A medal lost, a country gained

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

berlin 36 311 (photo credit: Screencap)
berlin 36 311
(photo credit: Screencap)

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

ButLambert, despite her athletic prowess, never became an Olympic athlete,and unlike most sports movies, hers is not about a triumph against theodds. Instead, the drama - which screened Sunday and last Thursday atthe New York Jewish Film Festival - focuses on the obstacle she neverovercame: 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 majorthreat to the Nazi propaganda machine. The country's top female highjumper, the dark-haired Bergmann served as a living refutation againstclaims of Aryan superiority, an acute potential embarrassment forHitler as he prepared to host the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In a stepthat further complicated the situation, the United States threatened aboycott if Germany barred its Jewish athletes from competing - adevelopment that would severely diminish the Olympics' value as ademonstration of Nazi might.

Determined to avoid such an outcome, German officials coercedBergmann to return from England, where she had begun training afterHitler's rise to power, and where she had won the British nationaltitle in 1934. With her parents and brothers still in Germany, Bergmannreturned for a bizarre and painful charade, training with other Olympichopefuls as Nazi officials sought a pretext for excluding her from theGames.

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

"I HAVE ABSOLUTELY no recollection about the Olympics, whetherI listened about it or read the paper," the 95-year-old Bergmann, nowMargaret Lambert, recently told The Jerusalem Post, speakingfrom her longtime home in Queens. (Bergmann changed her first and lastnames following her marriage - husband Bruno is 99 - and pre-wararrival 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 ifthey let me compete? Do I have to make the Hitler salute?'" saysLambert, who was 22 at the time. "It was a very worrisome period forme."

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

For the German leadership, even Lambert's absence at theOlympics proved important - enough so that Hitler's favoredpropagandist, 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 victoryof Ibolya Csak from Hungary," Harvard film historian Eric Rentschlerwrites 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'sHungarian winner, was herself a Jew - a detail Riefenstahl neglected toacknowledge. Csak, who would survive the war, achieved her victory atthe same height, 1.60 meters, that Bergmann had achieved just weeksbefore. (Kaun would take bronze; Rotjen, despite her/his putativeadvantage, 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 wasa very good chance."

THOUGH IN many ways a negative climax, the Olympics weren't theend of Lambert's career. The following year, she claimed the nationaltitle in her new country, the United States, a victory she repeated in1938. With the outbreak of the war, Lambert retired from elite sports,earning a living as a maid and office worker before eventually becominga physical therapist. Her German-born husband, a Jewish physician,served as a US army doctor in Germany after he'd acquired enoughEnglish.

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

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

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

"Her voice was a little low," she recalls, "butsome other women had the same problem... She never came into the showerwith us, and I thought maybe she was bashful - she was only 17 yearsold."

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

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