Margaret Bergmann Lambert, who has died aged 103, was a German high jumper who was barred from the 1936 Berlin Olympics because she was Jewish – an omission that may have cost Nazi Germany a gold medal but brought her later renown as an athletic heroine.
With wry sadness, Lambert described herself as the “Great Jewish Hope” of the 1930s, a cause for pride among German Jews amid the Nazi rise.
When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Lambert, then called Gretel Bergmann, was 18 and a stellar athlete. She swam, skated, played tennis and skied, but she stood out in track and field. She was “possessed” by sports, she once told an interviewer with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
With the promulgation of anti-Semitic Nazi legislation, Lambert was expelled from her local sports centre. When her university application was rejected, she moved to England, where she claimed a national high jump title.
In preparation for the Berlin Games – envisioned by Hitler as a showcase of Aryan superiority – Germany announced the creation of so-called Olympic training courses for Jews. The Holocaust Museum describes them as “a sham, part of the Nazis’ effort to deflect international criticism about discrimination against Jewish athletes”.
That international criticism spurred the Nazi government to recall Lambert from England; the absence of so skilled a competitor would have been too conspicuous. Years later, she said she was repulsed by the prospect of acceding to a Nazi demand but that she feared for her family’s safety if she disobeyed.
Late in life, Lambert received some of the recognition denied to her in 1936 (Getty)
She returned to Germany and, at a trial in Stuttgart, matched a German record with a jump of 5 feet 3 inches. “I wanted to compete just to embarrass Adolf Hitler, just to show what a Jewish girl can do. This was to be my revenge,” she told The Telegraph decades later. “I know I would have won the gold. The madder I got, the better I did.”
On her merits, the jump assured her place on the German Olympic team. But two weeks before the Games, the Reich sports office informed her that, because of what it described as her poor performance, she had not been selected for the team. To dispel questions, rumours were sown among other athletes that she was injured.
At the women’s high jump event, Ibolya Csak of Hungary won the gold medal – for clearing the same height Lambert had reached at the Stuttgart trial. A…