Cheated out of chance at Olympic glory

Jewish athlete recalls time as `Hitler's Pawn'

July 14, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Adolf Hitler's omnipresent gaze from the grandstands. Jesse Owens' record-breaking performance on the field. A world on the brink of war, with athletes in one last round of games before the slaughter and destruction begin. The saga of the 1936 Berlin Olympics has been told so many times by so many gifted storytellers that it is hard to imagine anything being left to say.

But HBO has found a remarkable story about a teenage girl in Germany, Gretel Bergmann, and a 90-year-old woman from Queens, N.Y., named Margaret Lambert. It is a small story about a relatively unknown athlete whose name is in no Olympic record books. But in telling this personal story so well, the documentary shows, as few films about the Olympics ever have, the ways in which sports, politics, identity, culture, money and lies can all come together at the games.

The hour-long film, titled Hitler's Pawn, opens with an elderly woman sitting in an empty stadium gazing at the field. The look is soft focus. The tone is elegiac. The setup is simple, direct and pitch perfect.

"My name is Margaret Lambert," the woman says in voiceover. "As a young athlete here in Germany, I was known as Gretel Bergmann, the Jewish high jumper. Today, in America, Lambert is my married name. And Margaret, well, let's just say it was the quickest way to forget Nazi Germany. I remind myself every day, I am one of the lucky ones: I survived. And, yet, the decades gone by have done little to erase the hurt of what happened to me here."

Born in 1914 in Laupheim, Germany, Lambert was one of the most promising high jumpers in the country by age 16. All the amateur athletic clubs courted her. But then the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s and quickly codified their anti-Semitism into laws banning Jews from certain public spaces.

"That was a time when everything stopped," she says in the film. "All of a sudden, you were an outcast. We couldn't go anyplace, we couldn't go to the stadium, we couldn't go to the swimming pool, we couldn't go to a restaurant, we couldn't go to a movie. You were just dirt."

Lambert tells of Jewish athletes taking over a fallow potato field, all rocks and hardened clay. The athletes cleaned it up as best they could to have a place for practice.

It sounds like it's going to be a tale of inspiration, of the athlete's indomitable spirit. But Lambert goes on to explain that the field was so inhospitable and the Jews so depressed by what had happened that they simply quit coming to work out. Hitler's Pawn is not interested in spinning myths.

Still, things seemed to be looking up for Lambert in 1935. Out of nowhere, she was invited to try out for the German team. Little did she know it was all an orchestrated public-relations campaign by the Nazis to head off an Olympic boycott by the United States in response to Nazi anti-Semitism.

The Nazis said they did have a Jew on their team, a high jumper. With U.S. Olympics President Avery Brundage pointing to Bergmann, the United States eventually agreed to take part in the games. The day after the U.S. team set sail for Germany, Lambert received a letter from the German Olympic Committee saying she had failed to make the team (her final jump in training camp was the Germans' highest and would have won the gold medal).

When the games started without her, Nazi spin doctors told her German teammates and the world that she had hurt her ankle and could not compete.

As hard as it might be to imagine a villain worse than Hitler in this piece, wait until you see what Hitler's Pawn reveals about Brundage and the reward he sought and was given by the Nazis for persuading America to come to Berlin in 1936.

As for the heartsick Lambert, she fled Germany, making it to New York in 1937, took up residence in Queens and went to work in a series of clerical jobs until she could save $2,000 to buy the freedom of a fellow athlete in Germany, Bruno Lambert, whom she married.

It would be nice to say she never looked back. But, as the opening suggests, she looked back almost every day. Hitler's Pawn ends with her return to Laupheim after 70 years on a pilgrimage of reconciliation.

"Maybe the name of Gretel Bergmann isn't something I should have been trying to forget," she says. "Maybe the name, like my life, has been a blessing after all."

To see video of David Zurawik's reviewing Hitler's Pawn, go to baltimoresun.com/pawn.

Hitler's Pawn

When: Tonight at 10 (with replays through August)

Where: HBO

In brief: A touching documentary about a little-known Jewish athlete denied her chance at Olympic glory.

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