Text size

At 95, Margaret Lambert retains the demeanor of the star athlete she once was. Slim and fit, with a beautiful, wizened face, when she speaks - even of a dark, horrific past - her eyes become framed by scores of tiny laughter lines.

More than six decades after the fall of the Third Reich, and far removed from the land of her birth, Lambert spoke with the German Press Agency at her home in Queens, New York, of a very different time.

It was 1936, with the Summer Olympic Games scheduled to be held, amid much international consternation, in Berlin. She was then known as Gretel Bergmann, a star German Jewish high jumper who would be robbed of the opportunity of winning an Olympic gold.

This September, a film about her life is scheduled to open in theaters in Germany. "Berlin '36" tells the long-forgotten story about the athlete from Laupheim in southern Germany, who was excluded from the German Olympic team because she was a Jew.

Lambert was born on April 12, 1914. The daughter of a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur, she quickly discovered her passion for athletics, and excelled. But shortly after Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933, the harassment began. The same year, her longtime coach informed her that she was no longer welcome at the club in Ulm.

"I got a letter from my sports club: 'You are no longer welcome here, because you are Jewish. Heil Hitler.' That was the end of my sports career," she said, according to an audio recording at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Remembering that trying period, she says today: "It was awful. Jews were ostracized, they treated us like dirt. Our best friends walked by us in the streets without even looking at us."

She moved to England when she was 19, and found success in her renewed sporting career. But the Germans unexpectedly ordered her to return in 1936. The United States had threatened to boycott the Olympic Games because of the persecution of Jews in Germany. The Nazi propaganda machine needed to present a token Jew at the Games.

Her father cautioned her that if she refused to come back, their family would be in trouble.

"I came back to Germany to horrible conditions ... even though I was a member of the German Olympic women's team, I was not allowed in a stadium. I couldn't practice," she said last year, in a podcast for the Holocaust Museum's ongoing series on anti-Semitism.

"I was a Fata Morgana (mirage). They just used me as a lure for the Americans," Lambert tells the DPA. "I knew right from the beginning that they would never let me compete. But I wanted to show them that a Jewish girl can be just as good as anybody else - or better."

Selected in the core team of high jumpers and spurred on by her anger, Bergmann equaled the German women's national record of 1.60 meters at trials in Stuttgart. It was June 30, 1936 - one month before the opening ceremony of the Games.

Standing room only

Then came the shock: No sooner had the U.S. Olympic team set sail from New York than Bergmann received a letter saying she hadn't performed well enough in the trials to participate in the Games and was offered "standing room only" tickets.

When first told that she could compete, Lambert said, "I was hoping I would be in the Olympics because to compete in the Olympic Games is a thrill of a lifetime."

She had felt some anxiety, too, over the prospect of winning and going to the podium. "If ... I have to go up there, I can't give the Hitler salute. Impossible."

But when deprived of the chance to compete, she says: "It was a bitter awakening - the worst moment of my life."

Germany participated in the Games with two, instead of three, female high jumpers. The gold medal went to Hungarian Ibolya Csak. who was, ironically, Jewish. The bronze went to the German "Aryan" Elfriede Kaun.

After the Games, Bergmann managed to emigrate to the United States in 1937. Before World War II broke out, her parents and an athlete who would later become her husband, Bruno Lambert, also moved to the U.S.

In "Hitler's Pawn," a one-hour HBO documentary about her life released in 2004, she says that she decided to use the name Margaret because "it was the quickest way to forget Nazi Germany."

The young immigrant made two vows - that she would never return to Germany and that she would never speak another word of German.

In 1999, Lambert broke her vows, when she returned "home" reluctantly for the first time, to attend the dedication of a stadium in her name in her hometown of Laupheim. She also received an award as a distinguished athlete from Adam Opel AG Deutschland.

Lambert says: "I finally told myself that these young people had nothing to do with what happened then. Why hate them? It is not fair. To hate is not nice."

As if to emphasize the reconciliation, Lambert praised "Berlin '36" director Kaspar Heidelbach and his team. She said she had even taken to calling the 25-year-old German actress Karoline Herfurth, who portrays her in the movie, her "twin."

"It is done beautifully, however it is not completely true to life. They had to enhance it a little bit because I said, who wants to see someone high jumping for an hour and a half?"

As Lambert and her 98-year-old husband - they celebrated their 70th anniversary last year - were not able to attend the premiere in Berlin, a private screening was organized in New York for their family and friends.

"I like the movie. It hopefully shows that something like this should never, never, never happen again," she said.