't the end of Lambert's career. The following year, she claimed the national title in her new country, the United States, a victory she repeated in 1938. With the outbreak of the war, Lambert retired from elite sports, earning a living as a maid and office worker before eventually becoming a physical therapist. Her German-born husband, a Jewish physician, served as a US army doctor in Germany after he'd acquired enough English.

With high jumping behind her, Lambert took up a variety of other activities, excelling in bowling ("I was good at it"), experimenting with golf ("which I didn't like too much") and taking up tennis ("just for the fun of it"). The national pastime of her new country revived her competitive instincts - specifically, she says, dueling loyalties in her household were split between her Yankees and her husband's Mets.

"We're married 71 years because he watches the Mets downstairs and I watch [the Yankees] upstairs," she laughs, traces of her German accent coming through.

She adopts a similarly lighthearted approach to the movie she inspired, saying she doesn't mind the many liberties it takes regarding her relationship with Rotjen, called Marie Ketteler in the film. In real life, she didn't become aware of the other high jumper's true gender until the 1960s, when she read about it in a magazine.

"Her voice was a little low," she recalls, "but some other women had the same problem... She never came into the shower with us, and I thought maybe she was bashful - she was only 17 years old."

Even the movie's inclusion of a coach who supports her despite her Jewishness - a figment of the screenwriter's imagination, she says - doesn't faze her.

"It wasn't exactly the way it happened," she recalls, "but I realize that you can't show people high-jumping for an hour and a half. They had to make it a little more interesting."

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