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The two widows fighting for justice for the Munich victims

Felix Tamsut Tel Aviv
August 29, 2022

For 50 years, Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer have taken a prominent role in battling for justice on behalf of the Munich victims' families. The source of strength is their friendship, but their wait for justice goes on.

Memorial plaque for the Israeli athletes murdered in the 1972 Olympic assassination,
Eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were killed in the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympic Games in MunichImage: Peter Hille/DW

Ilana Romano's Tel Aviv apartment feels as if time has stood still. Black and white photos are spread around the living room; the furniture is that of a typical Israeli household from the 1970s — only the flat screen television provides a reminder that the year is 2022.

In many ways, the decor is symbolic of the lives of Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer. On September 5, 50 years ago their lives changed drastically when Ilana's and Ankie's husbands, Yossef and Andre, were murdered in the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

Since then, the two have become a symbol of the conflict between the victims' families and the German government over the compensation for the deaths of their loved ones.

At the time of the attack, Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer were 26-year-old young mothers, with Ankie's first child born a few months prior to the Munich Games. Both weren't convinced by the explanations provided by German authorities and they weren't prepared to let it slide.

For half a century, they've spent time collecting information, talking to the media and trying to connect the dots in a bid to understand what really happened and receive what they believe is a just compensation for the German government's wrongdoings. 

They had no expertise, no connections and no experience in running public campaigns, but they had something which has proven to be stronger: Each other. DW spoke exclusively to the two ahead of the 50th anniversary of the attack in Munich.

Ankie Spitzer, the widow of murdered Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, sitting on a couch
'We've had to fight for both compensation and recognition for 49 years now,' - Ankie SpitzerImage: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo/picture alliance

'It was not a dream, but pure reality'

"There was a knock on my door, it was 7 a.m.," Romano recalls. It was her neighbor, telling her to turn on the radio. "There has been a terrorist attack."

Before travelling to the Games, Romano's husband, weightlifter Yossef (Yossi), reassured her after she shared misgivings about the trip. "When the Germans do something, they do it perfectly, he told me."

Later that day, she learned that her husband had been held hostage and by 7 p.m., a knock on her Tel Aviv door, told her that Yossi was the terrorist attack's second casualty. "I woke up the morning afterwards and asked myself whether it was all a dream. It wasn't a dream, but pure reality," she says, before reflecting on the statement with an expression that still bares pain.

'We didn't want to be apart'

While Romano learned of her husband's murder at her home in Tel Aviv, Ankie Spitzer was in the Netherlands, where she was born, when the attack took place. Her own husband, fencing coach Andre Spitzer, had been at the Olympic Village.

"Before traveling to my parents with my baby, I went to Munich for two weeks to visit Andre," said Spitzer as her calm demenour cracked in recounting the events. "We were only married for a year and three months. We were in love, we didn't want to be apart."

Due to their baby being sick, Andre traveled to the Netherlands to be with him, before returning to the Olympic Village the night before the attack. "My parents woke me up at 7 a.m. and told me there had been an attack."

Hours later, she found out her husband was one of the hostages. Ankie did see her husband alive one last time, as he was one of the Israeli athletes who spoke to the German authorities through a window, a scene broadcast to millions around the world.

"I told my parents that Andre would call me first thing after he's free. This call never came." At 3:15 a.m. she received the news: All the Israeli hostages had been killed.

"I remember I returned to Munich, and on my way to the Olympic Village, I saw athletes training on both sides of the road," she recalls. "As if 11 members of their Olympic family had not just been murdered. It was horrible."

The widow of one of the Israeli athletes killed in the 1972 Munich terrorist attack
'Meeting Ankie was the biggest luck I could have," says RomanoImage: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

The struggle begins

A month after the terrorist attack in Munich, Ankie and Ilana met and found their common denominator. "We both felt the same and we wanted to know the truth," recalls Spitzer.

Opposing them were two powerful organizations in The Federal Republic of Germany and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Their demands included opening the archives of both Bavaria and the Federal Republic of Germany to ascertain what happened, securing compensation and ensuring the IOC recognizes and remembers the victims.

After bouncing from court to court, politician to politician, still no agreement has been reached. A document handed to the families by the German embassy in Tel Aviv, and seen by DW, accepts Germany's responsibility for the athletes' murder. It also listed Germany's latest offer to the victims' families: Paying an additional €5.4 million ($5.39 million) on top of the €4.6 million already paid. The families, however, want €9 million per victim. 

The sum is symbolic as the terrorists who survived the Munich attack were released after a Lufthansa plane was hijacked. The hijackers had demanded their release in exchange for the hostages they were holding. Abu Daoud, the Black September planner of the Munich attacks, wrote in his autobiography that Germany had offered his organization $9 million (€9.01 million) to hijack a Lufthansa plane and demand the Munich terrorists’ release. However, Germany denied having cooperated with the terrorists.  

"[The German government] have been torturing us for 50 years. They never stop lying and humiliating us," says Spitzer. "We just want to know what happened to my husband and others. We didn't receive any answers."

"They wanted to present a different Germany," says Romano, with Spitzer completing the sentence with "there wasn't a different Germany."

Two women under an umbrella attending a commemoration service
Romano und Spitzer in 2002 on the 30th anniversary of Munich 1972 — the pair are still fighting for compensationImage: Norbert Schmidt/IMAGO

More than just about money

As the battle for justice and compensation continues, the victims' families have decided to boycott Germany's official ceremony to mark 50 years since the attack. The Israeli Olympic Committee says it stands behind the families and will join the boycott

Both Romano and Spitzer are aware that some in Germany will argue their insistence is about greed. "Money's just money," says Romano. "But what Germany did to us is about much more than money."

More specifically, she says, it's about the victims' children growing up without their father and, as was the case at the time, the family's main provider. "We always explained that despite the terrorist group which murdered their father being responsible for the attack, it doesn't mean all Palestinians and Arabs are like that. We are very happy our kids grew up without any hate [towards Palestinians] in their hearts."

Recognition from the IOC

Though their demands of the German government haven't been met yet, the two have made inroads elsewhere and were personally invited by IOC President Thomas Bach to attend the Tokyo Olympics.

For the first time ever, a minute's silence was dedicated to the attack's victims at the official opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, thus ending the families' 49-year campaign for official recognition from the Olympic family.

"I immediately shouted, Ilana, Ilana!" Spitzer remembers. Her friend and long-time partner for the journey, however, wasn't listening. Romano was crying.

"After 49 years of writing and talking and traveling between places, all of a sudden we see Japan's emperor and the French president commemorate our loved ones, with millions watching at home," Spitzer recalls.

For both it was a "dream," and they thanked IOC boss Bach for the chance to experience the moment while still alive.

Stone-cutting work being done on a Munich memorial with the names of the murdered Israeli athletes.
Etched in memory: A Munich memorial with the names of the murdered Israeli athletesImage: Wolfgang Rattay/REUTERS

'Feels surreal'

Asked about her feelings ahead of the anniversary, Romano says the pain is just as strong as it was in the days after the attack. "If someone says time heals, let me tell you: It doesn't."

"We've had to fight for both compensation and recognition for 49 years now," says Spitzer. "It feels surreal."

Their strength in standing against the government of one of the strongest and richest countries on the planet is to be commended, but at the beating heart of it is their friendship.

"I picked her up when she was down, and she did the same with me. Meeting Ankie was the biggest luck I could have," says Romano.

Edited by: James Thorogood

Relatives of 1972 Munich attack victims