German Film Helps Jewish Athlete Right Historical Wrong

The film 'Berlin 36' brings to the fore the story of record-breaking Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann.

The announcement Monday that the German Athletics Federation would restore a national record set by a Jew during the Nazi era indicates how art can help correct historical injustices.

The film "Berlin 36" hit German movie theaters in September, bringing to the fore the story of Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann, who broke the national record with a jump of 1.60 meters but was kicked off the team because of alleged underperformance. Her expulsion from the team was timed to take place just after the American delegation, which had threatened to boycott the Olympic Games if Germany banned its Jews from participation, set sail for Europe.

The movie grossed over $250,000 its first weekend but quickly fell down the German box office charts as films like "Inglourious Basterds" - telling the story of the failed assassination attempt on Hitler - and Disney's "Up" easily grossed hundreds of thousands, if not millions more.

Still, Gretel's compelling story was enough to finally convince the athletics federation that the time had come to right this historical wrong.

Bergmann, 95, who lives with her husband of 71 years Bruno Lambert, was born and grew up in the southern German city of Laupheim. She set her first German high-jump record of 1.51 meters in 1931, but the Nazi regime suspended her after it rose to power in 1933. Her parents sent her to Great Britain, where she set the British record in 1934 with a jump of 1.55 meters.

She thought about competing for Britain in the 1936 games, but Nazi Germany called her back in response to the U.S. Olympic Committee's threat to boycott the games if German Jews would not be allowed to compete.

"I was a decoy, a pawn in their political maneuvers," she told the L.A. Times in an interview in September. She returned for fear of her family's safety back in Germany.

The Jewish athlete said she felt she could be expelled or killed at any moment, but she also feared winning a medal for having to make the Nazi salute on the podium.

The Nazis relieved her of her second fear, suspending her from the team just days after she set the record of 1.60 meters on June 30, 1936, lest she win the gold medal and embarrass Hitler. Her replacement, Dora Ratjen, finished fourth. Ironically, a Hungarian Jew - Ibolya Csak - won the gold medal.

Two years later, it was revealed that Ratjen was actually a man, and the Nazis wiped out his records. Bergmann - who left Germany for the U.S. in 1937 - said she only found out in 1966 that Dora was actually Heinrich Ratjen when she read his story in a dentist's office. It turns out he was born with ambiguous sexual characteristics, so his parents raised him as a girl on doctors' advice.

Back in the U.S., Bergmann became high-jump champion in 1937 and won the shot put event. She repeated the high-jump feat in the 1938 U.S. Championships, but World War II put an end to her career.

Bergmann swore never again to set foot on German soil. She refused to attend a ceremony in 1995 to dedicate a sports complex in Berlin in her name. However, when the stadium in Laupheim from which she had been banned was renamed after her in 1999, she did agree to go back.

"Berin 36" is based on her 2004 autobiography but altered the story of her relationship with Ratjen to create a love story. Bergmann said she understood the filmmakers' choice, noting that it's hard to keep an audience interested in high jumping for 90 minutes.