The tiny town of Laupheim in southern Germany — population: less than 20,000 — is not a major tourist destination. There are few hotels and no historically significant reasons reason to visit. Nearby Ulm isn’t much sexier, although it can boast being the birthplace of Albert Einstein.
But it’s through tiny, unheralded -Laupheim that a pair of Jewish athletes — nearly eight decades apart in age — have made their way to sports distinction. Laupheim is the birthplace of high jump and shot put champion Margaret Lambert and the “rebirth-place” of Jennifer Horowitz, a champion fencer from Los Angeles who is poised to receive an award named in Lambert’s honor.
The two women will meet in New York the day before Horowitz, a 17-year-old junior at the Archer School for Girls in Brentwood, receives the Margaret Lambert Outstanding Jewish Female High School Scholar Athlete of the Year from the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum (NJSHFM) in Commack, N.Y. Lambert, who just turned 99, was herself inducted into the museum in 1995. She will not attend the 2013 ceremony on April 21 but wishes her awardee well.
“I would just say for her not to let things go to her head,” Lambert offered. “Do [sports] for the enjoyment of it, nothing else.”
The accolade will be yet another laurel for Horowitz, who has racked up a series of United States Fencing Association (USFA) victories since she began competing as an adolescent. Horowitz was 9 years old when former Armenian national team member — and future coach — Nana Demirchian plucked her off the floor of a studio where Jennifer was waiting for her younger brother and informed her, “You will fence.” -Horowitz began taking lessons, won three Regional Youth Circuit tournaments by the age of 11 and earned national championships in every age category since.
Her skills at épée fencing have taken Horowitz to tournaments first across the country and now around the world, to such places as France, Sweden and Slovakia. In May, she’ll compete in the Junior World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, followed this summer by the Maccabiah Games in Israel, where she’ll represent the United States.
“My school has been very accommodating,” Horowitz said. “The junior year is notoriously your hardest, so I’m trying to get my homework done on planes and trains. I think it’s true of any athlete who does their sport at a high level. It’s not the typical high-school experience. You can’t go to a party this weekend, because you’re going to be in Austria.”
While her trophy case is filling up and Horowitz fully intends to continue the sport through college, her path to fencing success was not always smooth. Having won several domestic titles, she recalls going overseas for the first time and hitting a “block” when it came to facing European fencers.
“Then we went to one of the final world cups of the season,” Horowitz recalled, “in Laupheim.”
During a three-hour car trip from Munich through the German countryside, Horowitz recalled talking to her parents about the legacy of World War II and the Holocaust. Her maternal grandparent’s family had all perished in the Holocaust, and Horowitz makes a point of learning about the Jewish communities in every European city she visits. The Laupheim tournament included a visit to the concentration camp at Dachau.
At the tournament itself, Horowitz felt she turned a corner.
“It was in Laupheim that I started to feel that change, I started to have this better comfort with European fencers and fencing,” said Horowitz, who also volunteers at the Museum of Tolerance. “Right after that, I had my most successful tournament, in Dijon.”
Horowitz’s numerous accomplishments and interest in her heritage made her an ideal candidate for enshrinement as a scholar-athlete in the NJSHFM, Museum Hall of Fame committee director Alan Freedman says. With his selection committee, Freedman scours the pages of Jewish Sports Review and high school and college rosters looking for the names of star athletes with Jewish-sounding names. He then has to place calls to school administrators, asking the admittedly un-PC question, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but is candidate X Jewish?”
“We’re looking not just for someone who is a really good athlete, but a good student and someone who is involved in the community,” Freedman said.
For this year’s crop of inductees, the committee was particularly interested in athletes from less-represented sports. Softball, basketball and baseball players are plentiful in the museum; gymnasts less so. Freedman points out that Jews seem to excel at fencing.
“Colleges like to see fencing on students’ resumes,” Freedman said. “Colleges think that fencers tend to be smarter and more committed to sports than other types of athletes.”
This year, for the first time, the award honoring a female high school scholar-athlete will bear Margaret Lambert’s name; Lambert is a living legend whom Freedman considers both an inspiration and a friend. “I go out on the road and talk about Jews in sports. People ask me who my favorite Jewish athlete is, and they probably expect me to say Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg,” Freedman said. “Many of them don’t even know Margaret’s story.”
Lambert grew up in Laupheim dreaming of representing her county in the Olympics. Possessed of “long legs and big feet,” Lambert — born Gretel Bergmann — became a superior athlete, excelling at the high jump in the 1920s and ’30s. Her timing was unfortunate. During the rise of the Nazi Party, Jews were expelled from German sports clubs, and Lambert was the only Jew on the 1936 German Olympic team, a “token” example to other countries of Germany’s supposed nondiscriminatory practices.
A few weeks before the opening ceremonies in Berlin, Lambert was kicked off the team. In 1937, she moved to the United States, where she began to rebuild her athletic career, becoming a national high jump and shot put champion but never reaching her dream of competing at the Olympics.
“I was so mad at the time, and the madder I get, the higher I jump,” she said. “I’m sure I would have won.”
Lambert’s life is the subject of the 2004 HBO documentary “Hitler’s Pawn” and the 2009 German film “Berlin ’36.” She also tells her story as part of the USC Shoah Foundation witness testimonies, and it was while watching that record that the Horowitz family first “met” Lambert and learned of the unusual Laupheim link.
“Mrs. Lambert is very intelligent, and the way she talks about things reminds me of Jenny in a way,” said Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, Horowitz’s mother. “Because she’s not bragging at all. She’s very matter-of-fact. It’s impressive.”