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.