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New film tells story of Olympic gender trick in Nazi Germany

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New film tells story of Olympic gender trick in Nazi Germany
Photo: DPA
08:00 CEST+02:00
A new film soon to hit screens in Germany tells the true story of a female Jewish high-jumper whom the Nazis excluded from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, picking instead a man in drag - who came fourth.

By a quirk of the calendar, the film - "Berlin 36" - premiered just days after a row over the gender of Caster Semenya, a South African 800m runner, marred the World Athletics Championships held 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" Hitler was allowing Jewish athletes to compete in the 1936 Games.

Exiled in Britain, Bergmann became national high-jump champion 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 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.

But when the Nazis were sure the ship bearing the US athletes had already left dock, Bergmann was spectacularly dropped from the team, with so-called "Aryans" Elfriede Kaun and Dora Ratjen chosen instead.

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 one problem: "Dora" Ratjen later turned out to be "Heinrich," who had grown his hair long and shaved his legs for the occasion.

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

It is not clear whether the Nazis knew Ratjen was in fact male. Bergmann, now 95 and living in the United States, said she herself had 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.

But she is in no doubt that Hitler stole from her an Olympic gold medal.

"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."

While 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 Der Tagesspiegel daily. "Would they break my legs? Murder me?"

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

Eventually, she emigrated to New York in 1937 with the equivalent of four dollars in her pocket.

As poverty loomed, she postponed her athletics career and took a job doing 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, and she scooped the United States shot put and high-jump championships in 1937, winning the latter event again the following year.

She swore never to return to Germany again, nor 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 was a fan of the film, in which her story is played by German actress Karoline Herfurth, praising both her acting and sporting skills.

"I enjoyed the film. I hope it shows that such a thing should never, ever happen again."

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

"A Jew," she pointed out.

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