We Were at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games
Fifty years ago, 11 Israeli athletes were massacred by Palestinian terrorists in Germany. We were there for our honeymoon.
My husband, Steve, and I had been traveling by train, from Athens through then-Yugoslavia and Austria, when our train pulled into the Munich Hauptbahnhof (railway station). It was an impressive building with high arches and many platforms.
At 7 AM locals were breakfasting with huge steins of beer. The date was September 2, 1972, and Steve and I had recently gotten married in New York. Our plan had been to honeymoon via a leisurely rail trip through Europe and Scandinavia, which would end with a return to Israel where we had been residing.
As we’d strategized over maps, choosing the routes and stops for our trip, Steve suddenly remarked, “Hey, we’re going to be passing through Munich on our way north and it will coincide with the Olympic Games! Maybe we can spend some time there, that would be an amazing experience!”
“But Honey, at this late date it would be impossible to get accommodations there. Forget it.”
I had mixed emotions about stopping in Germany. My parents were Polish survivors of the Holocaust, and most of my relatives had been victims of the Nazi onslaught.
Being something of a sports junkie, Steve was determined to pursue any avenue to make it work. “Didn’t your father once mention that he has cousins in Munich?”
I had mixed emotions about stopping in Germany. My parents were Polish survivors of the Holocaust, and most of my relatives including all four grandparents had been victims of the Nazi onslaught. When the war ended, my parents lived in a Displaced Persons camp near Munich until 1949 when they received permission to immigrate to the United States.
For my honeymoon I would have preferred to leave Germany off the bucket list. But reluctantly, I gave in, and my Munich relatives, also survivors, offered to host us during the Olympics.
The city itself was beautiful, the atmosphere festive and polyglot. Athletes and coaches from all over the world milled around in their jackets with identifying country badges. Aromas of roasted, sugared nuts wafted through the streets from outdoor vendors. Many stores placed televisions in their front windows so crowds could watch the competitions in real time. We saw Mark Spitz swim to one of his seven gold medals. Olga Korbut’s amazing gymnastic performances drew multilingual cheers everywhere. Later, we walked around the Englischer Garten, the English Garden, larger than Central Park. It was exciting to watch the Olympic archery competitions that were held there and were open and free to all.
The planners of the Games gave the event a nickname: The Happy Games. Munich was anxious to dispel the memory of the 1936 Olympic Games that had been held in Berlin. The ubiquitous Nazi emblems and flags and the rampant racism and antisemitism of those Games would presumably be forgotten as the current Olympics would proceed flawlessly and joyously.
September 5 was a day when no events were scheduled. We decided to take a trip outside of Munich to a town called Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It’s an Alpine ski town and had been the site of the 1936 Winter Olympics. It’s also the locale of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, and an incredibly beautiful sight.
While awaiting the cable car to transport us up to the peak, we overheard odd rumors among the others waiting for the funicular about some sort of Palestinian terrorist attack that morning in the Olympic Village. On our way up the mountain, the rumors were confirmed by an English-speaking passenger that the attack was against members of the Israeli Olympic delegation. We were shocked and horrified, and as soon as we reached the top of the mountain we turned around and went back down, hastily returning to Munich.
We discovered that two members of the Israeli team had been murdered in cold blood, one of the bodies mutilated and thrown off a balcony, and that nine other athletes had been taken hostage by the terrorists. Television coverage that afternoon was almost entirely in German, leaving us frustrated in our desire to learn the latest news. Watching the appearance, played and replayed, of the hooded terrorist on the balcony of the Israeli athletes’ building (a now infamous video) was blood-curdling.
News Correspondent Jim McKay
News Correspondent Jim McKay suddenly appeared and broadcast the situation in English. We learned that the band of terrorists had leaped with ease over the fence in the Olympic Village, with duffel bags full of ammunition and machine guns, and headed straight to attack the athletes from Israel. We sat in front of the TV, our emotions running amok with fear and anger. It seemed impossible that there hadn’t been any sort of security other than the meager fence to safeguard the international competitors.
Just before we were ready to retire for the night, there were rumors that a settlement had been reached and that the hostages would be released. The plan seemed to be that the hostage takers would bring the nine athletes to the Munich airport of Fürstenfeldbruck. There would be four or more German sharpshooters there just in case the armed terrorists should try to open fire on their captives. A plane would be on the runway waiting to fly the Palestinians and hostages to a middle eastern location. The athletes would then be released in exchange for Israel’s release of about 250 jailed Palestinian terrorists. We went to sleep feeling optimistic that the hostages would be freed.
We awoke to the utterly devastating news that all nine hostages had been massacred, yet three of the terrorists had survived. The latter were later released by the German authorities. My cousins were speechless and in shock. I asked myself incredulously, “How on earth can this be? It’s 1972 and not 1942. Jewish bodies and blood are again staining German soil?”
The 11 Israeli athletes
An announcement was broadcast regarding a ceremony, quickly arranged, to memorialize the murdered athletes. None of us had the urge to attend it. The ceremony didn’t include the traditional moment of silence to be held for the dead. Avery Brundage, the President of the International Olympic Committee, refused to postpone the games out of respect for the mourners, insisting imperiously, “The Games will go on!” Steve wondered if that would have been the reaction had the massacre taken the lives of 11 American athletes.
Steve and I went outside, having our fill of television coverage. The streets that a few days ago seemed gracious and welcoming now felt uncaring and heartless. We looked at each other, disgusted, and said to each other, “We’ve got to get out of here.” We cancelled the rest of our honeymoon, took a train to Switzerland and from there a plane to Israel.
Experts have found numerous serious flaws in the process of handling security for all the athletes. From the lack of adequate protective measures in the Village to the bungled police attempt to rescue the hostages, mistake upon mistake had been made. One authority on event security had suggested, weeks ahead of the Games, that the athletes should be housed based on sport, not country – swimmers in one area, track and field in another, and so on. That would have prevented any type of incident against a particular nationality. The idea was nixed.
There are those who believe that the police in charge refused to allow security officers to be armed, or to check for weaponry at the airport arrival gate and anywhere else in the Olympic area. Justification was apparently needed to foster that image of the “happy games”.
Books have been written about the 1972 tragedy, as well as several films on the subject. The Munich massacre destroyed the belief that Olympic Games were innocent competitions between the athletes of the world. Forever afterwards, there will always be security concerns and fears of political disruptions.
It took 49 years for the International Olympic Committee to finally remember the 11 murdered Israelis with a moment of silence at the Tokyo Olympics.
Today, a half century later, it behooves us to think about all that went wrong, and why. In memory of the innocent lives cut tragically short, we have an obligation to learn from the past, to ensure such tragedies can never happen again.