Jewish Athletes Recall Ordeal of Nazi-hosted 1936 Olympics

To Germany’s Jews, Gretel Bergmann was a symbol of flickering hope on a rapidly darkening landscape.

To the Nazis, she was a propaganda tool.

Intent on avoiding an international boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Germany coerced Bergmann onto its track and field team and held her up to the world as evidence that it was open to having Jews compete.

But the 22-year-old Jewish high jumper, who had set a German record shortly before the Olympics, was denied a spot on the team at the last minute.

Sixty years after the Games’ Nazi hosts flew swastikas alongside the Olympic rings, Bergmann, whose name is now Margaret Lambert, says, “I believe that this is one of the more shameful episodes in the history of sports.”

Lambert and other athletes involved in those controversial Games recalled their experiences last week at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibition on the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Timed to coincide with the opening of the centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the exhibit depicts the Berlin Games as poised between Nazi propaganda imagery and the reality of a dictatorship rearming for war.

It examines, among other things, the International Olympic Committee’s decision to leave the Games in Berlin; the controversy within the U.S. over whether to boycott the Olympics; Germany’s efforts to camouflage its racist, militaristic character while projecting an image of a peaceful, tolerant nation; and the events culminating in World War II and the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of 12 athletes from the 1936 Games.

The exhibit offers, in the words of museum Director Walter Reich, a “sober counterpoint” to the celebration of the Olympic ideal now taking place in Atlanta.

Among the U.S. athletes who traveled to Berlin were 18 blacks and 7 Jews, and the exhibit weaves many of their experiences through the narrative.

There is, for example, the story of American Jewish athletes Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller.

Hours before they were to compete in the trials for the 4 x 100-meter relay, Glickman and Stoller were pulled off the heavily favored U.S. team.

There were strong rumors, U.S. coach Dean Cromwell told the Jewish athletes, that the Germans were hiding their best sprinters and saving them to upset the American team in the relay.

Therefore, Glickman and Stoller would have to be replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, both of whom had never trained in the relay.

The move left Glickman baffled, but he now says he has a clearer picture of what happened. He points a finger squarely at Avery Brundage, president of the Amateur American Olympic Committee, who is widely believed to have been a Nazi sympathizer.

“He wanted to save Hitler the humiliation of seeing Jews standing on the winning podium,” Glickman said of Brundage, who later became a member of the America First Committee, a group that supported the Nazis.

The U.S. 4 x 100-meter relay team won the race by 15 yards — a distance “from today until tomorrow” in track terms, Glickman said.

The German team finished fourth.

The exhibit also depicts the stunning successes of the 10 black American athletes who took home 14 medals, forcing Hitler and his entourage to leave the stadium each time they stood on the winning platform. Owens led the U.S. team, winning four gold medals, an Olympic record.

John Woodruff, who also attended the exhibit’s opening, recalls doing his part to destroy the Nazi myth of racial superiority by winning gold in the 800-meter race.

The black athlete returned home a hero, only to find himself confronted by the reality of persistent racism in the United States.

At a track meet at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis shortly after the Olympics, Woodruff was excluded from competition because of the color of his skin.

Lambert, Germany’s Jewish high jumper, never had her chance to show up Hitler on the Olympic stage. Still, she recalled the “secret weapon” she employed against the Nazis, who she said “blackmailed” her into joining the German team.

“I was mad as hell,” she said. “And the madder I got, the higher I jumped.

“When I equaled the German record, I thought that was the best thing that a Jewish girl could ever do against Adolf Hitler.”

The day after the U.S. Olympic team set sail for Germany — eliminating any chance of an American boycott — German sports officials told Lambert that she would not be competing because she had not been performing well.

Lambert, in establishing the German record, had already jumped to the same height that would win a gold medal in the 1936 Games for Iboly Csak, a Hungarian Jew.

“Even though I didn’t win a medal, I think I achieved a lot,” said Lambert, who moved to the United States in 1937 and went on to win two national track and field championships.

After vowing years ago that she would never set foot in Germany again, Lambert, 82, is now attending the Atlanta Games as a guest of the German government.

“You can’t hate forever,” she said, “and I feel this is some kind of a closure.”

The exhibit will remain at the Holocaust Museum for a year before traveling across the nation.

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