• Germany's news in English

New film tells story of Olympic gender trick in Nazi Germany

AFP · 3 Sep 2009, 08:00

Published: 03 Sep 2009 08:00 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

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.

Story continues below…

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.

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German town, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

Student fined for spying on women via their webcams
Photo: DPA

Student from Munich fined €1,000 for spying on 32 different computers, using their webcams to take photographs, or record their keyboard history.

This is how much startup geeks earn in Germany
Photo: DPA

A comprehensive new survey of 143 startup founders shows how much you are likely to be earning at a German startup, from entry level all the way up to sitting on the board.

Man dies after beating for peeing near Freiburg church
The Johannes Church in Freiburg. Photo Jörgens Mi/Wikipedia

A middle-aged man from southern Germany has died after being attacked by a group of men who took umbrage with the fact he was urinating in the vicinity of a church.

The Local List
Seven German celebrities with uncanny doppelgängers
Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and actor Alec Baldwin. Photo: DPA; Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Check out these seven look-a-likes of well known German figures - we admit that some are more tenuous than others...

Israel seeks to buy three new German submarines: report
A Dolphin class submarine. Photo: DPA

Israel is seeking to buy three more advanced submarines from Germany at a combined price of €1.2 billion, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Here’s where people live the longest in Germany
Photo: DPA

Germans down south seem to know the secret to a long life.

More Germans identify as LGBT than in rest of Europe
Photo: DPA

The percentage of the German population which identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new study.

'Reichsbürger' pair attack police in Saxony-Anhalt
File photo: DPA.

A "Reichsbürger" and his wife attacked police officers on Thursday, just a day after another Reichsbürger fatally shot an officer in Bavaria.

Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd