Lambert, Margaret (aka Gretel Bergmann) : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Lambert, Margaret (aka Gretel Bergmann)

Margarethe Bergmann

track and field

Country Represented:

Years Competed:

Olympic Info:
In 1936, Bergmann tied the German women's high jump record (5'3") less than one month before the start of the Berlin Olympics. Despite the fact that the height would have won her the gold or silver medal at the Olympics, she was forced off the German team because she was Jewish. Recalling this racism in 2004 (The New York Times, July 7, 2004), she expressed her angry regret by remarking, "A hundred thousand spectators seeing a Jew win would've been heaven."

On July 14, 2004, HBO presented a documentary on Lambert. Ninety years old (and still graceful and vigorous) she is shown in Hitler's Pawn saying "I can still hear that voice calling from within -- Jump! Continue to jump. Show them what a Jew is capable of doing, of being. "

Ironically, a stadium in which she was not allowed to compete (or even enter!) was named after her in this new century. When she was sent a photograph of Gretel Bergmann Stadium in Germany, Gretel -- now Margaret Bergmann Lambert (the wife of Bruno Lambert, a retired physician, himself 93 in 2004) -- told Ira Berkow that "To have that stadium named for me is incredible."(The New York Times, October 28, 2002). Gretel (her German nickname) recalled that "When the Nazis came to power in 1933, when I was 19 years old, I was no longer allowed to set foot in the stadium, even as a spectator." Bergmann remembers the signs that stated "No Jews or Dogs Allowed."

Lambert had vowed never to have anything to do with Germany. But in 1996, she was invited by the German Olympic Committee to be its guest at the Atlanta Olympics. She turned it down at first, but the committee prevailed. "I decided that I could not blame this generation for what their fathers and grandfathers did," she told Ira Berkow. "I mean, if my father killed somebody, I should not be held responsible."

"She appreciated the treatment she received by the German group in Atlanta," Berkow wrote. "And in 1999, she was invited to Germany to receive a series of honors, from the naming of a sports center in Berlin for her, to the dedication of the Laupheim sports center and the beginning of the stadium's restoration. (The stadium was only recently completed.) 'I was not going to participate,' she said, 'but when 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.

" 'I felt it was important to remember, and so I agreed to return to the place I swore I'd never go again. But I had stopped speaking German and didn't even try when I was there. They provided a translator.' "

Career Highlights:
In the early 1930s, Bergmann was one of Germany's top female track and field athletes and seemed poised to compete at the 1936 Olympics, which were going to be held in Berlin. After the Nazis' rise to power, however, Bergmann and other Jewish athletes were told they were no longer allowed to compete in German athletic clubs or competitions. In response, Bergmann moved to London and hoped to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. She won the British high jump championship in 1935.

At this time, an Olympic boycott movement was gaining momentum in the United States because of the Nazi policy of excluding Jewish athletes. In response, the Nazis agreed to nominate 21 Jews, including Bergmann, to attend the Olympic training camp. She returned to Germany and took part in the camp, because her family (who remained in Germany) had been threatened if she did not return.

Despite achieving terrific results, she was not allowed to compete against non-Jewish athletes. Still, with the American boycott threat looming, the Germans invited Bergmann to join the Olympic team, and she accepted. Her admission to the team (along with Jewish fencer Helene Mayer) secured the American team's participation in the Games.

Bergmann jumped a German-record tying 5'3" in the high jump in June 1936, but on July 16 (after the American team had already set sail for Europe), she received a letter from the German Olympic Committee that read, "Looking back on your recent performances, you could not possibly have expected to be chosen for the team." The letter concluded, "Heil Hitler."

The rejection, of course, came as a terrible disappointment. Lambert recalls that "the thought that I might represent Nazi Germany had sickened me, and yet I desperately wanted the chance to compete...but my motivation was different from...any other athlete...I wanted to show what a Jew could do, and I wanted to use my talent as a weapon against Nazi ideology." Eager to refute the Nazi caricature of the Jew as "fat, bowlegged, and miserable," Bergmann later remarked that "It was all a charade. They never intended to put me on the team."

Feeling cheated, she emigrated to the United States in 1937, and promptly won national championships in the high jump and shot put. She repeated as national champion in the high jump in 1938. Bergmann, who was honored in 1980 with a commemorative award from the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, was soon joined by her future husband, Bruno Lambert. The two Jewish athletes (Bruno was a sprinter, although not world-class) were unsure if they would ever see each other again when Bergmann left; but Lambert secured papers to America, and the couple settled in New York City.

At the 1996 Atlanta Games, when the German Olympic Committee invited Bergmann to attend the Olympics as its honored guest, she accepted, telling a reporter: "I don't hate all Germans any more, though I did for a long time. I'm aware of many Germans trying to make up for wrongs. The young people of Germany should not be held responsible for what their elders did, so I decided to accept the invitation...I thought that going to Atlanta would be good for my mental outlook. It will make the ghosts of the past a little less unfriendly."

Birth and Death Dates:
b. April 12, 1914

Lauphein, Germany

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Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, by Joseph Siegman (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000)
Great Jews in Sports by Robert Slater (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000)
encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
New York Times, July 20, 1996