In the stairwell of Margaret Lambert’s Jamaica Estates home hangs an impressive trophy shelf – one the 95-year-old passes numerous times throughout the day in an exercise routine that may very well be the secret to her longevity.
But Lambert, who simply smiles and shrugs when pressed on the keys to her health, said she and her 99-year-old husband “eat everything wrong, every day of the year,” including the occasional breakfast of liverwurst.
Those blue ribbons and gold medals – even the one emblazoned with the Nazi swastika – just may have something to do with her lean physique, though.
Lambert was 20 years old in 1934 when she was summoned from England back to her small German hometown outside of Stuttgart.
If she failed to return, she was told, there would be trouble for her family.
The 1936 Olympic Games were in sight and Germany, the host country, “needed a Jew to show the Americans, and the English and the French and whoever that they weren’t discriminating,” Lambert explained in her home recently one evening.
The long-legged, 112-pound Lambert – then named Margarethe “Gretel” Bergmann – had just won the British high jumping championship. She became the Germans’ “pigeon.”
For two years leading up to the Games, Lambert trained with the national Nazi team. When she wasn’t propelling her slender body through the air, the young athlete was often alone, shunned by many of her teammates because of her religion.
Yet, having tied the German record during the qualifying rounds – for which she earned the Nazi medal that still graces her shelf – Lambert imagined herself en route to Olympic glory.
But that all changed with the arrival of a form letter, shortly before the Games began – and after the American athletes had already departed for Europe.
“They left the U.S. on the 15th of July, and I got my letter that I wasn’t good enough on the 16th of July,” Lambert recalled. Apparently, jumping one meter and 60 centimeters, or five feet and three inches, was not good enough for a Jew in Nazi Germany – even though the woman who ultimately won gold did so at that height.
“Nobody was home, I remember. And I remember putting the letter on the dining room table and go[ing] upstairs in my room and throw[ing] things around,” Lambert recounted.
She insisted she would have been victorious had she been allowed to compete.
“Because the madder I got the better I jumped and I would’ve been awfully mad,” Lambert said, with a soft smile and eyebrows raised.
That summer’s Games were a blur, Lambert admitted, noting that she “somehow put that psychologically all out of my head.”
She fled Europe in May of 1937, joining her brother in the U.S. The two of them soon sent for their parents, and began their difficult transition into American life.
But Lambert’s athletic career was not over – not by a long shot.
Her brother put her in touch with a local coach, who escorted her to track meets as far away as Canada. There, she competed in events ranging from the high jump, to the long jump, to the shot put, the discus, and even the hurdles.
“I competed in ’37 and again I won in 1938,” Lambert said. “And in 1939, it was September 3 and I’ll never forget it. I got ready for another championship and I had the radio going and I heard the war had broken out in Europe. And I called my coach and I said, ‘Listen, Harry, I’m not coming. I have more important things to worry about than high jumping.’ And that was the end of my career.”
Sure, over the years she has held a passing interest in the Olympics and in the high jump, but Lambert said she largely moved on.
Momentous occasions like the making of a documentary and feature film about her, and the renaming of a German stadium in her honor, occasionally transported Lambert back to 1936, but still, “I never dwelled on it,” she said.
Indeed, even when a letter from the German government arrived on Monday, November 30, Lambert downplayed its significance.
Seventy-three years later, Lambert was told her name was going back into the history books as the rightful owner of the meter-60 high jump that was stolen from her.
The letter, written in German, told Lambert “how guilty [the Germans] feel and that this will never make up for what was done to us – not only to me, but to the Jewish people,” she explained.
“And I agree with them 100 percent. History can never leave this out,” Lambert said.
The murder of 6 million people, she lamented, is one record that will stand forever.