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.