Her name was deleted from the record books, but now the injustice is over.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics are infamous for the ploy with which Hitler sought to con the world that his country treated all Germans fairly, and famous for the achievements of Jesse Owens – the first athlete to win four gold medals, quashing the vaunted Aryan supremacy.
But another remarkable story emerged from those Games and, with its heroine turning 101 on Sunday, it warrants a reprise.
Gretel Bergmann was a world-class athlete. She excelled at swimming, running, skiing and tennis as a youth and won the German, British and American high jump titles as an adult. But, as she was born in Germany in 1914, her Jewish identity shaped the course of her life: banished from her sports club, sent to Britain to compete, summonsed back by a Berlin government anxious to demonstrate decency, her successes expunged from the record books, banished from Germany’s Olympic team and replaced by an athlete who turned out to be male.
Bergmann first broke Germany’s high jump record at 16 with a height of 1.51 metres. Hitler’s ascendancy meant she was expelled from her club, so her parents Max Bergmann and Paula Stern – aware that the future for German Jews was grim – enrolled her in an English technical college, where she claimed Britain’s high jump title with a leap of 1.55m.
With Nazism poisoning the lead-up to the 1936 Games, countries threatened to boycott them if Jews were barred. Anxious to assuage global concerns at its increasingly brutal regime, and with the Sachsenhausen concentration camp being built, Berlin sought to prove that Jews were welcome in its team. So it threatened Bergmann’s family with reprisals if she did not return.
She did return, and she trained for the Olympics alongside other Jews, equalling the national record of 1.60m a month before the opening ceremony. Yet she was becoming increasingly outraged at the rampant anti-Semitism; “the madder I got, the better I did,” she recalled.
Two weeks later, her name was deleted from the record books and she received a letter stating that “based on your poor performances” she had been dropped from Germany’s team. She was replaced by Dora Ratjen, who later was found to have been male.
With no future in Germany and having just met Dr Bruno Lambert, a long jumper, at an athletics camp, Bergmann sailed to the US in 1937 with $4 in her purse determined “never to set foot on German soil again”. Lambert duly followed and they married in New York, whereupon she became Margaret Bergmann Lambert, worked as a cleaner and won the US shot put and high jump titles.
Six decades later, a Berlin sports complex was named after her, but she clung to her vow not to return. Other honours followed, including admission to the US National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Israel’s Jewish Hall of Fame, and Germany’s Georg von Opel Award for achievement in sport and society.
In 1999 a stadium in Laupheim, the southern German town where Bergmann was born and from where she had been banned, was named after her. This time she relented.
“When I was told 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. 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.”
Ten years later, Bergmann’s 1936 record of 1.60m was restored by the German Track and Field Association and she was admitted to the German Sports Hall of Fame. A case of rank injustice was over.
“I hated everything German, but finally came to the conclusion that people now had nothing to do with it,”
“I decided it wasn’t fair to hate them, so I changed my attitude – not about what happened to me and so many other Jews, but about Germany now.”
Written by Vic Alhadeff: Chief Executive Officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.