>I just saw a new German film the other day, “Berlin 36”. While the film itself was only so-so as far as how it was made (although acted and shot very well), the true story on which it’s based is actually more interesting that the cinematic version.
Gretel Bergmann was a young promising German track and field athlete when the Nazis came to power. Being Jewish, she was expelled from her athletic club in 1933, but was able to move to the UK and participate in the British Championships, winning in the high jump.
As the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics approached, Germany made some attempts at making themselves appear tolerant, and one such attempt was to blackmail Gretel (with threats made to the family) into coming back to join the German team as their Token Jew. She returned and trained, and even tied the German record at a regional meet right before the games. However, her score was deleted from the books and she failed to qualify for the Olympic team due to “underperformance”.
Now, this is where the story gets (even more) interesting: her replacement on the team, a young woman with whom she’d trained, was Dora Ratjen, who was actually male. Although the story is often portrayed as a Nazi scheme of putting a guy in a dress and sending him out to beat Gretel, the truth is more complicated and, as always, more tragic. Ratjen had been raised a girl but apparently was intersex of some form or another*, and her male characteristics began to show in puberty. She placed fourth at the Berlin Olympics and won the 1938 European Championships. However, in 1938 she was riding in a train when someone reported having seen a man in a dress to the police.
Ratjen came through the ordeal in the clear, but she gave up her athletic career and in 1939 was able to get reclassified as a male, and changed his name to Heinrich. (I cannot imagine this would have been easy to do in Nazi Germany, with their obsession with identity cards and all that. But he managed it.) He returned to Bremen, took over the family bar and never spoke to anyone ever again publicly about his past.
He died in 2008. Gretel Bergmann is 95 and living in New York.
* If you look up “intersexuality” on Wikipedia you can learn of the many different ways the human x and y chromosomes can get out of wack. It’s amazing that so many of us turn out normal.