Olympic Silence

July 19, 2012

16 min read


Forty years after 11 athletes were murdered in Munich, Israel still mourns alone.

Update, August 2016: Finally, after 44 years, the Olympics have given proper recognition to the 11 Israeli athletes brutally killed in Munich. A memorial sculpture, called Place of Mourning, will be installed in the athletes' village of every future Olympics.

I was 11 years old and a fanatical sports fan. I could stay glued to the TV and radio for hours on end, rooting for my hometown teams. The pinnacle sporting event was the Olympics, providing not only a panoply of world-class athletics, but a once-in-four-year opportunity to root for my “special Jewish home team”: Israel.

The 1972 Munich Olympics started with a bang. Mark Spitz, the mustachioed Jewish-American swimmer (who proudly participated in Israel’s Maccabiah Games) entered seven swimming events – and promptly set an incredible seven world records in the course of winning a record seven gold medals.

For American Jews, this was a huge source of pride. The last Olympics  held on German soil – the 1936 Games in Berlin – were exploited as a Nazi showcase festooned with goose-stepping and swastikas. Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism infected the athletic events as well: Two Jewish-American runners – Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller – were removed from the U.S. lineup at the last second, thus becoming the only members of the U.S. squad to travel to Berlin and not compete. For the racist Nazis, it was enough that a black man – Jesse Owens – had won the prestigious 100-meter dash; Hitler reportedly asked U.S. officials not to embarrass him any further by having two Jews win gold in Berlin.

Spitzer believed that in the Olympics there are no borders nor animosities.

The 1972 Munich games promised to usher in a new era of global sportsmanship. Ankie Spitzer, the wife of Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, told Aish.com how they spotted some Lebanese athletes in Munich. “Andre decided to walk over and strike up a conversation with them. I told him, ‘Are you crazy? We’re at war with Lebanon!’ Andre looked at me and said, ‘Here there are no borders, no animosities.’ I’ll never forget when he finished speaking with them and shaking hands, he turned toward me with a huge smile said, ‘I’ve been dreaming of this. This is exactly what the Olympics are all about.’”

The atmosphere was open and free; the security guards did not even carry weapons. (Compare to this year's London Olympics whose billion-dollar security force includes facial recognition technology, scrambling jets and surface-to-air missiles.) At the opening ceremonies, as a symbol of peace and unity, thousands of Bavarian doves were released into the Olympic stadium.

The Munich Games were viewed as a rectification of another kind as well. Several members of the Israeli Olympic team either had family members murdered by the Nazis, or were themselves survivors. Weightlifter Ze'ev Friedman was born in Poland at the height of the war; weightlifting coach Yakov Springer participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; race-walker Shaul Ladany was interned in Bergen-Belsen. The Munich Games were held just 15 miles from the Dachau concentration camp, and a contingent of Israeli athletes visited on the eve of the Games, confident that these secure, serene Olympics would lay to rest some of the 6 million demons. Israeli sprinter Esther Roth – whose outstanding performance at the Munich Games (11.45 seconds in the 100-meter dash) still stands four decades later as the Israeli national record – spoke of a historical triumph in representing the Jewish State on German soil.

Related Article: Spielberg Phone Home

Scaling the Fence

And then it happened. At 5 a.m. on September 5th, eight Palestinians – disguised as athletes and carrying gym bags decorated with the Olympic rings – scaled the fence of the Olympic Village. Those bags contained not running shoes, but Kalashnikov rifles and hand grenades. Using stolen keys, they broke into the Israeli men’s dormitory, quickly killed two athletes, and took nine others hostage.

In one moment, the Olympic ideal had burst into a horrific collision of unity versus destruction, peace versus war. I was frightened and confused, my youthful innocence shattered with that first bitter taste of Jewish life's most painful realities.

My parents tried to calm me down, assuring me that everything would be alright. With a mixture of fear and confusion I waited moment by moment, hour after hour, as deadlines passed and the drama played out to a worldwide audience of one billion: Palestinian terrorists in frightening ski masks… threatening to execute one Israeli every hour… an attempt to storm the building called off when the terrorists themselves began monitoring these developments by watching live television coverage… demanding a plane to Cairo… the transfer of all terrorists and hostages by helicopter to nearby Fürstenfeldbruck airfield… and the growing uncertainty of what would be.

A shootout erupted at the airport. Initial reports came in: All the hostages were alive. All the attackers killed.

What was only a rumor had cruelly mutated into fact. Israeli newspapers hit the streets bearing banner headlines: “Hostages in Munich Rescued.” Ankie Spitzer, watching the drama unfold at her parents' house in Belgium, was offered a bottle of champagne. Prime Minister Golda Meir went to bed believing that German forces had rescued the nine athletes.

With a sense of enormous relief, I went to bed, too.

When I awoke, the look on my father's face told me that something was horribly wrong. The German plan to save the hostages had been botched in every conceivable way. A group of 17 police officers who'd been positioned on the airplane to ambush the terrorists cowardly abandoned their mission at the last minute. German law precluded any involvement by the army, and the Germans stubbornly refused the assistance of Israeli special forces. The rescue effort was led by Munich's Chief of Police, who'd been charged with involuntary manslaughter after blundering a bank robbery months earlier.

Incredibly, three weeks before the massacre, an informant told the German Embassy in Beirut about Palestinian plans for "an incident" during the Olympics. Four days later, the German Foreign Ministry alerted Munich authorities and advised them to "take all possible security measures." (The measures were never taken; the evidence suppressed for decades.)

The police rescue team was wholly inadequate to neutralize the eight terrorists.

The rescue team – consisting of just five snipers – was wholly inadequate to neutralize the eight terrorists. None of the snipers possessed specialized training, nor were they equipped with night-vision goggles or telescopic sights. They had no radio contact, thus unable to coordinate their fire. No armored vehicles were at the scene; those called in later got stuck in traffic. A SWAT team arrived by helicopter an hour late and landed more than a mile from the action.

In the chaotic two-hour gun battle, all nine Israeli athletes were killed, strafed by Palestinian gunfire, then torched by grenades as they sat helplessly bound in the helicopters.

Jim McKay of ABC delivered the heartbreaking news:

When I was a kid, my father used to say, "Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized." Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They've now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning; nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone.

All gone.

The surviving Israeli athletes pulled out of competition and accompanied the 10 coffins back to Israel. The body of weightlifter David Berger, a young American attorney who had recently emigrated to Israel, was sent back to his hometown of Cleveland. Mark Spitz was also quickly evacuated, for fear he might be the next target.

Meanwhile, competition at the games had continued as usual until 3 p.m. that day, some 10 hours into the crisis. Events were suspended only after Brundage faced a growing barrage of criticism. According to Time magazine, during the standoff, Brundage’s primary concern was to "remove the crisis from the Olympic Village," as if to say, "There's no way we can save the hostages, so let's at least save the Games."

After the massacre, many called for a cancellation of the Games. “You give a party, and someone is killed at the party, you don't continue the party,” Dutch distance runner Jos Hermens declared. “I'm going home.”

Yet despite opposition from both Olympic officials and German organizers, Brundage was steadfast in his refusal to cancel or postpone the Games. Competition resumed after a memorial service where Brundage made little reference to the murdered athletes, and equated the deadly attack with a controversy over whether to allow Rhodesia's participation in the Games. Brundage resolutely declared: "The Games must go on.” In response, 80,000 people cheered, prompting the New York Times to describe the memorial service as “more like a pep rally.”

Not everyone took it so lightly. A cousin of murdered Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, Carmel Eliash, collapsed during the memorial service and died of a heart attack. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote at the time: “Incredibly, they're going on with it. It's almost like having a dance at Dachau.”

"I'll run, but I don't feel like running," U.S. marathoner Kenny Moore said. "Until now, I think almost everyone felt the Olympics were a symbol of something so important. Now this insanity. What's important after this?"

Operation Wrath of God

From the standpoint of modern terror, Munich was the beginning of the end, a seminal event proving that terrorism works. In the words of one Al Qaeda activist, the Olympic massacre was "the greatest media victory and… a great propaganda strike."

Emboldened, Palestinian guerillas struck again less than two months later, hijacking a German airliner and demanding the release of the three surviving Munich terrorists. Without consulting the Israeli government, German Chancellor Willy Brandt capitulated and released the terrorists, who were promptly flown to Libya and given a hero’s welcome.

Guri Weinberg, son of murdered wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, portrayed his father in the film.

To promote Israeli deterrence, Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the assassination of all those involved in the massacre. Some were eliminated in Europe by well-placed bombs; others were struck down in an operation – headed by now-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak – that secretly landed boats on a Lebanese beach and boldly gunned down Palestinian terrorist leaders in downtown Beirut. The efficacy of these operations was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s controversial 2005 film, Munich. (In an eerie melding of Hollywood and reality, Israeli actor Guri Weinberg, the son of murdered wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, portrayed his father in the film.)

Not everyone involved in the Munich massacre, however, received their due punishment. Munich mastermind Abu Daoud has repeatedly said that funds for the massacre were provided by Mahmoud Abbas, current President of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, when Amin Al-Hindi, one of the senior planners of the attack, died in 2010, Abbas led a PA-sponsored funeral, complete with red carpet and military band. The official PA daily described Al-Hindi as "one of the stars who sparkled... at the sports stadium in Munich." (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 20, 2010)

London 2012

Which brings us to today. Over the past 40 years, the bereaved families have expectantly waited for expressions of remorse and responsibility from German officials. "If they would only say to us, 'Look, we tried, we didn't know what we were doing, we didn't mean for what happened to happen, we're sorry' – that would be the end of it," widow Ankie Spitzer told Aish.com. "But they've never even said that."

The victims’ families have made one specific request of the Olympic Committee: To hold a moment of silence at the Opening Ceremonies. The purpose is to acknowledge that this horrific slaughter is grieved not by Israel alone, but by the entire community of nations.

“Silence is a fitting tribute,” says Spitzer. “Silence contains no statements, assumptions or beliefs, and requires no understanding of language to interpret.” People are welcome to reflect, pray, and remember the athletes in their own way.

This, the families say, would provide much-needed closure.

Soon after the massacre, Spitzer wrote her first letter to the Olympic Committee. She did not ask “if” a commemoration would be held at the 1976 Montreal Games, but rather “what.” She simply assumed that the Olympic Committee would be doing something.

The letter went unanswered.

Year after year, Spitzer pressed her case, attending every Summer Olympics (except Moscow 1980), never giving up. "I have no political or religious agenda. Our message is not one of hatred or revenge. It's a positive message of remembrance and strengthening the Olympic ideals," Spitzer says. "Forty years is long enough to wait."

The Olympic Committee has stubbornly refused on the grounds it would “politicize the Olympics.”

In recent months, the power of the Internet has spread the story and over 100,000 people from 155 different countries have signed a petition demanding this moment of silence. The U.S. Congress, Canadian Parliament, German Bundestag, Australian House of Representatives and others have all passed unanimous resolutions reiterating this very reasonable demand. President Barack Obama has joined the call as well. But the Olympic Committee has stubbornly refused - ostensibly on the grounds it would "politicize the Olympics."

This week, the Olympic Committee held an unscheduled moment of silence in the Olympic Village during a small ceremony attended by a few dozen people. "I would like to start today's ceremony by honoring the memory of 11 Israeli Olympians who shared the ideals and have brought us together in this beautiful Olympic Village," said IOC President Jacques Rogge. Some saw this as a shameful ploy to deflect criticism as the victims' families demand a tribute at the opening ceremonies, viewed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

To his great credit, Bob Costas of NBC Sports, has promised his own "minute of silence" at the opening ceremonies – perhaps turning off his broadcasting microphone when the Israeli delegation enters.

And yet, with this very refusal the Olympics are being politicized. Olympic officials have said that if an official tribute were to take place, all Arab delegations (including those oil-rich states which provide Olympic funding) would quit the Olympics. In other words, rather than raise the Olympic ideal above politics, the Olympic committee is capitulating to anti-Semitic forces. Just like another international body, the United Nations, the Olympic movement is being shamefully hijacked by a bloc of Arab, Muslim and dictatorial Third World forces who undermine the trust and goodwill upon which the Olympics has always stood.

Olympic officials told Spitzer that their "hands were tied" by these political considerations. "No," Spitzer says she responded, "my husband's hands were tied, not yours."

Hijacking the Games

This is a crucial moment where the Olympic committee needs to stand up and prevent its descent into folly. This is not an internal Israeli matter, nor about political posturing or revenge. It is about doing justice to the memory of 11 men who came in peace and went home in coffins. The victims were killed not on the streets of Tel Aviv, nor accidental tourists at Munich. Rather they were members of the Olympic family, murdered inside the Olympic village as participants in the Games. It was an onslaught against the entire Olympic ideal.

I do not cast the charge of "anti-Semitism" lightly. If the slain athletes had been American, British, or Palestinian for that matter, does anyone doubt that the Olympic Committee would hold a fitting memorial tribute? Why did the opening ceremonies include mentions of the Bosnian War in 1996, and the 2002 Games opened with a minute of silence for victims of 9/11?  Why, when it comes to Israel, does all the talk about "brotherhood" and "unity" seem to fall by the wayside?

Says Spitzer: "After listening to all the lame excuses for 40 years, I can only come to one conclusion: It is anti-Israel, anti-Jewish discrimination."

The Olympic committee has a longstanding reputation for hypocrisy and corruption. It was this same Avery Brundage who exhibited anti-Semitism the previous time the Olympics were held on German soil. Two years prior to the 1936 Berlin Games, Brundage traveled to meet with German government officials to discuss protocol at the Games. Upon his return, he reported: "I was given positive assurance... that there will be no discrimination against Jews. You can't ask more than that and I think the guarantee will be fulfilled." Yet when push came to shove, it was Brundage himself who appeased Hitler and removed the two Jewish athletes from the American lineup.

In recent years we’ve seen this “tolerance for anti-Semitism” as well: At the 2004 Olympics (Athens) and 2008 (Beijing), Iran ordered its athletes not to compete against Israelis. The Olympic Committee’s disciplinary response? Nothing.

The nightmare of Munich affected me deeply. Four years later, the 1976 Summer Olympics were held in Montreal, not far from my home in western New York. In a dream come true, my parents took me to an Olympic soccer match featuring the Israeli national team. We cheered wildly for our “home team.” But things could never be the same.

When the Israeli team entered Montreal stadium for those Opening Ceremonies, the Israeli national flag was adorned with a black ribbon. To me, that black ribbon represented more than the memory of the Munich 11. It spoke of the stark reality of the world's repeated failure to stand up when Jews are being threatened. Whether a refusal to bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz; a reluctance to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the utter failure to protect Israeli athletes when Jewish blood was shed once again on German soil; the inability to muster even one minute of silence in their memory.

For 2,000 years of exile, the Jewish people have suffered repeated disdain in the eyes of the nations. How apt that the opening ceremonies in London will be taking place this Friday night – on Tisha B'Av, the very day in Jewish history which marks the destruction of our unifying focus, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Some things never change. For we are the eternal nation… that dwells alone.

Yizkor –
We Remember

David Berger (weightlifter)
Ze'ev Friedman (weightlifter)
Yossef Gutfreund (wrestling referee)
Eliezer Halfin (wrestler)
Yossef Romano (weightlifter)
Amitzur Shapira (track coach)
Kehat Shorr (shooting coach)
Mark Slavin (wrestler)
Andre Spitzer (fencing coach)
Yakov Springer (weightlifting judge)
Moshe Weinberg (wrestling coach)


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