As It Happens

Margaret Bergmann Lambert, Jewish high jump champion barred from Berlin Olympics, dies at 103

From the As It Happens archives, an interview with Jewish high jumper Margaret Bergmann Lambert. The athlete, who wasn't allowed to compete at the Berlin Olympics, died Tuesday.
Margaret Bergmann Lambert in 2010 attending a ceremony at a New York high school that named a sports field after her. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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Margaret Bergmann Lambert could jump higher than her country's best. But, she wasn't welcome on the German high-jump team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — because she was Jewish.

Lambert, 103, died on Tuesday at her home in New York. Lambert's niece confirmed her death to the New York Times.

After being refused a spot on the team, Lambert —  also known as Gretel Bergmann —  left Germany for the United States, vowing never to return to her home country again. She didn't go back until 1999, the Times reports. 

Gretel Bergmann (now Margaret Lambert) competes in the high jump during a competition in Stuttgart. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Margaret Lambert)

In 1996, Lambert spoke with As It Happens about an invitation to be Germany's special guest at the summer Olympics in Atlanta. In that interview, she also remembered the letter she received in 1936 informing her that she wouldn't be on the Olympic team. She said it had a swastika and "Heil Hitler" printed on it.

Here's more of Lambert's conversation with former As It Happens host Michael Enright, from our archives:

Did it say anywhere in the letter that you weren't being invited because you were Jewish?

No.

But, you knew the reason?

Yes. I'm sure.

That must have been a terrible moment for a young girl who had worked so hard?

Yes. It was quite a shock. … It was also quite a relief because ... the tension I felt for two years was finally over. I didn't know, was I going to compete? Wasn't I going to compete? How would they prevent me from competing? What would I do if I did compete? It was a terrible time for me.

Did you follow the 1936 Olympics at all? Did you listen to it on the radio?

I think I have complete amnesia about this. I do not remember.

There were, of course, no Jews competing for Germany in those Olympics. 

There were two half Jews competing. My joke of the week is saying, "Well, they were only half as offensive as I was being a whole Jew." But they did have a fencer by the name of Helene Mayer, who was a very tall, very blonde, very blue-eyed half Jewish lady. Nobody would have known whether she was Jewish or not. 

Then there was one playing for Germany on the ice hockey team. You know, being a member of the team he would not have been quite so offensive as I would have been. 

You got out of Germany before the war, did you?

Yes. I left in 1937.

And then the war came, and the Holocaust. Did you have family back in Germany?

Yes.

Did you lose members of your family in the Holocaust?

Yes. Not my own, but my husband's [family].

And it was then you said, "I'm never going to go back there."

No. The day I left Germany I said, "I will never set foot on German soil again." … I still remember being at the railway station on the way to Hamburg. I still see my family standing there. I see my younger brother who is 12 years younger than I crying his eyes out … It tore my heart apart. And I said, "I will never set foot on German soil again."

When you got the invitation this time, did the thought cross your mind that "I'm going to say no again."

The first thing was, I said, "No. We're going." Then I looked at my husband and I said, "What should we do?" And we decided that it would be a good thing to do to go. Since it's in the United States, I thought it would be a lot easier than any place else anyway.

Do you think this puts a kind of cap to it all? Do you think that it's behind you now, finally?

Well, it will never be completely behind me. I will never get over the hardship I went through. This is not only my own, but it's a steady reminder of what happened to the Jewish people in Europe. You can never erase that from your memory, no matter what. 

Do you know what awaits you in Atlanta? Are you going to be, obviously, a very honoured guest at the Olympics? 

As a matter of fact, I have a fax waiting ... I don't know yet. I didn't have a chance to pick it up yet, so I can't really answer your question. 

Somewhere in your future though I can see a limousine ... to drive you around the Olympic village. 

I don't know. Maybe. They said I would  be their guest, all expenses paid ... I wrote to them, you know, would I have any social obligations? Otherwise, we'd go in blue jeans and be very relaxed about it. 

This has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more of our 1996 interview with Margaret Bergmann Lambert, listen to the audio above. 

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