My Grandmother, the Nazis, and the Shadow of the Olympics
My (Molly Lambert) grandmother Margaret Bergmann was a born athlete. Self-taught and hyper-talented, she excelled at every sport she tried. She played sports with the boys, and they accepted her because she was by far the best athlete among them. She did not think much about her Jewish identity until she was in her late teens, when the Nazis began their rise to power.
Suddenly signs reading “NO JEWS OR DOGS” were openly posted in windows. She was banned from athletic-training facilities she’d formerly had access to, and the kids at school began to beat up her younger brother for being Jewish. The family moved to London.
The 1936 Games were awarded to Weimar Germany, in 1931. Five years later, the National Socialist Party had seized full control of the German government, and Adolf Hitler inherited the ceremony. He was not initially sold on the Olympics—he thought that it was “an invention of Jews and Freemasons,” and that it was vulgar to let inferior races compete with the superior white one. But the German sports administrator Carl Diem convinced Hitler that the Olympics were a grand opportunity to showcase Nazi propaganda and demonstrate Germany’s growing power.
Recalled to Germany, Margaret Bergmann wanted to demonstrate that Jews were not inferior, and she wanted to win because she was the best high jumper alive. But, shortly before the Games, the Nazis dropped my grandmother from the roster, convinced that they no longer needed token Jewish athletes. Bergmann received a letter from the Nazis, telling her that she was being cut because she was not up to par—a lie, as scores from the time demonstrate. The letter was signed “Heil Hitler.”
Bergmann was furious that she would not be able to prove that she was the superior Jewish body that the Nazis did not believe existed. She was also glad to get out of Germany immediately.
She worked as a maid while trying to get her parents safely to New York, and she was thrilled when Jesse Owens won gold in Berlin: a black athlete, from her newly adopted country of America, proving that the Nazi ideology and all white supremacy are built on bullshit. She competed in America for a few years, winning American titles in the high jump and shot put. She wanted to train for the 1940 Olympics, but she chose to stop competing after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Margaret Bergman Lambert lived to a hundred and three years old, which is a great way to say “Fuck you” to Nazis.
The Shadow of the Olympics
During the 1984 Games, the Los Angeles Police Department, led by Chief Daryl Gates, swept neighborhoods and arrested hundreds of black and brown youth, “ostensibly to minimize gang crime during the Games.” This was a landmark moment in the militarization of American police.
Now ICE is conducting raids in Los Angeles. These raids began before Trump became President, but they have become bolder, more aggressively public.
There is a climate of fear now in Los Angeles: people are encouraged to snitch on their neighbors; families are separated by police in front of a school in broad daylight. I (Molly Lambert) think of the stories my grandmother told of being exiled from her own home town, a place she’d truly loved.