HBO's "Hitler's Pawn" Tells Story of Jewish Athlete in Nazi Germany
Almost no one remembers the name Gretel Bergmann, or her married name Margaret Lambert -- certainly not the fellow at this keyboard. However, "Hitler's Pawn" premiered on HBO on Wednesday night, and it tells the story of a Jewish woman athlete who was used by the Nazi regime to claim it didn't discriminate against Jews. Once again, cable TV has proved that it can deliver valuable intelligent programming when the broadcast networks are showing people eating bugs for money ("Fear Factor").
Born in 1914, she was 19 when the Nazi's took over Germany. She was also a high jumper -- so her early 20s were her peak years. The 1936 Olympics in Berlin came at exactly her time. And they came at exactly the right time for the Nazis -- the games were to showcase the superiority of the Nazi system and of the Aryan people. Jesse Owens, however, is a different story for another article.
To say that the Nazis were cynical is redundant, but in the case of Ms. Bergmann, their duplicity was on display for all to see if they wished. She was permitted to compete to allow the German government to claim there was no discrimination; but she was not a citizen of Germany as the Olympics approached. She, and every other Jew in Germany, had lost that claim with the Reich Citizenship Law of September 15, 1935. Furthermore, Article II, Section 3 of that law reads, "Only the citizen of the Reich enjoys full political rights in accordance with the provision of the laws." She could jump for Germany, but she wasn't German and hadn't the same rights as a German.
In the end, she was not allowed to participate in the games in 1936. Although every team was allowed 3 participants in the high-jump, Germany decided to field only 2 -- Ms. Bergmann was dropped a few weeks before the games opened. Mercifully, she moved to New York in May of 1937 and was spared what so many Jews in Europe faced. Her return to her childhood home and her reunion with former teammate Elfride Kaun (who was told by the Nazis that Ms. Bergmann was injured and could not compete) are particularly emotional without feeling staged.
Since 1936, the Olympic movement has hit a few bumps with boycotts, excessive patriotism by certain nations and bribery scandals. Somehow it remains worthwhile. Perhaps because its motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Swifter, Higher, Stronger) is the true triumph of the will. So, on to Athens, with a nod back at what was stolen from Ms. Bergmann, a chance.
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