- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

BERLIN | A new German film tells the true story of a female Jewish high-jumper whom the Nazis excluded from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, instead naming to the team a man in drag — who placed fourth.

By a quirk of the calendar, the film — “Berlin 36” — premiered just days after a controversy over the gender of Caster Semenya, a South African runner, marred the World Athletics Championships, held last month in the very same stadium.

“Berlin 36” tells the story of Gretel Bergmann, a record-breaking German high-jumper who fled Nazi Germany but was forced to return to “prove” Adolf Hitler was allowing Jewish athletes to compete in the 1936 Games.

Miss Bergmann became national high-jump champion in Britain during her exile there in 1934 but soon found herself a pawn in Hitler’s bid for international respectability.

Concerned the United States might boycott the Olympics, the Nazis pressured Miss Bergmann to compete, making it clear her family left behind in Germany would suffer the consequences if she refused. She returned from Britain and duly broke the German high-jump record in the run-up to the 1936 Games.

When the Nazis were sure the ship bearing the U.S. athletes had already left the dock en route to the Olympics, Miss Bergmann spectacularly was dropped from the team, with so-called “Aryans” Elfriede Kaun and Dora Ratjen chosen instead.

Miss Bergmann received a letter from Germany’s Athletics Association saying: “Based on your recent performances, you will yourself not have thought you were going to be selected.” Ending the letter “Heil Hitler,” the association offered her a place in the stands at the Olympic stadium — scant reward for years of training.

Elfriede Kaun and Dora Ratjen came third and fourth, respectively, in the high jump. Only there was one problem: “Dora” Ratjen later turned out to be Hermann, who had grown his hair long and shaved his legs for the occasion.

In 1938, his performances were expunged from the records, and he eventually was packed off to the front as a soldier.

It is not clear whether the Nazis knew Mr. Ratjen was, in fact, male. Miss Bergmann, now 95 and living in the United States, says she herself had no idea.

“I never suspected anything,” she told Der Spiegel news weekly.

“We all wondered why she never appeared naked in the shower. To be so shy at the age of 17 seemed grotesque. But we just thought: Well, she’s weird, she’s strange.

“There was a door to a private bathroom, but we were not allowed in there. Only Dora could go in. But for years, I never had any suspicions,” she said.

She has no doubt, however, that Hitler stole an Olympic gold medal from her.

“I would have won gold, nothing else,” she said. “I wanted to show to the Germans and to the world that Jews were not these terrible people, not fat, ugly and disgusting as we were portrayed.

“I wanted to show that a Jewish girl could beat the Germans. In front of 100,000 people.”

Though she was livid at her exclusion, she was not surprised.

“I knew from the beginning, from 1934, that they would find a way to exclude me, to shut me out, and I was scared day and night,” she told the Tagesspiegel daily.

“Would they break my legs? Murder me?” she added.

The only consolation to her exclusion was that she was released from the agony of deciding whether to perform the straight-arm Nazi salute on the podium, she said.

She emigrated to New York in 1937 with the equivalent of $4 in her pocket. As poverty loomed, she postponed her athletic career and worked at odd jobs. That year, she met and married Bruno Lambert and became Margaret Bergmann-Lambert.

She was not long out of the athletics vest, though; she scooped the U.S. shot-put and high-jump championships in 1937, winning the latter event again the following year.

She swore never to return to Germany or to speak the language. Only more than 60 years later did she step on German soil, to attend the inauguration of a stadium named after her in her southern hometown of Laupheim.

She said she is a fan of the film, in which her story is portrayed by German actress Karoline Herfurth, and praised both her acting and sporting skills.

“I enjoyed the film. I hope it shows that such a thing should never, ever happen again,” she said.

She is not slow to note the ultimate irony of the story. The gold eventually was won by a Hungarian athlete, Ibolya Csak.

“A Jew,” she pointed out.

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