In 1936, Margaret "Gretel" Bergmann (now known by her married name, Margaret Lambert) was Germany’s highest-ranked female high jumper. However, Germany’s racial laws meant that she, as a Jew, was not welcome on their national Olympic team. Trying to get good PR, Germany forced Margaret to train for the 1936 Berlin games, only to claim she had an injury and not allow her to compete. They even trained a young man to dress in women’s clothing and compete against her.
A new film, Berlin ’36, stars actress Karoline Herfurth as Gretel and will open the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF) on January 13th." I was asked to interview Gretel for a piece that appeared in the accompanying booklet for the film. I was able to meet Gretel, who is now ninety-five years old, and have tea with her at her home in Queens. She is, quite simply, the coolest ninety-five year old woman I have ever met, and I hope if I live to be her age I can be even a third of the woman she is.
The AJFF piece appears below:
In 2009, nineteen years after a front page New York Times article brought Jewish high jumper Margaret "Gretel" Bergmann-Lambert’s story to worldwide attention, German filmmaker Kaspar Heidelbach directed Berlin ’36, a compelling film based on Gretel’s experience being forced off the 1936 German Olympic team. During the shooting, the now 95-year-old Gretel, touched by the attention her story has garnered, invited cast and crew members to her home in Queens, New York. Gretel and actress Karoline Herfurth, who plays her, became close friends and regularly email. They were even photographed together by Bruce Weber in a spread for German Vogue. Gretel was particularly impressed that Herfurth did all her own "stunts" in the film, spending three months learning to high jump. "I think the movie was well done," she says. "They had to change some things, for Hollywood, for drama. But I liked it." While many directors simply scoop up film rights to projects and don’t ask for input from the subjects, many of Gretel’s suggestions for the film were included. Most notably, she requested that names of certain characters in the story be changed, specifically "Marie," the young man in women’s clothing who joined the team with Gretel and roomed with her at training camp. Gretel surmises they were paired for one critical reason: if she suspected Marie’s secret, she would never reveal it for fear of reprisal. "I would have been too scared to say anything," Gretel says. "If a Jew said something bad about a non-Jew, you’d be in big trouble." As the film depicts, the two became unlikely friends. However, once Gretel left Germany for the States, they did not stay in touch. Though she sent Marie a letter in the 1990s, Gretel got no response. "Other people tried to reach him… her… Marie. I think he just wanted it to be over and not talk about it." Gretel wants to clarify one significant fact: although many people believe that Marie took Gretel’s spot on the German Olympic team, that isn’t the case. There were three slots for female high jumpers, she explains. They went to Gretel, Marie, and a third woman named Elfriede. When Gretel was removed from the team, officials said publicly that she was injured and they would hold her spot in case she recovered in time to compete. Only Marie and Elfriede went to Berlin. An American citizen since 1942, Gretel harbors no ill will toward her native country, where her story has touched many young German students and athletes. After many years saying she’d never return to Germany – she purposely forgot how to read and speak the language – Gretel finally visited in 1999 to attend the opening of a stadium named for her in her hometown of Laupheim. She still holds on dearly to mementos from her former life; in a small, unassuming glass case, she keeps all the medals she accumulated during her career. Among the silver and gold, there’s one small black medal that Gretel calls her favorite — the one she won at the 1936 Olympic team qualifier. A swastika is carved into the middle, and Gretel grins as she shows it off. "It’s my prized possession." And she means it.