Friday, July 27, 2012

Remembering the Murdered Israeli Athletes, Forty Years Later

June 1973. I was 10 years old, attending an overnight camp for the first time. It was a rainy day, so registration was done inside the mess hall. Despite friendly smiles from the director and staff, my eyes were transfixed to a board leaning against the wall. The board bore 11 8x10 photos, black and white and grainy of burly, foreign-looking men. It was a scary site. But not unfamiliar.

I recognized the faces because I had seen them on the news several months before. They were the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 summer Olympic games in Munich, Germany. As a young, sports-crazed kid, I always looked forward to the Olympics. The games were about two weeks in when in the early morning of September 5, 1972, a group of Palestinians from the terrorist organization Black September entered the Olympic Village, killed two Israeli athletes, and took nine others hostage. Following a bungled rescue attempt by inept German police forces, the nine hostages were massacred.

My family watched news of this event nonstop. The masked gunman was an indelible image. It was just plain scary. It was, in fact, the first act of terrorism I was aware of. Mark Spitz, bedecked in medals, left Munich. The Games were soured. After a while, the images and the feelings they stirred in me faded from memory. Until that day the following summer when the athletes’ doomed faces again stared at me at camp.

Jay was the Education Director at the camp. Three years later he would be my counselor, my favorite-ever counselor, and a lifelong friend. But in 1973, he was the guy pushing these bad memories back in my pre-adolescent face. Four decades later, I asked him why.

“The bottom line lesson was that when Jews put their fate into other hands, we are fucked,” he told me. “Unlike at Entebbe, when we told the world to screw, and went in ourselves. At Munich, the fucking scumbags would not allow the Israelis to interfere.”

Of course, this wasn’t how he presented it to us kids. He focused on the fact that the murdered Israelis were athletes, which we as young Jewish boys could identify with. And yes, that Jews and Israel have enemies. This was hammered home that very fall when the Yom Kippur War broke out. On October 6, 1973, a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on the holiest day in Judaism. I got it. Jay had taught me something that was immediately true and relevant.

It is now 40 forty years since the massacre. And in response to widespread calls for a moment of silence in honor of the murdered Israeli athletes, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has added insult to injury.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “Rogge is president of an International Olympic Committee that steadfastly has refused to allow the memory of the massacred Munich 11 to be part of the opening ceremony. Not once since that September day in 1972 has the IOC given the massacre’s survivors the honor or comfort of even one second of solemnity during the important and symbolic opening night.”

Even at the time, then-IOC president Avery Brundage refused to cancel the remainder of the Olympics (he did, however, hold a day of mourning, pushing back all events for 24 hours).

Now, 40 years later, Rogge claims that the Olympics are not a “fit” setting for recognizing the atrocity that occurred in Munich. And it was an atrocity. Here is a description from Wikipedia of how the terrorists murdered the Israeli hostages in the face of the Germans’ ineptness:

The Germans had not arranged for armored personnel carriers ahead of time and only at this point were they called in to break the deadlock. Since the roads to the airport had not been cleared, the carriers became stuck in traffic and finally arrived around midnight. With their appearance, the kidnappers felt the shift in the status quo, and possibly panicked at the thought of the failure of their operation. At four minutes past midnight of 6 September, one of them (likely Issa) [Luttif Afif, the leader] turned on the hostages in the eastern helicopter and fired at them with a Kalashnikov assault rifle from point-blank range. Springer, Halfin and Friedman were killed instantly; Berger, shot twice in the leg, is believed to have survived the initial onslaught. His autopsy later found that he had died of smoke inhalation. The attacker then pulled the pin on a hand grenade and tossed it into the cockpit; the ensuing explosion destroyed the helicopter and incinerated the bound Israelis inside.

Issa then dashed across the tarmac and began firing at the police, who killed him with return fire. Another, Khalid Jawad, attempted to escape and was gunned down by one of the snipers. What happened to the remaining hostages is still a matter of dispute. A German police investigation indicated that one of their snipers and a few of the hostages may have been shot inadvertently by the police. However, a Time Magazine reconstruction of the long-suppressed Bavarian prosecutor's report indicates that a third kidnapper (Reeve identifies Adnan Al-Gashey) stood at the door of the western helicopter and raked the remaining five hostages with machine gun fire; Gutfreund, Shorr, Slavin, Spitzer and Shapira were shot an average of four times each. Of the four hostages in the eastern helicopter, only Ze’ev Friedman’s body was relatively intact; he had been blown clear of the helicopter by the explosion. In some cases, the exact cause of death for the hostages in the eastern helicopter was difficult to establish because the rest of the corpses were burned almost beyond recognition in the explosion and subsequent fire.

Five of the eight terrorists were killed by police during the failed rescue attempt. The three surviving assassins were captured but later released by West Germany following the hijacking by Black September of a Lufthansa airplane. Thank you, Germany, for everything.

No doubt Rogge is afraid of upsetting Arab nations by recognizing the tragedy. At the time, King Hussein of Jordan was the only Arab leader to denounce the act; he’d had his own conflict with Black September two years earlier. So instead of offending the living, the Olympics will insult the dead – those faces I have never been able to get out of my mind.

These are memories that are resurfacing for me today, as the 2012 summer Olympics begins. I will not watch. I will not forget.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Kind of Blue: The WGBH Jazz Funeral

Just returned from a funeral and boy are my arms tired.

That’s not a joke, either. It was a jazz funeral in the tradition of New Orleans bands and second liners who parade in the streets with the coffin of the dearly departed. In this case, the dearly departed was jazz itself. Local public radio station WGBH recently announced the latest in a series of cutbacks over the past three years that have steadily eroded the jazz programming that was once so foundational to the station – and, indeed, to the community.

Eric Jackson, for 30-plus years the premier presenter of jazz over Boston’s airwaves, sees his popular show moved from weeknights to a mere nine hours over the weekend, while DJ and producer Steve Schwartz, with more than a quarter-century of service under his belt, has been terminated outright.

Through the convening power of Facebook, the local jazz community gathered to mark the passing of jazz programming that was truly differentiated in the market – both by the expertise of the jockeys and the breadth and quality of the music played. Organized by Ken Field (Birdsongs of the Mesozoic), this jazz funeral was indeed more commemoration than demonstration. There were no speeches, really. But there was a lot of good playing and a ton of good feeling – and hey, that’s what jazz is all about. The invitation was to bring instruments if you can play, and if you can’t bring cameras or just your hands, ears, and hearts. I brought a sign that said “R.I.P Jazz @ GBH” and waved it in time.

Maybe it’s just a comment on the quality of the musicianship in this city – home, after all, to Berklee and all the people who thumb their noses at Berklee – but everyone who brought something to play was a player. There were no dust-off-that-trumpet-in-the-attic folks who haven’t made an embouchure in thirty years. No slide whistles or kazoos, either. Instead I spied and heard soprano, alto, and tenor saxes; trumpets and trombones; drums in marching and stationary configurations; a vibraphone and a violin; a pair of tubas (I was photographed standing between them); double bass, banjo and mandolin; a flute and a piccolo. And all were competently played.

I’m not good at estimating crowds so I can’t say whether there were 50, 100, or 150 people there. All I know is that we were all squeezed in tightly on the sidewalk. A GBH security person – just doing his job – asked us to keep away from the building and occupy a strip extending no further than five feet in from the curb. This necessarily led to many people ending up on the street, where a policeman – just doing his job – requested that we all get back on the sidewalk. Ultimately, in the spirit of the times, we occupied the entire corner with no further hassle.

The performance began with a solo trumpet rendition of Horace Silver’s “Peace”, long the theme song for Eric’s program. Everyone joined in on the final note, playing as long and loud as they could. The Jews among us were probably thinking Tekiah gadolah, the ultimate, extended blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. This led into a communal reading of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” followed by “Down By the Riverside,” “Rock of Ages,” and a group version of “Peace” conducted by Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon.

Despite the semi-haphazard nature of the gathering, somehow Field was able to assign solos and duets throughout the songs, adjust the dynamics depending on the instrument(s) being featured, and keep people in the same key. Also remarkable were the overall quality of the solos. Needless to say, this is the first time this particular group had been assembled and the audience was right in their faces. At the end of the funeral, a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” began spontaneously and the throng began to parade down the street. This afforded the wonderful circumstance by which we passed the radio studio window where Eric Jackson was doing his final weeknight show. As we passed, he stood before the soundproof glass and waved to us. I flashed him the “peace” sign.

The crowd eventually reached an Irish pub. Hearing the approaching din, someone inside opened the door and everyone, musicians, sign-holders, and second-liners, walked in and kept the music going. Just one bartender was on duty at the time but the patrons welcomed the excitement and entertainment.

Anxious to get home and write this down, I left. As I passed the studio, there was still a small crowd on the corner. I reached my car and turned on Eric’s show. He’s still broadcasting as I type this. Through the years, his show has served as a listening and buying guide for me. He has introduced me to so much good music and so many artists I care deeply about.

I remember in December 2001, the night after my uncle died tragically in a car accident, I was driving to his house where my father and other family were gathered. I had been asked to compose a eulogy and I was going there to share it with them. I was in quite an emotional state, as you can imagine, and I was listening to Eric Jackson. He played a beautiful vocal number about heartbreak and loss. I was so taken with the narrative and the singer’s exquisitely pained delivery that even though I had arrived at my destination before the song was over, and people were waiting for me inside, I stayed in my car to hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, Eric went directly into another song after it was over so I didn’t know what it was. But I couldn’t keep my family waiting for me.

The next morning at work I emailed Eric to ask what that song was (I was working at WGBH at the time). He replied later that night. Not only did he tell me what the song was – “Rags and Old Iron” by Oscar Brown, Jr. – but he also shared with me how when he was younger, whenever a new Oscar Brown, Jr. record came out, he and his friends would get together to listen to it. Many decades later, Eric had made a new Oscar Brown, Jr. fan.

Jazz is about feelings and emotions, and about stories such as that one. It’s about people’s lives, their dreams and disappointments, their yearnings and achievements. For forty years, WGBH has brought jazz to the community. Now, their commitment is all but gone. Eric’s show has been ghettoized to make way for rebroadcasts of talk shows.

Talk we have more than enough of. Jazz we can never get enough of. Hence tonight’s jazz funeral. Of course, jazz is not dead; not even at GBH, though it definitely is on life support and it’s only a matter of time before they pull a Kevorkian. But the most important aspect of tonight’s event was the evidence that the jazz community is not dead. There are musicians and listeners aplenty, and they need each other – now more than ever. If tonight is any indication, we’ll be making beautiful music together for many years to come.