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Margaret Bergmann-Lambert, Jewish high jumper excluded from Hitler's Olympics, dies

Margaret Bergmann-Lambert, a Jewish, former world-class high jumper, has died. The German-born former athlete is best remembered for being prevented from competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Margaret Bergmann-Lambert's niece, Doris Bergmann confirmed to the "New York Times" on Tuesday that her aunt had passed away in her home in the borough of Queens. She was 103.

Bergmann-Lambert was born as Gretel Bergmann in the southern German town of Laupheim on April 12, 1914. She soon developed into an outstanding athlete, competing not only in the high jump, but also the discus and shot put. She often described herself as "the great Jewish hope."

In 1930, at the age of 16, she finished second in the high jump at the southern German athletics championships with a jump of 1.47 meters. However, despite her success at the regional level, she was never given the opportunity to compete at the German athletics championships, and after the Nazis came to power in 1933, she was kicked out of her sport club in Ulm. Shortly afterwards, her parents sent her to the United Kingdom and in 1934 she participated in the British athletics championships, winning the high jump at a height of 1.55 meters.

Return to Nazi Germany

However, looking to portray their regime as being liberal-minded and tolerant at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the Nazis sought her return to compete for Germany - going as far as threatening member of her family who remained in the country, should she refuse to do so.

Just a month prior to the Olympics, Gretel Bergmann took part in a meet held at Adolf Hitler Stadium in Stuttgart involving Germany's best high jumpers and won - equaling a German record with a jump of 1.60 meters. However, just two weeks prior to the start of the Olympics, she was informed by the German sports authorities that she had not been included in the team for Berlin due to under-performance. Shortly afterwards, the sports authorities deleted her entry from the record book.

"It was a terrible shock,” she told the US publication Newsday in 2015, "because I was the best."

Emigration to the United States

In 1937, Gretel emigrated to the United States and settled in New York, where she continued to have sporting success, winning the US women's high jump championships in 1937 and 1938, as well as the shot put in 1938. Also in 1938 she married another Germany refugee, Dr. Bruno Lambert.  Her athletic career ended in 1942 due to the United States entry into World War II.

Gretel Bergman verstorben (picture-alliance/dpa)

In 1999, Bergmann-Lambert returned to Germany for a ceremony renaming the stadium in Laupheim after her

It would be many years before a measure of reconciliation with her native country, which she had pledged never to return to, would begin.

In 1996 she accepted an invitation from the then-president of the German National Olympic Committee, Walter Tröger, for her and her husband to attend the Atlanta Olympics.

"I don't hate all Germans anymore, though I did for a long time," the "New York Times" quoted her as saying. "But I'm aware of many Germans trying to make up for wrongs as well as they know how. And, yes, I felt that the young people of Germany should not be held responsible for what their elders did."

Stadium renamed

Three years later, she was persuaded to return to Germany - and Laupheim, when the stadium she had once trained in was renamed in her honor.  In 1995 a sports complex in Berlin had also been named after her.

In 2004 the American pay-TV network HBO made a documentary about her story, entitled "Hitler's Pawn." The 2009 German film "Berlin 36" is also based on her story.

In 2009, the German Athletics Federation restored the record that he had set at that meet in Stuttgart prior to the 1936 Games.

"It's very nice," she said, "except I wouldn't have committed suicide if it didn't happen."

Bergmann-Lambert was inducted into the Jewish Hall of Fame at Israel's Wingate Institute in 1980.

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