Margaret Bergmann Lambert, a world-class high jumper who was best known for her nonparticipation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics — she was kept off the German team because she was Jewish — died on Tuesday at her home in New York City. She was 103.
Her niece Doris Bergman confirmed her death.
In June 1936, just a month before the Olympics, Lambert, then known as Gretel Bergmann, won a meet against some of the best German high jumpers with a leap of 5 feet, 3 inches. That height tied a German record and would have been good enough to win the gold medal.
But that she was allowed to take part in the meet was, as she later said, a "charade": a propaganda tool to show the world that Germany was unbiased in its Olympic team selections. It was a cynical response to organised movements, particularly in the United States, that were urging nations not to send teams to Berlin unless the Germans demonstrated that they did not discriminate.
In fact, the Germans had no intention of sending her to the Olympics, and Lambert had been coerced into training. Threats were made against her family if she refused.
“It was a terrible shock,” she told Newsday in 2015, “because I was the best.”
Margarethe Minnie Bergmann was born April 12th, 1914, in the small town of Laupheim, in southwest Germany, about 65 miles from the Swiss border. She was an outstanding all-around athlete, excelling in the shot put, discus, as well as the high jump. "I was 'The Great Jewish Hope,'" she often said.
With anti-Semitism on the rise in Germany – she recalled signs in shops declaring, "No dogs or Jews allowed" – she left home at 19 and moved to England, where she won the British high jump championship in 1935. But when the Nazis pressured her father to bring her home, she returned to Germany to seek a position on the Olympic team.
Shortly after winning that June meet, held at Adolf Hitler Stadium in Stuttgart, she received a letter from Nazi officials informing her that she had not qualified. "Looking back on your recent performances," the letter stated, "you could not possibly have expected to be chosen for the team." Her accomplishment was removed from the record books.
Hurt and angry, she turned down the officials’ offer of a standing-room ticket, “free of charge,” for the Olympic track and field games. Travel expenses and hotel accommodations were not included in the offer. “I never replied,” she said.
In 1937, Gretel Bergmann was able to obtain papers that allowed her to emigrate to the United States. She landed in New York City with no more than $10 – all the money the Germans would allow her to take out of the country. She worked as a masseuse and a housemaid and later as a physical therapist. In 1938, she married a fellow German refugee, Bruno Lambert, who was a sprinter, though not a world-class one. They had met at an athletic training camp in Germany.
Lambert continued to compete in track and field events, but for only a few more years. She won the United States women's high jump and shot put championships in 1937 and the high jump again in 1938. She was preparing to try out for the 1940 US Olympic team when war broke out in Europe, after which she focused her attention on trying to get her parents out of Germany, which she was eventually able to do.
She never forgot what might have been. In 1996, she spoke of watching an important pre-Olympics meet on television at her home in Jamaica Estates, Queens.
“And suddenly I realised that there were tears just flowing down my cheeks,” she said. “I’m not a crier. But now I just couldn’t help it. I remember watching those athletes, and remembering what it was like for me in 1936, how I could very well have won an Olympic medal. And through the tears, I said, ‘Damn it!’”
That spring Lambert received a letter from Walter Troger, president of the German Olympic Committee, inviting her and her husband to be guests at the Atlanta Olympics.
"We feel that Mrs Lambert was not treated adequately at the time of the Berlin Olympics," Troger later told the New York Times. "We wanted to do something for her; we felt she deserved it." She accepted his invitation.
“I don’t hate all Germans anymore, though I did for a long time,” Lambert said. “But I’m aware of many Germans trying to make up for wrongs as well as they know how. And, yes, I felt that the young people of Germany should not be held responsible for what their elders did.”
Although she had once vowed never to set foot in Germany again – and had been gone so long, she said, that she could barely speak the language – she was persuaded to return in 1999, when the stadium in Laupheim, where she used to train, was renamed in her honor. (A sports complex in Berlin had been named after her in 1995, and in 2010 the athletic field at Francis Lewis High School in Queens was renamed after her.)
Lambert said of her decision to attend the Laupheim ceremony, “I was told that they were naming the facilities for me so that when young people ask, ‘Who was Gretel Bergmann?’ they will be told my story, and the story of those times.”
Lambert's story was also told in a 2004 HBO documentary, Hitler's Pawn, and, in partly fictionalised form, in the 2009 German film Berlin 36. A memoir, By Leaps and Bounds, was published in 2005.
Her German national high jump record was restored in 2009. “It’s very nice,” she said at the time, “except I wouldn’t have committed suicide if it didn’t happen.”
Margaret Lambert is survived by two sons, Glenn and Gary; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson; Bruno Lambert died in 2013.