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Margaret Lambert, Jewish athlete barred from 1936 Berlin Olympics, dies at 103

Margaret Lambert, 96, during a ceremony to rename

Margaret Lambert, 96, during a ceremony to rename a sports field in her honor at Francis Lewis High School in Queens May 18, 2010. Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

Margaret Lambert had just won the high jump at the 1934 British Championships and was traveling with her father in the outskirts of London when she first saw published reports declaring the news. The Nazi party in Germany had just completed a purge of its political opponents, consolidating power for Adolf Hitler. Which is why what her father told her next was so shocking.

Lambert — then Gretel Bergmann — was Jewish and did not expect to return to the country in which she was born. But her father said they had received a letter from the Nazi government demanding that she come back to Germany.

She recalled her father’s words: “Look, I won’t force you into anything, but we were threatened, the family, living in Germany. The consequences, they can’t guarantee what’s going to happen.”

Lambert, one of the premier high jumpers in the world, was specially requested to join the German Olympic team in a bid to paint the Nazis as non-discriminatory, and thus avoid a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics by the United States and other countries. One problem: “It was a sham,” she said 60 years later in a video interview published by the USC Shoah Foundation.

Lambert, 103, died in her home in Queens on Tuesday. She never did make it to the Olympics — barred by a regime which could not bear the thought of a victory by a Jewish athlete — but nonetheless proved that she was likely the best in the world. At the national trials in Stuttgart a month before the Olympics, she matched a German record with a jump of 1.60 meters (5 feet, 3 inches), which ended up being the winning mark at that year’s games in Berlin. She did it “with the greatest of ease,” Lambert said.

Shortly after, she received a letter from the German national sports association saying she would be left off the team: “Looking back on your most recent performance, you could not possibly have expected to be chosen for the team,” it read, followed by a “Heil Hitler!”

“As soon as the Americans were on the boat going to Germany, I got the letter — addressed on the 16th of July — that I wasn’t good enough . . . (the American team) sailed on the 15th of July,” thus ensuring there would be no boycott of the Berlin Olympics, she said.

Though Lambert never did win her gold medal, her legacy lived on.

Lambert was born on April 12, 1914, in Laupheim, Germany, to Edwin and Paula Stern Bergmann and as a young girl excelled at athletics. Her life in that sphere was unencumbered, she said, until 1933 when, seemingly overnight, Jews were banned from most public spaces, including German athletic clubs.

After beginning school in England later that year, she returned to Germany for her thwarted attempt at Olympic gold. She moved to the United States in 1937, escaping Nazi extermination, and immediately changed her name. She married Dr. Bruno Lambert — a sprinter whom she’d originally met in an Olympic training camp — a year later. Bruno died in 2013 at 103.

And slowly but surely, the world remembered . . . and recognized its mistake.

In 1995, a sports complex in Berlin — the exact type of complex she had once been expelled from — was named after her. She did not go to the ceremony, having decided to leave Germany behind, according to a 2015 Newsday story.

In 1996, she relented slightly, agreeing to light the Olympic torch as a representative for Team Germany at the Olympics in Atlanta. In 1999, she made it back to Germany at the behest of her sons, Glenn and Gary, and attended the dedication of Gretel Bergmann Stadium in Laupheim.

In 2004 her story was the subject of an HBO documentary, “Hitler’s Pawn,” and in 2009, her German national high jump record of 1.60 meters was restored.

Lambert is survived by her sons, two grandchildren and a great-grandson.

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