Olympic recognition for Queens woman 73 years later

Jamaica Estates resident Margaret Lambert, 95, had her high jump record restored by the German Athletics Federation this week after the Nazi government rejected it just before the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. AP Photo/Gary Lambert
By Anna Gustafson

A little over 73 years ago, Jamaica Estates resident Margaret Lambert should have been heading to the Olympics in Berlin.

Instead, one month before the event, the German government told the feted athlete she could not participate in the world-renowned competition because she was Jewish.

On Monday, the German Athletics Federation restored the now 95-year-old Lambert’s 1936 high jump record that should have allowed her to compete in the 1936 Olympics. The group also recommended she be added to Germany’s sports hall of fame.

“It’s very, very nice, I appreciate it and I enjoy it,” Lambert said of the federation’s decision.

Lambert, whose name was Gretel Bergmann before she legally changed it after moving to the United States, had spent two years on the Nazi Olympic team when she matched the German record and jumped 5 feet 3 inches. German authorities refused to recognize the achievement.

“We knew that this can be no reparation, but it is an act of justice and a symbolic gesture of respect for Gretel Bergmann,” German Athletics Federation President Theo Rous said in a statement.

The Nazis had forced Lambert to join their Olympic team after hearing of her success as an athlete in England, where she had moved in 1933. She won the British High Jump Championships in 1934, after which Nazi officials threatened they would harm her family if she did not become part of the Olympic team.

Lambert said the Nazis were attempting to appease the United States and other Western European governments which had threatened to boycott the 1936 Olympics if Germans did not allow Jews to participate.

“Those were the worst two years of my life,” Lambert said. “I was scared for my life. I didn’t know what the Nazi government would do. Would they break my legs? Would they kill me?”

Lambert, the only Jewish member on the team, said she had wanted to compete in the Olympics “in the very worst way just to embarrass Adolf Hitler.”

The American athletes left for Germany July 15, 1936, and Lambert said she received a letter from the Nazi government dated July 16 stating she could not participate.

“I cursed a lot,” Lambert said of learning she would not be competing in Berlin.

She said the German government’s decision immediately made her want to leave her home country and she moved to New York City’s Upper West Side in 1937 to live with her brother.

Lambert became a track star in the United States and was an American champion in women’s high jump in 1937 and 1938 and women’s shot put in 1937. She never competed in the Olympics and stopped competing after World War II began in 1939.

She worked as a house cleaner for years and moved to Jamaica Estates with her husband Bruno, now 99, in 1955. Lambert and her husband have been married for 71 years. They have two sons, Glenn and Gary.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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