It is likely that very few of you, even those that are big sports fans, have ever heard of Margaret Lambert, despite the fact that she was probably the best female high jumper in the world during the 1930s. Why the lack of name recognition? Read on, and you will see.
Margaret “Gretel” Bergmann-Lambert was born on April 12, 1934 in Laupheim, Germany. She was Jewish, and, as we know, Germany was not exactly a friendly place for Jews in the 1930s.
Lambert’s athletic excellence manifested itself early. As a teenager, representing the Ulmer FV 1894 Club, she won the high jump in the South German Championships in 1931 and 1932. The next year, with the Nazis firmly in control of the country, Jews were banned from many activities, including participating in organized sports. She was expelled from the club and barred from competing in Germany.
Lambert decided to compete abroad. In 1934, accompanied by her father, she went to London, where she won the high jump in the British Championships. Lambert figured she would remain abroad indefinitely where, at least , she would able to compete. However, she received a letter from the government demanding her return. She was very reluctant to do so, but her father denoted that they had many family members still living in Germany, and refusing could have dire consequences for them.
Years later, Lambert recalled her father’s words. “Look, I won’t force you into anything, but we were threatened, the family [was] living in Germany. The consequences, they can’t guarantee what’s going to happen.” The threat and implications were clear. She returned.
The government invited Lambert to join the German Olympic team. This seemed like a positive development, but the German government had an ulterior motive. The Germans were afraid of a possible boycott of the games by the Americans and other countries, and they wanted to demonstrate that they were not discriminatory. Subsequently, Lambert won the German Olympic trials in her event with a national record height. However, the day after the US team sailed for Germany she was notified that she was off the team due to “underperformance.” “It [the reinstatement] was a sham,” she told an interviewer years later.
Lambert did not compete in the 1936 Games, nor in any subsequent Olympics. In 1937 she emigrated to the US where she continued to compete. In 1937 she won the US women’s high jump and shot put competitions, and she repeated the high jump in 1938. Then, came WWII and a suspension of organized international track and field competition. She married and raised a family.
As with many Jews of that era, recognition and redemption came eventually. In Lambert’s case, due to her longevity, at least, it was not posthumously. In 1995 a Berlin sports complex was named after her. In 1996 the German Olympic Committee requested her to light the Olympic torch at the Atlanta Games as their representative. She acceded. In 1999 she attended the dedication of the Gretel Bergmann Stadium in Laupheim. She had been very reluctant to attend, as when she had emigrated she had vowed never to return to Germany. Ultimately, she did so at the urging of her two sons. She said: “I was not going to participate, but when I was told that they were naming the facilities for me so that when young people ask ‘who was Gretel Bergmann?’ they will be told my story and the story of those times, I felt it was important to remember, and so I agreed to return…. I finally came to the conclusion that people [living] now had nothing to do with [the holocaust].”
Margaret “Gretel” Bergmann-Lambert passed away on July 25 at the age of 103. It is a shame that she, like many others from that time period, only achieved widespread recognition upon their death. Rest in peace, Gretel. You were an inspiration to us all, and you will be sorely missed.