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.

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