Good Evening
Good Evening

A turn of events for Margaret Lambert, 101, former high jump champion

Margaret Lambert, 101, sits in her home in

Margaret Lambert, 101, sits in her home in Jamaica Gardens on Friday, April 17, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Margaret Lambert celebrated her 101st birthday on April 12 in Jamaica Estates, Queens. One of the many guests at her party was Dagmar Freitag, a member of Germany's parliament.

Quite a change from Lambert's relationship with Germany almost 80 years ago, when the young Jewish girl known by her maiden name of Gretel Bergmann had been summoned by Adolf Hitler to try out for his Olympic team and performed in record style in the high jump, only to be denied a spot on the team because of her heritage.

In 1936, Bergmann, born in Laupheim, Germany, and a rising star in the high jump, was attending school in England after her father sent her away from the mounting darkness in Hitler's Germany.

Lambert recalls that bleak time and all of the ascendant decades since. "I was 'The Great Jewish Hope,' " she has said on numerous occasions.

"I always loved sports," Lambert said in a strong, clear voice, "and all of a sudden . . . you were completely in the hands of the Nazis. It was a terrible shock because I was the best."

German athletic clubs were closed to Jews and there was talk of the United States refusing to participate in the Berlin Olympic Games in protest of the host country's anti-Semitism.

Hitler, hoping to avoid a boycott, sent a threat to Bergmann's father that he had better bring her home to train and demonstrate that Germany welcomed Jews to its team if they qualified, she said. So she went home, equaled the German high jump record at the national trials in Stuttgart and went to the Olympic training camp in Ettlingen.

It was a great charade, she said. Instead of making the team, Bergmann received a letter from the national sports association informing her: "Looking back on your most recent performance, you could not possibly have expected to be chosen for the team . . . Heil Hitler!"

She still has her medal from that day in Stuttgart, a bittersweet keepsake because of the swastika emblazoned on the front.

Bergmann may have been the best female high-jumper in the world in 1936. The winning Olympic mark of 1.60 meters was just what she cleared in the trials. She might have won a gold medal for Germany.

"I had nightmares about the whole thing for months before," she said last month. "How would people on the team treat me? Maybe they would break my leg to keep me from competing. If I won, could I stand up there and salute that man? What if I lost?"

They were times she won't permit to fade.

She recalls the signs in shops: "No dogs or Jews allowed."

Bergmann met her future husband, Bruno Lambert, at the training camp in Ettlingen.

"My dad, while a competent athlete, was not a world-class competitor like my mom, but was invited to Ettlingen more or less as an extra in the Germans' cynical drama," their son, Gary Lambert, 64, said via email. "While the two of them met and became friendly there, there was no romantic involvement until a later encounter shortly before my mom left for the U.S. in the spring of 1937."

Gretel Bergmann arrived at the U.S. immigration center in lower Manhattan with $4 in her pocket, she said, because it was all she was permitted to take. One of the first things she did, Gary Bergmann said, was to Americanize her name.

She was "determined to leave all vestiges of her German past behind," Gary said, explaining that "Gretel" was a diminutive of Margarethe, her birth name. "She became Margaret quite immediately."

Bruno Lambert, who went to medical school in Switzerland because Jews weren't permitted to do so in Germany, came to the United States the next year and they were married. Lambert died in November 2013 at 103.

Margaret, who worked as a housemaid for $10 a week, competed in the U.S. women's track and field championships in 1937 and '38, and won the high jump championship.

When Germany launched the war in Europe, she lost interest in jumping. Bruno enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and, she said, insisted on the infantry. He served as a combat surgeon and left the service with the rank of major, and a Bronze Star.

Margaret, the former cleaning woman and housewife, went on to work as physical therapist.

As the years passed and politics changed, the German track and field organization began making amends.

In 1995, it named a sports complex in Berlin for her. She declined to attend. Walter Troger, head of the German Olympic organization, invited her and Bruno, who had retired from a successful medical practice in Ridgewood, Queens, to be the German team's guest at the torch lighting for the 1996 Games in Atlanta. This time she accepted.

The mayor of Laupheim, her birthplace, invited her for the dedication of Gretel Bergmann Stadium in 1999. After declining the invitation because, as she said years ago, it was her "bowling night," she reconsidered at the urging of sons Glenn, now 68, and Gary.

In 2004, HBO aired "Hitler's Pawn," a documentary based on her athletic life in Germany, before the Summer Olympics in Athens.

Her national record from 1936 was restored by the German track and field association in 2009.

In 2010, Francis Lewis High School's athletic field in Fresh Meadows, Queens, was renamed for Lambert. "What happened to me should tell you to never give up, to always fight against injustice," she told those in attendance.

She didn't give up, and years later, a member of the German parliament who also is vice president of the German Athletic Association was at her Jamaica Estates home to wish her a happy birthday.

Lambert's birthday party was a joyfully warm event. She has lived comfortably in her Jamaica Estates home for more than 40 years. Bruno's New York Mets floor mat and Brooklyn Dodgers mug, both prized items of Margaret's, were there for all to see. One of her birthday cakes was inscribed "100+1 Oy!"

She gets around with a walker now, but her sense of humor is intact.

And what does wry Margaret plan for 102?

"I'm getting married."

New York Sports