In 1931, when Germany was awarded the 1936 Olympics, Adolf Hitler hadn’t yet come to power. Two years later, after he became chancellor, he embraced the Olympic Games as an opportunity to show off his Aryan nation to the world.
He faced one serious obstacle: himself. If word got out about Hitler’s discriminatory laws and policies, the rest of the world might boycott the games. To circumvent this threat, Hitler hoodwinked sports’ two most powerful governing bodies — the International Olympic Committee and the U.S.-based Amateur Athletic Union — by appearing to allow German Jewish athletes the chance to compete.
His crass manipulation, however, had a human cost. This month, HBO airs “Hitler’s Pawn,” a one-hour documentary produced by acclaimed sports filmmaker George Roy about long-forgotten high-jumper Margaret Lambert. Born Gretel Bergmann in 1914, the long-legged girl turned into a top-notch leaper. She didn’t fit the Aryan ideal: She was dark-haired and, of course, Jewish. In 1933, after Hitler banned Jews from Germany’s powerful sports clubs, she fled the country.
But with the looming threat of a boycott, Hitler decided that he needed Bergmann. His minions ordered Bergmann’s father, who ran a factory that manufactured hair for wigs (including stage wigs, which were used by the New York Philharmonic), to summon her back to Germany. She was sent to an Olympic tryout camp and then selected to train with the “Aryan elite.”
The plan worked. Newspapers around the world — including the New York Times — reported that Bergmann and German American fencer Helene Mayer, who was the daughter of a Jewish physician and a Christian mother — were examples of Hitler’s nonexclusionary policies. The AAU voted to reject a boycott, a move that Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, describes in the film as “one of the greatest mistakes not only in the history of sports, but in the history of politics.”
A month before the games, Bergmann jumped at a meet in Stuttgart. She didn’t yet know whether she would be allowed to compete in the Olympics, but nearly 70 years later she remembers her rage.
“I was [jumping] to show what a Jew could do,” she remembers in the documentary. “I was so furious, it gave me strength.”
That day, Bergmann equaled the German high-jump record at 1.60 meters. But just days before the games, she was told that because of her “mediocre performance,” she hadn’t qualified for the team. The winning jump during the Berlin Olympics, by Hungary’s Ibolya Csak, was… 1.60 meters.
In rejecting Bergmann, Germany entered only two female high jumpers. Elfriede Kaun, who had risked her safety in befriending Bergmann during training sessions, took the bronze. The other competitor, Dora Ratjen, took fourth. Years later, Ratjen was revealed to be a man, and he admitted that he had pretended to be a woman on instructions from the Nazi Party.
Bergmann remains angry that she was unable to compete on the world’s grandest sports stage: “One hundred thousand spectators seeing a Jew win. That would have been heaven.”
During the Olympics, Berlin was stripped of anti-Jewish signs and billboards. Nazi officials went out of their way to show Germany as a peaceful, harmonious nation. But as soon as the Olympics were finished, day-to-day life grew much worse for Jews.
Fortunately for Bergmann, she was able to move to the United States after the games. Before World War II, she managed to bring over her parents and her future husband, Bruno Lambert. Now 90, married for 65 years, she lives in Queens, N.Y. She goes by the name of “Margaret” because, as she puts it: “It was the quickest way to forget Nazi Germany.”
The documentary ends with Margaret Lambert visiting Germany and reuniting with her old friend and rival, Kaun. “I was one of the lucky ones — I survived,” she said. “And yet, the decades gone by have done little to erase the hurt of what happened to me.”
David Davis is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.