I’ll take the high jump

The German highjumper Gretel Bergmann (known as Margaret Lambert), who was excluded from the 1936 Olympics for being Jewish, talks to Sophie Elmhirst.

Gretel Bergmann, now known as Margaret Lambert
This is how it’s done: Gretel Bergmann, now known as Margaret Lambert, in 1937

"I think I was six years old when I went to what they call the turnhalle, like a gymnasium – a very old, broken-down building. I could walk there alone and it was wonderful. Whatever I did I could do well: I skied, I skated, I swam. I could do anything without being taught.”

Gretel Bergmann, now 98, was a natural; one of those lucky people whose body could strengthen, contort, exert. She could have done anything – skiing, skating, swimming – but she chose the high jump. This was the 1930s, pre-Fosbury flop, so the high jump wasn’t yet a backwards arc, sprung from the heels. Pictures in the exhibition “Politics and Olympics” at the Free Word Centre in London show Gretel in shorts and a vest, striding over the bar like a giant, knees up by her nose or, as above, straddling the bar, legs out in front, arms propelling her movement. She seems improbably suspended in mid-air, like a puppet on strings.

Gretel, from the small town of Laupheim, turned out to be the best high-jumper in Germany. But she was a Jew. After Hitler came to power in 1933, she quickly became unwelcome at her sports club. “We were outcasts from the very beginning and there was nothing we could do about it,” she says on the phone from Queens, New York, where she lives. She was 19, and had planned to train to become a coach but her college – optimistically – told her to wait until “this thing blows over”.

Gretel came to London to study but, after a year, received a letter from the Nazi regime requesting that she return to join the country’s Olympic training camp. “They wanted me because so many had chosen not to come to the Olympics due to the discrimination against the Jews – [by asking me] the Nazis could show they weren’t discriminating.”

Still, she knew she would never be allowed to compete in the 1936 Games, to take place in Berlin. “If I could not go to the movies, why would they let me compete in front of 100,000 people?” In training, she was marginalised, ignored by many of the other athletes. The effect was angering, rather than belittling – an indication of Gretel’s fearsome will. Her reaction to the inevitable letter informing her that she hadn’t been selected for the team – “I did a lot of cursing” – was outrage, but “it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be in the Olympics, it was much more that, as a Jew, I wanted to show what a Jew could do.”

And Gretel was the best, jumping 1.60m. Her only equal was her room-mate Dora. “You know about Dora?” she asks. I don’t know about Dora. “Oh, you’ve missed the biggest story yet!” Dora, it turned out, was a boy. “I had no idea she was male, except whenever I came home from training I would say, ‘Oh that Dora is such a weird girl, she would never come into the shower. How could she be so bashful at the age of 17?’” Dora was selected to compete, but came fourth. The winning height at the Games? 1.60m.

Bitter earth

Gretel ignored the Games – easier to do then, without the stream of television imagery. In 1937, she managed to escape from Germany and moved to New York with her new husband, a long jumper she had met during training. She changed her first name, too – and so Gretel Bergmann erased her former, German self, and became an American, Margaret Lambert. For decades, Margaret had only the bitterest memories of the country of her birth – until she received a letter from a man in Laupheim who had unearthed her story. “He said, ‘This is terrible, and Germany owes you one!’ And we got to be very good friends and he made me hate the Germans less and less and less.”

So, reconciled, will she watch the Olympics this year? Maybe, but “I don’t like it because there’s too much money, too many injections – I don’t think it’s a good thing any more. When money’s involved it’s not sport. You should do it for the joy of it, and that’s what we did.”

“Politics and Olympics: Ideals and Realities” is at the Free Word Centre, London EC1, until 8 September