Forty-two years ago today, the Olympic games took place in Munich, Germany. The games were meant to mark the change an an era; the transformation of Germany from the birthplace of Nazism, hatred and intolerance to a place of international unity and cooperation. Until it wasn’t.
The 1972 Olympic games in Munich, were tainted by a Massacre which went on to define the history of the Olympic games, the history of the Jewish people, and the history of the human race until the end of time.
On September 5th, two weeks into the games, while the athletes were asleep, 8 members of the Palestinian terror group Black September broke into the dormitory in which the Israeli athletes and coaches were staying. In taking hostages, the terrorists killed Moshe Weinberg and Yossef Romano, leaving them with 9 hostages, or 9 potential “bargaining chips” with which they hoped to negotiate, with Israel, the freedom of convicted Palestinian terrorists.
Without getting into too much detail, after several rescue attempts and demands from international governments to set the innocent athletes free, Kehat Shorr, Amitzur Shapira, Andre Spitzer, Yakov Springer, Eliezer Halfin, Mark Slavin, David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman were all killed, for no reason other than that they were Israeli.
My intention in sharing this story is not to pass along the horrors which ended these brave mens lives, but in the hopes that one or all of their stories might touch yours:
Kehat was born on February 21, 1919 in Romania. During World War II, he hid in the Carphathian Mountains with his fellow Jewish partisans who made it their lives mission to rescue other Jews in hiding. Later in life he served in Israel’s Defense Ministry. He attended the Olympics in Munich as a marksmanship coach. Kehat was survived by his wife and daughter.
Amitzur was born on July, 9, 1932 in Tel Aviv. He was Israel’s top track and field coach. He had a successful career as a runner, but was even more successful in training some of Israel’s greatest champions. Amitzur left behind his wife and four children.
Andre was born in Romania on July 4, 1945. He moved to Israel with his mother following his father’s death in 1964, at age 19. He served in the Israeli Air Force and studied fencing at the Israeli National Sport Academy. By age 27, Andre was known as Israel’s top fencing coach. Andre’s first born and only daughter was born to him and his wife Ankie, two weeks before the Olympic games. Andre is survived by his wife and daughter.
Yakov was born in 1921 in Poland. During the Holocaust, he and his family lived in the Kalish ghetto. At age 18, he fled Poland to Russia, leaving behind his parents and siblings, who all perished in the Shoah. In 1946 he returned to Poland where he met his wife Rosa. The couple and their two children spent almost 10 years there before deciding to move to Israel following a surge of anti-Semitism. Yakov participated in 4 Olympic games before Munich in 1972. As an international judge, Yakov could have opted to stay outside of the Olympic Village, but he chose to stay with his Israeli delegation. Yakov is remembered by his wife and two children.
Eliezer was born in Latvia on June 18, 1948. He moved to Israel with his parents and sister in 1969.He completed his army service in the Israel Defense Force only two months before the 1972 Munich Olympics. It was his dream to participate in the 20th Olympics. Eliezer was survived by his parents and his sister.
Mark was born on January 31, 1954 in the former Soviet Union. He arrived in Israel only three and a half months before the 1972 Olympics. He represented Israel in wrestling. He initially took up wrestling to keep himself safe from anti-Semites who would constantly physically assault him. His international debut at the Olympics was meant to be on September 5th at 9:30PM. He missed the event because he was held hostage by the terrorists. Mark was the youngest of the victims of the Massacre.
David was born on May 24, 1944 in a small neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated undergrad from Tulane University and received his graduate degrees in business and law from Columbia University. In 1970 he became a dual citizen and moved to Israel. He was set to join the Israel Defense Force in October of 1972, less than a month after the Massacre.
Ze’ev was born on May 24, 1944 in the former Soviet Union. Following World War II, Ze’ev moved to Israel with his family where he worked as a P.E. coach and served in the Israeli Air Force. In the 1972 Olympics, Ze’ev placed in 12th in his event, which is the highest performance of any Israeli athlete at the Games up until then. Ze’ev is survived by his parents.
Yoseff was born on April 15, 1940 in Libya. He moved to Israel at age six. He was injured earlier during the games, and was set to return to Israel on September 6th. Despite being on crutches, Yoseff did not go down without a fight. As a veteran of the Six Day War, Yoseff managed to slash one of his captors with a knife and took his AK-47, only to be shot and killed by another captor. Yoseff is survived by his wife, Ilana.
Yoseff was born on November 1, 1931 in Romania. His lifelong dream was to become a veterinarian. He left Romania at age 17 to make aliyah to Israel. The 1972 Munich Olympics were his third official Olympics as a wrestling referee. Yoseff was the first to encounter the terrorists, and his shouts woke two fellow Israelis, allowing them to escape to safety. Yoseff was survived by his wife and two daughters.
Moshe was born in Israel in 1939. He was only 30 when he was named coach of the Israeli national team and director of Israel’s Wingate Institute in Netanya. He was survived by his wife and son, Guri, an Israeli actor who played him in the motion picture which commemorated this tragic event, “Munich.”
Each of these men represented Israel in the best way he could. And unfortunately, they were killed long before their time. But from each of them, we can learn an important lesson. Being a Zionist doesn’t mean putting your life on hold to pursue a life entirely committed to Israel. Being a Zionist means fulfilling your greatest dreams, in the name of the very hope which led to the establishment of the Jewish state.
Israel is a physical manifestation of the 2,000 year old hope, our 2,000 year old hope. Theodor Herzl, father of Modern Zionism, said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Each of these men was willing their dream to fruition. And in doing so, they were representing Israel in the best way they could.
So what can we learn from a tragedy as ruthless as the Munich Massacre? And more importantly, what can we learn from the 11 men who were brutally murdered because of it? The Munich 11 teach us to believe in ourselves and seek to fulfill even our wildest dreams. And if not for ourselves, then for them.
42 years ago today, Israel lost 11 brave heroes. 42 years ago today, God gained 11 new heroes in heaven.
To the Munich 11, we vow to never forget you. Not now, not ever. And in your memory, we vow to do better, be better, and reach for the stars and beyond.