Weathered Wise Female Faces: Elizabeth Robinson
by Rebecca Tolkoff
In thinking about the Provincetown art installation, “They Also Faced the Sea,” my attention turned to an Instagram page I recently found, @elizabethbaberobinson. The posts were about Elizabeth Robinson, an athlete I had never heard of, but she was clearly a heroine. I started commenting on the posts and googled her name to learn more about her story. Eventually, I messaged the page operator, who turned out to be Betty’s granddaughter. We wrote back and forth and realized we had a lot to talk about. Even crazier, we learned we lived a few towns apart in Massachusetts.
Betty’s story is unknown to most of us, yet she was the first female Olympic gold medalist in all of track and field. Her athletic talent, her mental strength, and her story of resilience are more than feature-film worthy. Brook Doire, Betty’s granddaughter, recently began sharing her grandmother’s story with the world. I had the honor of meeting Brook for dinner this summer where she told me her grandmother’s story. Brooke is a schoolteacher in Massachusetts and was a gymnast as a kid. She is an active, outdoorsy, working mom who fits Crossfit and distance running into her week. Brooke is the spitting image of her grandmother Betty. In her “spare” time, she works to elevate her grandmother’s legacy to where it rightfully belongs by speaking to school students, presenting to local Girls on The Run groups, and posting on her Instagram page, as well as creating a website devoted to her grandmother’s herstory, www.bettyrobinson.org.
As I listened to Brooke talk, I could barely finish my fish taco—all these ideas were racing through my mind. What an unbelievable Olympic story! Why have I not heard this before? Why do I keep thinking about my own grandmother, not a runner at all? Betty Robinson was discovered, a bit like an old Hollywood movie star. The boy’s track coach/science teacher noticed her racing to catch the train to her Illinois high school one morning. He asked her to bring her sneakers to school the next day where he clocked her 50-yard dash at 0.4 seconds off the world record at the time. She had always been a fast sprinter and enjoyed racing the boys, but the world of running had previously been unavailable to her. She had no female role model, no girls track team at school, or any school nearby. She literally did not know any women who ran competitively. Back then, women were advised not to run, as it was not “proper” or “ladylike.” It was generally believed that women did not have the physical stamina to run any distance over a few yards, and doctors worried it would interfere with their ability to bear children. Women were told their uterus would fall out if they ran longer than a mile or two. Luckily, her parents supported her passion, and the boy’s track team coach invited her to practice with them.
Betty soon found a more professional women’s training group, the Illinois Women’s Athletic Club, a couple hours from her house in downtown Chicago. She trained intensely and with full dedication. Her fourth official 100m race was in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam in 1928. It was the first time women had been allowed to compete in track and field events, though men had competed the same Olympic distance for 32 years. Betty won that Olympic race, earning the first gold medal in the women’s 100m, and she was only 16 years old. Mid-way through listening to Brooke retell the story, I began to see a couple of coincidences in each of our grandmothers’ lives—both in the places they visited and lived, and in the resilience in their lives. In 1928, my own grandmother, a German Jew, lived in Breslau, Germany. Klara Margit Epstein was born a few years before Betty. In the spring of 1929, Margit, age 22, deliberately moved away from her family in Breslau, Germany for 6 months to gain independence and maturity. She rented a flat in Berlin, Germany where she worked as a seamstress and attended as many theatre and concert-hall performances as she could afford. She gained independence and returned to Breslau where she married and started a new life with a slightly older man.
Betty’s story does not end with her Olympic gold, and my grandmother’s story does not end with growing independence. Near-death experiences provided a launching pad for extraordinary resilience within both women. As Betty Friedan once remarked, “Aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
The astonishing section of Betty’s life story comes after she almost died a year before the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, CA. Her coaches saw cross training as detrimental to performance, so rather than going for a swim on a hot day, Betty opted to cool off by hopping a ride in her cousin’s airplane. A few minutes into the flight, the engine stalled and the plane took a nosedive and crashed. The rescuer who found them thought Betty was dead and put her into the trunk of his car. Thankfully, the doctor who examined her “corpse” realized she was still breathing, and they quickly took her to a hospital. Betty missed the 1932 Los Angeles games. Physicians told her she might never walk again and definitely would not run.
Back in Breslau during this time, my grandmother gave birth to her first son in July of 1932. A few months after his birth and after the Los Angeles Olympic games, Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. By default, Hitler became steward of the 1936 Olympic Games. German Jews were banned from courthouses a few months later, making it impossible for my grandfather to continue working as an attorney. “We felt as if a bomb had hit our house or an earthquake taken the ground under our feet,” wrote my grandmother in her diary. My grandfather left his wife and son in Breslau in search of a safer place to live within Europe. While he was gone, Margit found she was pregnant and made the painful decision to abort her second child. A few months later, my grandfather sent for his family. They made their new home in Amsterdam, believing they had escaped the power of Hitler and the Nazis. They lived on Albrecht Duererstraat, 1.1 miles from the Olympic Stadium where Betty competed in 1928.
Over dinner, Brooke spoke repeatedly about Betty’s strong personality. Brooke said Betty was resilient, brave, and did not let anything get in the way of her goals. After the accident, Betty was motivated by the naysayers. If anything, their skepticism sparked her fervor for training again. It took two years, but Betty learned to walk again, and even started to run. Though Betty was never able to crouch down into a racer’s start again due to the metal plates and pins in her hip, she rebuilt what she could—she started running slow, short distances, and quickly built up her stamina and speed. She made a valiant and surprising return to the world running scene. Though her gait now included a limp, she still ran faster than nearly everyone else in the world. She earned a place on the Women’s Olympic Relay Team where she earned her second gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. She embodied the true meaning of the word resilient and awed the world with her strength of mind and character.
Attendance at the 1936 Olympics was a contentious issue, though the United States did finally decide to participate. The athletes were instructed to remain polite to the Nazi Germans, and the Nazis were instructed to treat the athletes with equal respect. Betty brushed by Hitler at the Berlin Olympic stadium and actually met him. She even attended a party put on by the Third Reich where Hermann Goring tried to seduce some of the young American track and field Olympians. This was a stark contrast to the Nazi’s treatment of my young, attractive grandmother.
In pre-war Amsterdam, my grandparents made a new life. They had a second child in 1942, my father Frank, named after Franklin Roosevelt. They were friends with Edith and Otto Frank, the parents of famous Anne. A few months after my dad was born, the Nazis stole all four of them from their home and forced them to live as prisoners in a concentration camp called Bergen-Belsen, just outside of Hannover, Germany. Margot and Anne were later prisoners inside the same section of the Bergen-Belsen. My grandmother never spoke much about their time inside the concentration camp. It was too painful for her. Miraculously, my grandmother, grandfather, and their children survived and were liberated on my father’s third birthday. Unlike Anne and Margot, my family returned to Amsterdam post-war.
Surviving the Holocaust was a real turning point in the life of my grandmother. Soon after liberation, in 1947, my grandfather died of liver failure, a complication of the damage to his health incurred in Bergen-Belsen. Margit became a single mother and all of a sudden had to support the family financially, as well as deal with the trauma of the war. She brought her sons to the United States of America in 1952. Their names now rest on a plaque at Ellis Island, NY. Near the end of her 83 years, she wrote down her story as a long diary entry speaking directly to her sons. I have a copy of her diary. It sits in a cardboard binder on my desk. She typed it and made photocopies of the pages. I have read bits of it to my own children but never shared it with anyone outside our family. This article includes the first time I’ve ever quoted her words to the public. My memories of her are very typical of a beloved granddaughter, knowing her only through the eyes of a child. She passed away when I was in 8th grade. Her weathered, sweet face lives in my mind. Her thick German accent reverberates in my ear. And, now I truly appreciate the foundation she built for me.
Both Betty and Margit rose above expectations and the odds of survival and achieved unique success—one in the Olympic arena and other in revitalizing a family nearly destroyed by evil. Brooke has many relics from her grandmother, from the Olympic medals (which Betty kept in an old Russell Stover chocolate box), and old Life magazine clippings. I have my grandmother’s typed diary. These historic relics feel a bit cramped in our homes and need to be shared with others. Their weathered wise faces were earned by bravery and resilience. It is the mission of women in my generation to lift them up to their proper place in herstory.