Margaret “Gretel” Bergmann-Lambert, an outstanding high jumper who was barred from the 1936 Berlin Olympics because she was Jewish, died in New York aged 103.
Her niece, Doris Bergman, confirmed that Bergmann-Lambert had died Tuesday, the New York Times reported.
In June 1936, just a month before the Olympics, Bergmann-Lambert, then a German citizen, won a meet against some of the best German high jumpers with a leap of 5 feet 3 inches. That height tied a German record and would have been good enough to win the gold medal.
Margarethe Minnie Bergmann was born on April 12, 1914, in the small town of Laupheim, in southwest Germany, about 65 miles from the Swiss border. She excelled in the shot-put, the discus and other events as well as the high jump. “I was ‘The Great Jewish Hope,’” she often said.
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With anti-Semitism on the rise in Germany — she recalled signs in shops declaring, “No dogs or Jews allowed” — she left home at 19 and moved to England, where she won the British high-jump championship in 1935. But when the Nazis pressured her father to bring her home, she returned to Germany to seek a position on the Olympic team.
The Nazis did this to deflect allegations that they were allowing their party’s race theories and policies to compromise Olympic principles, making Germany unsuitable to host the games.
Shortly after winning that June meet, held at Adolf Hitler Stadium in Stuttgart, she received a letter from Nazi officials informing her that she had not qualified. “Looking back on your recent performances,” the letter stated, “you could not possibly have expected to be chosen for the team.” Her accomplishment was removed from the record books.
Hurt and angry, she turned down the officials’ offer of a standing-room ticket, “free of charge,” for the Olympic track and field games. Travel expenses and hotel accommodations were not included in the offer. “I never replied,” she said.
In 1937, Bergmann was able to obtain papers that allowed her to immigrate to the United States. She landed in New York City. She worked as a masseuse and a housemaid and later as a physical therapist, according to the Times. In 1938, she married a fellow German refugee, Bruno Lambert, who was a sprinter. He died in 2013.
The couple is survived by two sons, Glenn and Gary; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Bergmann-Lambert continued to compete in track and field events, but for only a few more years. She won the United States women’s high-jump and shot-put championships in 1937 and the high jump again in 1938. She was preparing to try out for the 1940 United States Olympic team when war broke out in Europe, after which she focused her attention on trying to get her parents out of Germany, which she was ultimately able to do.