The Munich Olympic Massacre, 40 Years Later

The Munich Olympic Massacre, 40 Years Later

On July 23, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), while on a so-called “spontaneous” tour of the Olympic Village, said a few words before approximately 100 people and led a minute of silence honoring the memory of the 11 Israelis murdered by the Black September terrorist arm of Fatah at the 1972 Munich Games 40 years ago.

At Monday’s “impromptu” ceremony, the IOC President also said that having a moment of silence at the Opening Ceremonies would have been inappropriate. The nation of Israel (and many other countries of the world) had hoped that remembrance could be held in such a venue, thus capturing an audience composed of the 80,000 spectators and billions more via TV instead of a meager 100 in the Olympic village.

Why couldn’t the IOC comply with Israel’s request, especially in light of all the pressure to do so brought on by others in the worldwide community? I strongly suspect that if the terrorists in 1972 had murdered Americans, Canadians, Australians, Brits or Germans – and not Israelis (that is, Jews) – their memorials would have taken place long ago.

But as well-known Jewish author and professor Dr. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University has written: “Jewish blood is cheap.”

Here in Atlanta, many of us are intimately aware of the excitement, anticipation and good will generated by the Olympics; we know because we hosted them in 1996 and attended them. But for many of us, this year’s controversy – as well as the violence in Aurora, Colorado and Bulgaria – has diminished our natural enthusiasm for what is about to unfold.

Now, will any of this stop us from watching the Olympics this year? Hardly! But with all this being said, let me tell you the story of what happened 40 years ago to me and my congregation, a little more than a month after the conclusion of the Munich Olympic Massacre.

I was then a young rabbi serving a reform congregation, Temple Emanu-El, in Wichita, Kansas. That summer, like this one, everyone watched the Olympics; Mark Spitz wowed all of us by winning seven gold medals, at the time an Olympic record.

But to our everlasting horror, most of the Israeli team was butchered by Middle Eastern terrorists. First, two died, while nine others were held hostage.

Second, negotiations took place. The terrorists asked for the release of over 230 prisoners in Israeli jails plus the release of two more from the Baader Meinhoff gang in German prisons.

Third, the German authorities completely bungled their rescue efforts, resulting in the slaughter of the rest of the Israeli captives and a German security officer.

Fourth, while all of the aforementioned unraveled bizarrely, the Games continued to be played, though finally, Avery Brundage – the same man who headed the American Olympic Committee at the 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by the Nazis – somewhat reluctantly stopped the Games long enough to say: “The Games must go on.”

With that, the recognition of what had happened at the time ended, and it ended for 40 years. Much of this was seen on television; it was ghastly, unbelievable and traumatizing.

Soon after, I met with the officers and board of my congregation in Wichita to consider how best to prepare ourselves for the safety of our members as the High Holy Days approached. Several hundreds of us would be gathering for worship in our synagogue.

Never before had we felt such an urgent need for protection on Judaism’s holiest day, but we did in 1972 because of the Olympic tragedy. We decided to have a plainclothesman from the Wichita Police Department at our High Holy Day services. Thank G-d we did, or the results might have been as tragic as the 1972 Olympics.

What happened?

The ritual committee and board served as ushers; they were the only ones who knew where the plainclothesman was or that he was there at all, having met with him beforehand and gone over signals. If anything were to occur, the nearest usher would immediately assess the situation and, if necessary, contact the plainclothesman.

Erev Rosh HaShanah went without mishap, but not so for our morning service. At one point, my sermon touched on the Holocaust, and then, without warning, an elderly woman in the synagogue went berserk. Muttering in a frightening way to the people around her, an usher went over, asking her not to disturb her neighbors.

When he saw the pistol in her open purse, he immediately sought the plainclothesman. By this time the woman was standing, shouting, and wildly waiving her gun (which we later found out was loaded) at everyone.

Chaos erupted. People threw themselves to the floor; mothers and fathers covered their children with their bodies just in case. Viewing this from the bimah, where I was too far away to see the gun in her hand, I tried to restore calm.

“Please don’t worry,” I pleaded. “I know this woman and everything will be all right.”

“That’s what you think, Rabbi,” shouted the chair of our house committee.

While everyone pressed the floor, I saw the plainclothesman approach the woman, put his hand firmly on what looked to me like her hand (but was really the gun barrel, to prevent it from discharging) and lead her away. He was assisted by two ushers, each gripping this hysterical woman by an arm.

Our crisis was over. Order was soon restored and, eventually, we resumed services. But we were all shocked and shaken.

Afterwards, we learned the most astounding thing about this woman: Numbers from Auschwitz were engraved on her arm. She was a concentration camp survivor, a non-Jew married to a Jew, who had chosen to join her husband in that camp.

He had not survived. She had.

This poor soul recently had been released from a mental institution in Albuquerque, New Mexico and taken a bus to Wichita. There, low on money, she had been staying in a downtown boarding house, and for three Sabbaths prior to the High Holy Days, she attended services at our synagogue.

We had talked with her, tried to befriend and help her, but to no avail. She didn’t trust a soul.

She came to our synagogue seeking solace; she came to be with her deceased husband spiritually; she came to worship G-d.

These are my most vivid Olympic memories as they emerged out of the searing images of the 1972 Munich tragedy.

Thankfully, NBC’s Bob Costas held a moment of silence during one of his broadcast segments on the night of the Opening Ceremonies. And at Shabbat services at Congregation Ner Tamid of Marietta on July 27, we also recognized the 11 slain Israelis from the 1972 Olympic Games, read their names and the positions they were to have held at those Games, and concluded with a minute of silence.

It’s what we do as Jews to honor their memories as martyrs of our people. And let us say, Amen.

By Rabbi Thomas P. Liebschutz
For the Atlanta Jewish Times

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