Obituary: Gretel Bergmann

Record setting Jewish athlete banned by Nazis and later rehabilitated


Two weeks after setting a German high jump record, Gretel Bergmann was removed from the German 1936 Olympic team for “underperformance.” The American team had just set sail for Germany to participate in the Berlin “Nazi” Olympics. The American Olympic Committee had previously threatened to boycott the Olympics if Jews were excluded from the German team.

Margarethe (Gretel) Minnie Bergmann, who has died aged 103, was born in Laupheim, Southern Germany, the daughter of businessman Edwin Bergmann and his wife Paula Stern. Gretel enjoyed skiing, skating, swimming and tennis, but excelled in track and field. She possessed all-round ability, particularly in the shot, discus and high jump.

In 1931, shortly after her 17th birthday, Bergmann won the high jump event at the South German Championships, setting a record of 1.51 metres. She retained the title the following year.

After the Nazis took power in 1933 Bergmann was expelled from her athletic club for being Jewish. In April 1993 her parents sent her to the UK, seeing no future for her in Germany.

American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage travelled to Germany in September 1934, to investigate the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Seen by history as an antisemite and an admirer of Hitler, Brundage only too willingly accepted Nazi pledges that there would be no discrimination against Jews. On the basis of a report from Brundage on conditions in Germany, in September 1934 the American Olympic Committee voted to send a US team to Berlin. However, with increasing Nazi brutality towards the Jews in Germany, pro-boycott activity continued in the US throughout 1934 and 1935.

Bergmann won the British high jump championship in 1934 with a clearance of 1.55 metres. Her father came to watch and convey the message that threats against the family compelled her to return to Germany. Bergmann returned, nominally a member of the German Olympic team, but still prohibited, as a Jew, from entering a stadium.

Many years later Bergmann related, “I was scared stiff thinking, ‘How are they going to get rid of me?’ I knew they wouldn’t let me compete. I thought perhaps some night they would come and break my legs – anything was possible. I was so afraid every day of my life. But at the same time, I wanted to beat them so badly.”

At a high jump trial in Stuttgart on June 30, 1936, one month before the Olympics, Bergmann tied the German record at 1.60 metres. Two weeks later her performance was struck from the record book and she was removed from the national team. Other team members were told she was injured. In her 1995 testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation, she said “I just got a letter saying ‘I wasn’t good enough’. The American team sailed on July 15 and my letter was written on July 16.”

Ironically, the Olympic gold was won by Hungarian Jew Ibolya Csák, with a winning height the same as that achieved by Bergmann at Stuttgart.

In 1937 Bergmann emigrated to the USA, lived in New York City and started using the name Margaret instead of Gretel. She worked as a housemaid, masseuse and later physiotherapist. In 1938, she raised the exit fees to allowGerman Jewish doctor and sprinter Bruno Lambert to join her in New York. They married that same year. Bruno died in 2013 at the age of 103.

In 1937, Bergmann won the US women’s high jump and shot put championships. She retained her high jump title the following year but ended her sports career at the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1942 she received United States citizenship.

In 1995 a Berlin stadium was named the Gretel Bergmann Sports Arena. She did not attend the ceremony. Four years later the stadium in her birth place, Laupheim, from which she had been barred in the 1930s, was renamed in her honour. Bergmann returned for the dedication. She said: “I was told — when young people ask, ‘Who was Gretel Bergmann?’ they will be told my story, and the story of those times — so I agreed to return to the place I swore I’d never go to again.”

In 2009, the German track and field association restored Bergmann’s German record into the record books and requested she be inducted into the Germany Sport Hall of Fame. In August 2014, a street leading to the Berlin Olympic Stadium was renamed Gretel-Bergmann-Weg.

Margaret Lambert is survived by two sons Glenn and Gary, two grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Margaret Bergmann Lambert, born April 12, 1914. Died July 25, 2017


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