From Nazi pawn to U.S. champion

For more than seven decades, Gretel Bergmann has been haunted by a recurring dream.

"I'm in the middle of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, with 100,000 people staring at me and it's my turn to jump, but I just can't, I can't move a muscle," she says. "My legs are like jelly."

The scene never happened: The Jewish high jumper, now 95, was robbed of the chance to take part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Adolf Hitler notoriously used to show off Aryan sporting prowess to the rest of the world.

Hers is the incredible story of an exceptional Jewish athlete exploited and then cast off by the Nazis, a saga complete with a last-minute rejection letter that ends with the words "Heil Hitler!" and a sexual identity scandal involving her replacement that has echoes of the recent uproar over South African runner Caster Semenya.

If it seems cinematic, it is. Her story has been brought to life by the recent movie "Berlin 36," which had its international premiere at the Chicago Film Festival last month.

Speaking by telephone from her adopted home in Queens in a German-tinged accent peppered with New York slang, she remembers how Nazi authorities forced her to train with the German team, largely because the U.S. Olympic team had threatened to boycott the event if Jewish athletes were forbidden to take part.

"I felt like a prisoner, but my family were told there would be consequences if I didn't go," says the former athlete, who now goes by her married name, Bergmann-Lambert. "I was their decoy, a pawn in their political maneuvers. They wanted to use me to show the world that the Nazis were not all that bad after all."

A nightmare began for the young athlete that was to last until she immigrated to the United States in 1937 with $4 in her pocket.

"I lived in constant fear that they'd find a way to exclude me, by maybe even killing me, and at the same time I was fearful of winning a medal," she says. "What would I have done if I'd had to stand on the podium and stick my arm out in a Hitler salute? The thought turned me into an absolute nervous wreck."

Bergmann took her place at training camp as the only "Volljudin" (full Jew) on the German team. She is convinced that her anger at the way she was being used drove her to new personal bests. A few weeks before the Games, she participated in a competition at the Adolf Hitler Stadium in Stuttgart, setting a German record.

"I was determined to show them that a Jew can do it, and better," she says.

On July 15, 1936, the American athletes set sail for Europe, after being given the assurance that Bergmann was indeed going to take part.

"But once the Americans were on that ship, I got my kick in the rear," she says.

Bergmann was handed a letter from the Reichssport Ministry in which she was informed that "based on your poor performances in recent days," she would not be part of the German team. The Nazis' one concession was to offer her a spectator position in the standing-room-only section of the stadium. "But," the letter concluded, "we will not cover any other costs. Heil Hitler!"

"It was a bitter wake-up call from a beautiful dream," Bergmann-Lambert says. "Never before had I experienced so much anger, so much fury. The only thing I took comfort from was that I would no longer have to raise my arm in a Hitler salute."

She returned to her hometown, where her parents planned to get the whole family out of Germany. She has no recollection of the Olympics, other than hearing the news that the high jump gold medal winner was Ibolya Csak -- a Hungarian Jew.

A bizarre twist to her story, which came to light years later, was provided by the athlete who took her place, Dora Ratjen. A shy girl with whom she shared a room at training camp before the Games, Ratjen was apparently too nervous to undress in front of the other athletes and, they noted with curiosity, shaved her legs every day.

Only decades later did Bergmann-Lambert discover that Ratjen had in fact been a boy.

"In 1966, I was sitting in the dentist waiting room and reading a magazine in which they told Dora's true story," Bergmann-Lambert says. "I was flabbergasted and started laughing my head off. The other patients thought I was crazy, but I thought, 'This just adds to the absurdity of my own story.' "

Ratjen had been born to poor parents in Bremen, in northern Germany. Doctors said her sexual characteristics were ambiguous and advised her parents to bring her up as a girl. Only much later did medical experts deem Ratjen, who changed his name to Heinrich, to be a man.

There is little evidence to suggest Ratjen was deliberately planted by the Nazis in an attempt to outdo the Jewish athlete. But sport historians, such as Volker Kluge, are in general agreement that they were aware of Ratjen's ambiguous sexuality. "They knew Ratjen was a borderline case," he says.

Bergmann had never suspected a thing. "The only aspect that was strange was that when we showered she never stripped off like the rest of us and even had her own separate bathroom. It seemed odd to us that someone could still be so bashful and self-conscious at the age of 17."

Ratjen was stripped of all his titles in 1938 after a doctor determined he was male. He withdrew from sports altogether, went on to take over the family tavern and died in obscurity in 2008.

Bergmann-Lambert, who went on to become U.S. champion three times, in the high jump and shot put in 1937 and again in the high jump in 1938, wrote to Ratjen once in the 1990s.

"I recalled the time we shared a room and the tips we swapped with each other about our sporting techniques, but I never received a reply," she says. "I think he was probably too ashamed, even though as far as I'm concerned, he was used as well.

"I felt sorry for him. He was a bit of a victim as well."

The recent scandal over South African athlete Semenya, who won the women's 800-meter world title in the same stadium in Berlin where the 1936 Olympics were held, brought memories flooding back to Bergmann-Lambert. The South African's gender is still being debated.

"I saw her and thought she looked a little suspicious, but that doesn't mean that she wanted to do any harm," she says. "There could be psychological and physiological reasons for this, and we have to accept that there are people who are born with both sexual characteristics."

In New York, she and her husband, Bruno Lambert, 99, raised two boys, learned to love New York and developed a huge enthusiasm for baseball, he for the Mets, she for the Yankees. (They have separate TV sets.)

She returned to Germany once when a sport center in her former hometown was named after her.

But the bitterness remained, and for decades she kept silent about her life story so that even her fellow athletes and later her family were unaware of it. The cathartic moment came when her sons gave her a computer for her 80th birthday -- and she started writing her story.

"To think I could have been a lot happier if I hadn't lived with so much hate in me," she says. "I was pretty stupid never to talk about it."

Her autobiography, "By Leaps and Bounds," was published in 2004, and she sold the movie rights soon after.

She is forgiving of the makers of "Berlin 36," who elaborated on her already quite extraordinary story by suggesting that she and Ratjen fell in love as they prepared for the Olympics side by side.

"We shared a lot, but certainly nothing like that happened," she says. "But I can understand why they did it -- a 90-minute film about high jumping? I think they needed to add a bit of spice."

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Connolly is a special correspondent.

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