Gretel Bergmann recalls humiliation by Hitler

  • Rivlin 15 HOME
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 (the black) Jesse Owens, the first athlete to win four gold medals, quashing the vaunted Aryan supremacy.
by VIC ALHADEFF | Apr 15, 2015

As Nazism poisoned the lead-up to the Games, countries threatened to boycott if Jews were barred, with the US in the vanguard of that warning. Yet in an appalling act of moral cowardice, Jewish runners Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were dropped from the US’ 4x100 relay team the day before the race, replaced by African-Americans Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens, giving the latter his fourth shot at gold.

Coaches Avery Brundage - who later headed the International Olympic Committee - and Dean Cromwell, argued that Metcalfe and Owens were faster, but Glickman accused them of ant-Semitism and succumbing to pressure not to embarrass Hitler if the US won. Stoller described the saga as the “most humiliating episode” in his life.

But another remarkable story emerged from those Games and with its heroine having turned 101, less than a week ago, it warrants a reprise.

Gretel Bergmann was a world-class athlete, excelling at swimming, running, skiing and tennis as a youth and winning 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 again expunged from the record books, then banished from Germany’s Olympic team and replaced by an athlete who turned out to be male.

Gretel first broke Germany's high jump record at the age of 16 with a height of 1,51 metres. Hitler’s ascendancy in the 1930s saw her 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.

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 Gretel’s family with reprisals if she did not return.

She did return and trained for the 1936 Olympics alongside other Jews, equalling the national record of 1,60m just a month before the opening ceremony. Yet she was becoming increasingly outraged at the rampant ant-Semitism: "The madder I got, the better I did," she recalled.

Two weeks later, she received a letter stating that "based on your poor performances" she had been dropped from Germany’s team and her name was deleted from the record books. She was replaced by Dora Ratjen and discovered years later that Dora was actually a male who had changed his name to Heinrich.

With no future in Germany, Gretel sailed to the US in 1937 with $4 in her purse - having just met Dr Bruno Lambert, a long jumper, at an athletics camp - determined “never to set foot on German soil again”.

Lambert duly followed and they married in New York, whereupon she became Margaret Bergmann Lambert. She worked as a cleaner and won the US shot put and high jump titles, repeating the latter feat the following year.

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 Prize for achievement in sport and society.

In 1999 a stadium in Laupheim, the southern German town where Gretel 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 (to) again. But I had stopped speaking German and didn't even try."

Ten years later, Gretel’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,” she acknowledged. “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.”

·  Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney, Australia.




1 Comment

  1. 1 Adrian 08 May
    Harsh rulers of this world have their names on the wrong side of the page!


  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
    Toolbar's wrapper 
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.

Follow us on