The Munich massacre: A survivor’s story

Story highlights

CNN talks to a survivor from the 1972 Munich massacre

11 Israeli athletes were killed during the siege

40 years on, Israel asked for a one minute silence at London's opening ceremony; but the IOC refused

Olympic walker Shaul Ladany survived the Holocaust and the Munich Massacre

CNN  — 

Professor Shaul Ladany has a busy schedule to keep these days, but lays down one important condition before agreeing to speak to CNN.

“Every morning I roll up the carpet and do my exercises,” he explains.

“So when I talk to you I might be breathing quite heavily, inhaling and exhaling. I hope that is OK for you.”

It is no surprise that the academic and former Israeli Olympic walking champion leads an active life. Aside from his job as an engineering professor at Ben Gurion University, he still walks – not as in a stroll but as in the punishing race-walking discipline much mocked for its unique waddle – 15 km a day.

On every birthday he walks his age in kilometers. So on his most recent anniversary he embarked on a solo 76 km walk around his home town of Be’er Sheva in Israeli’s southern Negev desert.

Professor Ladany has made a virtue of making every year – every day – count.

Maybe that is not surprising given he fled his native Yugoslavia after the Luftwaffe had destroyed his home and lived in hiding in Hungary. Shortly after – when he was just eight years old – he was captured and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He also fought two wars in the Israeli army as an artillery captain.

Ahead of the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics back in July, his mind fixed on the moment that should have been the pinnacle of his race-walking career, but instead turned into a moment of infamy: the 1972 Munich Olympics and the massacre of his teammates.

More accurately, his mind will fix on the absence of an absence: the lack of a minute’s silence tonight to honor the 11 Israeli athletes killed by members of the Palestinian Black September group who took them hostage in what remains the darkest chapter in Olympic history.

“I do not understand,” Ladany said of the International Olympic Committee’s decision not to hold a minute’s silence before the start of the Games. “I do not understand and I do not accept it.”

Marching to the Olympics

Ladany started out as a marathon runner but switched to walking in 1967 after the Israeli army was invited to the Vierdaagse, a four-day marching event in Holland that attracts tens of thousands of people to this day.

He soon discovered, during an unofficial competition between the best military marchers in the world that he could cover twice the distance of anyone else. He was entered into an official 3 km walking race and beat the field by an entire lap.

“I decided to become a full-time race walker so I moved to the United States where my aptitude for long distances became clear,” he said of a sport that is much maligned but is arguably the toughest, physiologically, of all the Olympic track and field disciplines.

“You need a certain type of mental attitude: a willingness to take punishment, to have a lack of comfort and pain, to continue and continue.

“I’m not a psychologist, but was I stubborn, so I entered race walking. Or did I enter race walking and become stubborn? It’s the same of all long-distance events. Quitters don’t win and winners don’t quit.”

Return to Germany

Munich was not Ladany’s first Olympic Games. He had competed in Mexico 1968, but Munich was his best chance of a medal. Only a few months previously he had broken the 50-mile world record, a time that still stands today. But he had reservations about an Olympic Games that was due to take place in the birthplace of Nazism just 27 years after the end of World War II.

“I didn’t think it was too soon but I had mixed feelings. You have to remember, of all the Israeli Olympic team I was the sole Holocaust survivor,” he explains.

“I wanted to show that the Israelis could perform like every other nation in the world. That we are as good as the others and I had that ambition to show that on German soil in the same way that the famous American athlete Jesse Owens wanted to show the world (at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) the hatred policy against blacks in Germany. He wanted to say, ‘Look I am the best.’ “

The Germany that Ladany left as a young child was unrecognizable to the country he returned to. Yet there was still the odd moment that reminded him of the past.

“They wanted to show the world the new Germany was not the same Nazi machinery of the Third Reich,” he recalls.

“Everything was totally different: nice colors, flowers everywhere, no arms and so on. Almost no guns, freedom. It was a very nice open atmosphere … It was very efficient. In fact the smooth machinery reminded me of the Third Reich, of how they tried to solve the Jewish problem.”

However, morale was good in Munich. Despite Ladany viewing older Germans with suspicion (“I would try to figure out what they might have done in the war”) the athletes would joke about the long-held German stereotype of a people prone to following orders.

At no time were they distrustful of their hosts, and although Ladany had reservations about the Israeli team visiting the Dachau concentration camp – just a few miles from Munich – he still went along.

The Games begin

The Olympics began and Ladany ended up finishing 19th in his race two days before the moment that would define the Munich Olympics. He was sleeping in apartment number two of block 31 Connolly Street when the eight members of Black September approached. It was not until he was woken by his roommate telling him that wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg had been shot and killed that Ladany knew anything was wrong.

“I was an artillery officer so I can sleep through almost anything,” he says.

“My roommate woke me and said that Weinberg had been shot and killed. I had shared a room with him in 1968 and he was a big joker. But this was something that you don’t joke about.

“I dressed and left the room and thought I’d see a war scenario. There was nothing. Outside apartment one I saw someone (a member of Black September) wearing what I thought was an Australian hat. He was talking to four of the unarmed village guards and a lady who said, ‘You must let the Red Cross in. Be humane.’ He replied. ‘The Jews are not humane.’ “

Somehow everyone in room two escaped unharmed. The Oscar-winning documentary about the massacre, “One Day in September,” claimed that athletes in room two were spared because the first hostage to be taken and killed – Weinberg – led the terrorists to the room where the weightlifters and wrestlers were: big men, who, he reasoned, might have a chance fighting off their attackers.

But Ladany disputes that, as the men had an intimate knowledge of the park, the athletes and the rooms.

“In room two with me were two sharp shooters, two members of the shooting team,” he says.

“They couldn’t risk anyone would be armed.”

Black September

Ladany watched along with the rest of the world as a tragedy unfolded on television in real time. How the members of Black September made a demand that 200 political prisoners be released, demands the Israeli government refused; how the German police – who remarkably had no anti-terrorist unit – made blunder after blunder that led to the hostages and terrorists being moved to a nearby airbase where all the hostages, five of the eight members of Black September and one West Germany policeman were killed.

Three members of Black September survived, but were later released by the Germans after a Lufthansa jet was hijacked. Two were later killed along with many others involved in the organization of the attack. It is alleged that Israeli intelligence was behind their assassinations during Operation Wrath of God, an event dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich.”

Only one of those involved is alive today, living in hiding in Jordan after multiple attempts on his life. Jamal al Gashey’s family had fled the Galilee region in 1948 when Israel was created, an event the Palestinians call “al Nakba” – the Catastrophe.

He grew up in the appalling poverty and violence of a refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut and describes in “One Day in September,” in the only interview he has ever given, how he was recruited to the Palestinian cause out of the hopelessness of his situation.

“As refugees my family moved from camp to camp … when I was growing up I thought there was no future for us unless we returned to Palestine. If we didn’t return I would spend my whole life as a refugee, deprived of my human rights,” he said.

“So I joined the liberation movement and was given a gun and trained to use it. For the first time in my life I felt inspired. I felt truly Palestinian, that I wasn’t just a refugee but a revolutionary fighting for a cause.”

While the rest of the world was appalled at the violence meted out to innocent sportsmen, Munich was something of a success for the Palestinians involved in planning the massacre.

“I’m proud of what I did in Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause enormously … Before Munich the world had no idea about our struggle. But on that day the word Palestine was repeated all over the world,” al Gashey said.

Going home

While huge protests erupted calling for the cancellation of the Olympics, the Games went ahead after a one-day pause. Ladany, who packed his bags and left Munich with the surviving members of the Israeli team and the coffins of the dead, believes they should have stayed because the “terrorists won twice.”

Never again would such security risks be taken with the Olympics, and a Games without a heavy police presence is now unthinkable.

Today the Israeli athletes that survived, and the families of the dead, believe that they deserve a fitting memorial.

When it was mooted that a minute’s silence take place at London 2012, 40 years after Munich, IOC president Jacques Rogge turned down the request, saying the opening ceremony was the “inappropriate” venue for a memorial.

“There has been no pressure from any nation for a minute’s silence,” said Rogge ahead of the opening ceremony back in July. “The IOC has always honored the memory of the athletes killed in 1972. When I was elected in 2001, immediately the year after, we went to the military airport where the athletes and coaches were killed. We had a memorial service there.

“We are going to be present at the next service at the military airport on September 5 this year. We have always commemorated the athletes.”

Ladany is not so sure.

“After Munich the IOC does not want to commemorate the 11 Israelis,” he says.

“They don’t regard them as victims of the Olympic movement but as 11 Israeli victims. They fear that Muslim and Arab nations will somehow boycott the Olympics Games.

“I hope the public will stand for a minute in silence instead. They cannot stop people doing that and it will honor the martyrs of the Olympic movement.”