Hundreds gathered at Francis Lewis High School Tuesday to celebrate the school’s athletic field being renamed for Margaret Bergmann Lambert, a Jamaica Estates resident and world-class athlete who was told she could not participate in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin because she was Jewish.
“What happened to me should tell you to never give up, to always fight against injustice,” Lambert told an emotional crowd at the Flushing school Tuesday afternoon.
Howard Zeidman, the head coach of the girls’ track and field team at Francis Lewis, said he was inspired to name the field after Lambert when he heard about the Jamaica Estates woman’s story that became widely publicized after the German Athletics Federation restored Lambert’s 1936 high-jump record, which should have guaranteed her entrance to compete in the Olympics.
“Your life has been an inspiration to all those lucky enough to know you, Margaret,” said Zeidman, who worked for months to prepare for Tuesday’s ceremony that was attended by Lambert’s husband of 71 years, Bruno Lambert; Borough President Helen Marshall; German Deputy Consul General Stephan Grabherr; and numerous elected, education and religious officials.
Lambert, whose name was Gretel Bergmann before she legally changed it after moving to the United States, had spent two years on the Nazi Olympic team when she matched the German record and jumped 5 feet 3 inches. German authorities refused to recognize the achievement.
The Nazis had forced Lambert to join their Olympic team after hearing of her success as an athlete in England, where she had moved in 1933. She won the British High Jump Championships in 1934, after which Nazi officials threatened to harm her family if she did not become part of the Olympic team.
The Nazis had forced Lambert onto the team because they were attempting to appease the United States and other Western European governments. which had threatened to boycott the 1936 Olympics if the Germans did not allow Jews to participate.
“When I moved back to Germany, I spent every single day of my two years there afraid,” she said.
Lambert moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1937 to live with her brother. She became a track star in the United States and was an American champion in women’s high jump in 1937 and 1938 and women’s shot put in 1937. She never competed in the Olympics.
“An important thing for young people to know is whose shoulders you’re standing on and those are of a great athlete, Margaret,” Marshall said.
Many of those who spoke at Tuesday’s ceremony stressed the message individuals should take from Lambert’s life — that despite living during one of history’s darkest times, the athlete always persevered and never succumbed to bitterness.
“In spite of her expulsion and the outbreak of World War II, Ms. Bergmann continued to aim higher and higher,” Grabherr said.
Randy Sheinberg, the rabbi of Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park, also praised Lambert’s endurance in the face of adversity.
“By keeping Margaret Lambert’s name in front of you, you and I and all of us are making a pledge that we will make sure in this vast, beautiful and multicultural metropolis that is Queens, we can remake the world,” said Sheinberg. “We can create a world not of hate but of hope.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson
©2010 Community News Group
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