A cousin of mine, Margaret Bergmann Lambert, died on July 25th at the age of 103. The New York Times and Washington Post were two of the many news outlets to write obituaries about this remarkable woman you probably haven’t heard of.
Known to our family by her nickname “Gretel”, Margaret was a Jewish German-born world-class all-around athlete, excelling in the shot-put, the discus and other events as well as the high jump. Having moved to England to avoid increasing antisemitism in her homeland, she won the British high-jump championship in 1935. Hitler’s government pressured her family to bring her back to Germany where she went on to tie a German record for the high jump.
As the 1936 Berlin Olympics approached, Germany needed to avoid an American boycott by appearing unbiased in its Olympic team selection. Threats to Gretel’s family coerced her into Olympic training for propaganda purposes. Despite all likelihood that Gretel would have won Gold for Germany, the Nazi government never intended to send her to the Olympics. Two weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games, she was denied participation. Weeks later, her accomplishments were stricken from German record books.
Gretel immigrated to the U.S. in 1937 with only $10, all the money the Nazi government allowed her to take out of the country. She forged a career for herself outside of athletics, married well, had children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Eventually, three stadiums were re-named in her honor: one in New York, one in her birthplace of Laupheim, and one in Berlin, the city where she had been denied her place in Olympic history.
Cousin Gretel’s story was told in a 2004 HBO documentary, “Hitler’s Pawn” and, in partly fictionalized form, in the 2009 German film, “Berlin 36”. A memoir, By Leaps and Bounds, was published in 2004.
We know it takes a special kind of person to become an Olympic-class athlete. War is one more hurdle the best of the best overcome. In addition to Margaret Bergmann Lambert’s book, other great testimonials to human perseverance of Olympic quality during wartime you should check out include:
Triumph (Jesse Owens) – Jeremy Schaap
Unbroken (Louis Zamporini) – Laura Hillenbrand
The Boys in the Boat (the University of Washington rowing team) – Daniel James Brown
For the Glory (Eric Liddell) – Duncan Hamilton