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.