Forty years ago this week, Jews the world over watched in agony as Arab terrorists kidnapped and eventually massacred eleven Israeli Olympic athletes. The International Olympic Committee, bowing to Arab pressure, has repeatedly refused these Israelis a proper commemoration. But we as Jews ought to pay them the tribute of remembering their individual lives, deeds, and accomplishments.
They ranged in age from 53 to 18 and were born in varied places – Romania, Libya, Israel and the U.S. During the Holocaust, one fought Nazis, another fled to Siberia, and several lost their families. The youngest took up wrestling to fight anti-Semites and became a champion. All reached the apex of athletic achievement, representing Israel at the Munich “Games of Peace.” But Arab gunmen slaughtered them, killing Jews on German soil just 27 years after the Holocaust.
At around 4 a.m. on September 5, 1972, eight Palestinians invaded the dormitory where the Israeli team slept. Wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund awakened to strange noises. Creeping from his room, he went to investigate. In the dimness, he saw the terrorists’ silhouettes and their Kalashnikov rifles. Automatically he shouted, “Take cover boys!” and thrust his 6-foot-3, 290-pound frame against the door as they tried to push through.
As the terrorists wedged their Kalishnakovs into the door, he kept them out for precious seconds, giving his roommate time to scramble out a window while other athletes sought cover. The terrorists swept the rooms to round up the Jews. There had been twenty-one Israelis in the dormitory; eleven fell under the Arab guns.
Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg grabbed a terrorist’s rifle but was shot in the jaw. The captors marched him, his blood trailing on the floor, to another apartment, taking more hostages. They herded them in a line and marched them to another room. A wrestler broke away and Weinberg created a diversion: he punched a terrorist to the ground, fracturing the Arab’s jaw, and grabbed for his gun. The escaping wrestler survived but Weinberg was cut down. The terrorists dumped his body in front of the Israeli team’s dormitory.
Moshe Weinberg was a Sabra and the Israeli middleweight wrestling champion for most of a decade. He was a director of the Orde Wingate Institute, Israel’s national physical education center. Weinberg was only 30 when he became Israel’s wrestling coach, and only 33 when he died fighting for the lives of his teammates.
Yossef Romano, 32, an injured weightlifter on crutches, was going to resist despite his condition. When his wife, Ilana, learned he was a hostage, she remembered thinking, “I knew his character – he wouldn’t be treated like cattle. He would do something.” He threw down his crutches and lunged at a terrorist, seizing his AK-47. Another Arab riddled him with bullets. He was left bleeding to death in front of his horrified, helpless teammates.
Romano, born in Libya, was one of eleven children. Making aliyah in 1946, he fought in the Six-Day War. He was described as strong and gentle, always with a sweet smile. His wife recalled having a bad feeling as the Games approached. He had three little daughters, and on his last call home he told his wife this would be his last competition because “I don’t have enough time for my children.”
The hostages were forced to lie on the floor, limbs bound, with Romano’s body in the middle of the room. The terrorists, wearing sinister face hoods, threw a list of demands to German police gathered around the dormitory: they wanted 250 terrorists freed from Israeli jails. Soon, news of the siege spread but officials obscenely permitted the Olympics to continue. ABC kept televising the Games, interspersing scenes of the gunmen with a volleyball match cheered by thousands.
Israel would not release terrorists and twenty agonizing hours of negotiations between the Arabs and the Germans ensued. The Germans planned a rescue attempt, pretending they would offer the terrorists a jet to fly to an Arab country with their hostages. In reality, they planned to rescue the Israelis before they got on the plane. They arranged for helicopters to fly the terrorists and their captives to an airfield. The Israelis, manacled and blindfolded, were marched at gunpoint to the waiting helicopters, paraded in a circus-like atmosphere with camera bulbs flashing and spectators gawking behind police cordons.
A generation before, during the Nazi era, the Germans had been lethally efficient in hunting down Jews, but now, trying to save them, they acted more like Keystone Cops. They repeatedly refused advice from the Mossad chief who had rushed to Munich to help. They bungled almost every aspect of the rescue, and it ended in tragedy with all the Israeli hostages gunned down by the Arabs as they sat, helplessly bound, in the helicopters.
Mark Slavin, 18, had arrived in Israel only a few months before the Olympics. He had been beaten by anti-Semites in his native Minsk, and his family had encouraged him to fight back. A gym teacher was so impressed with Slavin that he had him sent to Moscow for training in wrestling. At 17 he was the junior Soviet champion. When his family applied for visas for Israel, he was pressured to stay, then barred from wrestling. Slavin and his family had to wait fifteen months before being allowed to leave. When he arrived in Israel, he kissed the ground. His international debut representing the Jewish state was to have been on September 5. Instead, he was held hostage at gunpoint.
Yossef Gutfreund, 40, was born in Romania. He had studied to be a veterinarian. He had been imprisoned for months for “distributing Zionist propaganda” and left for Israel. Gutfreund had served in Israel’s wars in 1956 and 1967. Although he was wounded in Gaza in 1967, he had refused evacuation, insisting on remaining with his comrades. There he had saved a group of injured Egyptian soldiers, giving them food and water, tending their injuries, showing the Arab enemy Jewish chesed. Gutfreund means “good friend” and the kindly Yossef fully lived up to it, always willing to help everyone. When his wife, Miriam, learned he had been taken hostage, she prayed at the Kotel for her beloved husband.
Yaakov Springer, 51, an international weightlifting referee, was born in Poland. He had fled east to Russia to escape the Nazis at age 18. His entire family was murdered – brother, sisters and parents. After the war he returned to Poland to study at its Academy of Sports, the only Jew to do so. He held a position at the Ministry of Sports before deciding to make aliyahin 1957 with his wife, Rosa, and their two children. He taught weightlifting, helping to establish it as a national sport, and became a judge in international competitions. As a judge he could have stayed outside the Olympic Village but preferred to share accommodations with his friends there.
The decision to attend the Olympics on German soil had been a painful one for Springer – he refused even to buy appliances made in Germany. But in the words of his daughter, Mayo, “I assume when he stepped on German land…he wanted to say, ‘I’m coming back, and look, I survived!’ ”
David Berger, 28, a weightlifter, was born in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. While earning graduate degrees in business and law from Columbia, he pursued his other passion, competing in weightlifting. He made aliyah in 1970, moving to Tel Aviv where he intended to set up a law office. He would have begun his Israeli military service just a month after the Olympics. Though he did not win a medal, he had lived his dream of competing in the Olympics for Israel. When the terrorists rounded up the Israelis, Berger whispered in Hebrew, “Let’s pounce on them! We have nothing to lose!” Though he was to die along with the others, his words galvanized a teammate who managed to escape.
Kehat Shorr, 53, a marksmanship coach who worked in Israel’s Defense Ministry, was Romanian born. He had fought the Nazis in the Carpathian Mountains during the war, and with other Jewish partisans had made raids to rescue Jews in hiding. He was a national marksman champion in Romania, making aliyahin 1963 and teaching marksmanship in Israel. He left a wife and daughter.
Eliezer Halfin, 24, a wrestler, had completed his military service just two months before the Olympics. He was born in Riga, the son of a survivor who had lost his family in the Holocaust. Halfin’s family had applied for exit visas for Israel in 1963 but were forced to wait six years before leaving. Halfin had refused to serve in the Russian army and was barred from all sports competitions even though he ranked fourth in the Soviet Union in his weight class. When his family finally arrived in Israel, Halfin began his Israeli military service almost immediately. He left grieving parents and a sister.
Ze’ev Friedman, 28, a weightlifter, was born in Siberia to parents who fled Poland after their families were murdered by the Nazis. He was an outstanding gymnast as a youth, first in Siberia and then in Poland. His family made aliyahwhen he was 16, settling near Haifa. Friedman switched to weightlifting and became the Israeli featherweight champion for seven years. He was a physical education teacher, and a veteran of the Israeli Air Force.
Amitzur Shapira, 40, Israel’s track and field coach, was born in Tel Aviv and lived in Herzliya with his wife and four children. In the 1950s he was a top runner and became an instructor at the Orde Wingate Institute. He trained many of Israel’s top athletes, including Esther Roth who competed at Munich. He had discovered her at age 14 and promised he would train her for the Olympics. She came to consider him like a father.
Andrei Spitzer, 27, Israel’s top fencing coach, was born in Transylvania, Romania. His father died when he was 11, and at 19 he made aliyah with his mother. He served in the Israeli Air Force and studied fencing at the Israeli National Sports Academy. In 1968 he went to Holland to study and teach fencing. There he fell in love with one of his Dutch students, Ankie. She converted to Judaism and they married and moved to Israel, where Spitzer became head coach of the Israeli fencing academy.
Only two weeks before the Munich Olympics, his wife gave birth to their daughter, Anouk. They all traveled to Europe, Spitzer coaching the team while his wife and daughter stayed at her parents’ home in nearby Holland.
He was a firm believer in the Olympic ideal of promoting peace and harmony between nations through sports. His wife remembers him approaching athletes from Lebanon, a state hostile to Israel. He insisted on speaking to them, and they all shook hands. Spitzer was happy that his belief in the Olympic spirit had been confirmed. Tragically, his Olympic ideal would soon be shattered.
Spitzer and his fellow Olympic martyrs are well remembered in Israel. Before Israeli athletes leave the country to compete at the Olympics, they go to a special memorial dedicated to the Munich 11. Israelis, not just athletes but the public at large, know the backgrounds and accomplishments of these men, as Jews everywhere should. We are bound together as one nation, one family, the living and those killed by our enemies.
May their memories be blessed.
Ed Lion is a former reporter for United Press International now living in the Poconos.
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