'Berlin 36' and Gretel Bergmann's story

Next week is the release of Berlin 36 in German cinemas.  Berlin 36 is a film about Gretel Bergmann, the talented German high jumper denied a spot on the 1936 Olympic team because she was Jewish.  Rather than face the embarassment of a Jew winning a gold medal for Germany, the Third Reich selected gentile Dora Ratjen to compete in Bergmann's place. Two years later, a doctor revealed that "Dora" was actually a man. His name was Horst Ratjen.  As Rebecca Honig Friedman put it, "Weird."

Margarethe "Gretel" Bergmann was born in Germany in 1914. By the time she was 19, her 1.51 meter high jump qualified placed her among the best high jumpers in Germany.  That year, in 1933, sports associations implemented the “Aryan laws,” excluding Jewish men and women from their organizations.  Bergmann enrolled at London Polytechnic in the U.K., where she continued to practice her sport.  By 1934 she had become the British high jump champion with a jump of 1.55 m.

In 1934, Nazi sport officials called her back to Germany. The International Olympic Committee, under pressure from the United States, insisted that German Jews be permitted to participate in the Olympic Games. During this training period, Bergmann managed to increase her jump to 1.60 m. - a record for Germany - despite the dismal facilities and lack of support given to Jewish athletes.  This should have qualified her for a spot on the Olympic team, but at the last minute (too late for the Americans to boycott the games) the Germans gave her spot to "Dora" Ratjen, who came in 4th.  Ironically, the winner was Ibolya Csak - a Hungarian Jewish woman.

Bergmann emigrated to the U.S., where she remained active in sports until the outbreak of World War II. In 1937 she won the U.S. Championship in high jump and shot put and in 1938 again won the high jump championship. In 1980, she was inducted into the Jewish Hall of Fame at the Wingate Institute in Israel. In Germany she was awarded the Honorary Plaque of the Field and Track Association. In 1995 she was entered into the Jewish Hall of Fame in New York and a Berlin stadium was named after her. And now, there is Berlin 36.

Today's London Times article about Berlin 36 places its release within the context of the controversy over the gender of Caster Semenya, the South African runner who won the gold medal last month at the World Athletics Championship, which, coincidentally, was held in the same Berlin stadium that hosted the 1936 Olympics.

The current discussion about prejudice and gender in sports spurred by Semenya's story is absolutely crucial to the future of gender politics and policy in athletics. It's a conversation that needs to be had. I am not sure, however, that Berlin 36 has anything constructive to contribute. The story of a man posing as a woman to gain an "edge" in competitive athletics is hardly a progressive narrative.  I fear that in this context, Berlin 36 and the ensuing interest in Horst Ratjen's story, will do nothing but reinforce the idea that women athletes who do not look feminine enough are somehow cheating.

I doubt that the film itself is concerned with gender issues, and ideally the press will refrain from placing it in this mis-matched context.  Berlin 36 is not a story about gender.  It is a story about a formidable Jewish athlete and the lengths the Nazis went to keep her from competing as a representative of the German nation.

Today Bergmann is 95 years old and living in the United States.  We must not let her remarkable story of courage, talent, and achievement become the proverbial "tree" falling silently in the forest of gender politics.

To learn more about Gretel Bergmann, check out: Sports in Germany: 1898-1938, Jewish Women and the Olympic Games, and her entry in JWA's Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "'Berlin 36' and Gretel Bergmann's story." 3 September 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 22, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/berlin36>.

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