September 5, 1972 – we remember

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    Yossef Gutfreund, wrestling referee

    Moshe Weinberg, wrestling coach

    Yossef Romano, weightlifter

    Kehat Shorr, sharpshooting coach

    Amitzur Shapir, track and field coach

    Andre Spitzer, fencing master

    Yakov Springer, weightlifting judge

    Eliezer Halfin, wrestler

    Mark Slavin, wrestler

    David Berger, weightlifter

    Ze’ev Friedman, weightlifter

    If you do not recognize their names, you should.

    They died as a result of a terrorist attack.

    11 members of the Israeli Olympic team.

    Two killed by Black September, Romano and Weinberg.

    The rest killed during the failed rescue attempt.

    Munich, Germany.

    I was entering my senior at Haverford.  At age 26, I was not allowed to play soccer because a five year absence meant my eligibility was, according to the NCAA, gone.  So I coached the team.   Still, as athletes we felt a connection with those taken hostage, and were all shocked and saddened by the result.  Several of us were of Jewish background, and took it particularly hard.

    Black September –  the name of the terrorist group which perpetrated this atrocity.

    An atrocity which could have been avoided.   The Israelis had, for security reasons asked for a different housing arrangement, perhaps even to be in the same buildings as the Americans, but the Munich Olympic officials denied their request.

    A security expert had been asked to imagine worst-case scenarios, and one of those he offered matched almost exactly what happened, but his concerns were ignored.

    We know in retrospect that it could have been worse, except one Israeli held the door allowing some to escape, at times some fought back allowing more to escape.   The of Gutfreund using his three hundred pound bulk to hold up the entry of the attackers and allowing his roommate to escape remind me of Professor Liviu Librescu, himself a Holocaust survivor, holding the door of his classroom in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech long enough before he himself was killed that all but one of his students escaped.

    I remember watching ABC as the events unfolded.  A young Peter Jennings, who had been stationed in the Middle East, was added to the coverage, led by Jim McKay.

    And when the news came that the rescue attempt on the way to the plane had failed, I remember a saddened Jim McKay saying “They’re all gone.”

    Then came one of the more remarkable moments in my memories of 6 decades of watching television.  Jim McKay recited poetry.  He recited this, by A. E. Housman:

    To An Athlete Dying Young

    THE time you won your town the race

    We chaired you through the market-place;

    Man and boy stood cheering by,

    And home we brought you shoulder-high.

    To-day, the road all runners come,        

    Shoulder-high we bring you home,

    And set you at your threshold down,

    Townsman of a stiller town.

    Smart lad, to slip betimes away

    From fields where glory does not stay,  

    And early though the laurel grows

    It withers quicker than the rose.

    Eyes the shady night has shut

    Cannot see the record cut,

    And silence sounds no worse than cheers  

    After earth has stopped the ears:

    Now you will not swell the rout

    Of lads that wore their honours out,

    Runners whom renown outran

    And the name died before the man.

    So set, before its echoes fade,

    The fleet foot on the sill of shade,

    And hold to the low lintel up

    The still-defended challenge-cup.

    And round that early-laurelled head  

    Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,

    And find unwithered on its curls

    The garland briefer than a girl’s.

    Memory fades with age.  Perhaps McKay did not recite the entire poem, although my memory is that he did.  That memory, of a sportscaster reciting a poem, To The Athlete Dying Young, is permanently burned into my memory, even almost 4 decades later.

    The next day was the memorial.  My visual image is of Esther Roth, perhaps Israel’s greatest athlete ever.  A sprinter and hurdler, she won 2 golds and a silver at the 1970 Asian Games, and three golds in 1974.  She would become the first Israeli to qualify for an Olymplc track final in the 100 Meter hurdles in 1976 at Montreal.  In Munich, she just missed the finals of the 100 Meter dash,having run 11.45 seconds, which still almost 40 years later still stands as the Israeli national record.  She had qualified for the semis of the 100 Meter hurdles. I remember seeing her, sitting in the front row of the mourners.

    I also remember the head of the IOC, Avery Brundage, concluding that ceremony with the words “The games must go on.”  I felt anger, because I knew his history.  I knew that in 1936, in Berlin, as head of the US Olympic committee, he pulled two Jews, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, off the 4 by 100 Meter relay time before the final, because he felt Hitler had already been embarrassed too much by Jesse Owens.  Instead Mac Robinson, brother of Jackie, and Owens got gold medals in the relay.

    That is part of my memory.  So is Mark Spitz not getting the honor of carrying the US Flag at the closing ceremonies as a reward for his 7 gold medals, because there was fear he might be a target, so he left the games early.

    I had no illusions that politics were not part of the Olympics.  I remembered about Berlin.  I remember the black fists of Tommy Smith and John Carlos at Mexico City, and their being kicked off the team.  Surely the coverage of every competition with its medal counts and glorification of American victors reminded us of the nationalism involved.

    Yet Munich was different.  It was shocking.  It was yet another step in the development of terrorism as a part of our consciousness, as a part of the experience of living in the modern world.

    Only 11 died.  More would die in some other attacks.  More high profile people would be killed in others.  Not all came from the Middle East –  there was the Baeder-Meinhof gang in Germany, there were those of the Japanese Red Army, there was violence on both sides of the conflict of Northern Ireland, that spilling over to violence in London.  

    This was violence spawned in the Middle East, in a conflict that is still not resolved, taking lives on another continent.  It would lead to retaliation by the Israelis, sometimes targeted inaccurately, as far from Israel as Norway.  And the cycle of violence continued.

    All that is true.  None of that should be forgotten.

    Neither should we forget the 11 who died.

    Yossef Gutfreund, wrestling referee

    Moshe Weinberg, wrestling coach

    Yossef Romano, weightlifter

    Kehat Shorr, sharpshooting coach

    Amitzur Shapir, track and field coach

    Andre Spitzer, fencing master

    Yakov Springer, weightlifting judge

    Eliezer Halfin, wrestler

    Mark Slavin, wrestler

    David Berger, weightlifter

    Ze’ev Friedman, weightlifter

    I remember them.

    As those in the Russian Orthodox Church would say, may their memory be eternal.

    Peace.

    • pvogel

      And then Germany let the murderers out.