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Munich marks 1972 terror attacks

Tania Krämer Jerusalem
September 5, 2017

45 years after the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, a permanent memorial will be unveiled at the Olympic Park. It commemorates the 11 Israeli athletes and a German police officer who were killed.

Woman standing in ransacked room
Image: dpa/picture alliance

Marking the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre

On September 5, 1972, Palestinian militants from the Black September group jumped over the fences at the Olympic Village, entered one of the apartments of the Israeli team and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage who were later killed in a botched rescue operation. The militants wanted the release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Ankie Spitzer lost her husband, Andre, in the attack. He was the coach for the Israeli fencing team and killed during the rescue attempt. Spitzer and relatives of the other victims spent decades asking the Olympic Committee for a formal acknowledgement and a ceremony for the victims inside the Olympic village. Although there is a commemorative plague outside the apartment where the hostages were held, and a sculpture in the Olympic Park, it is only now, 45 years after attack, that a permanent memorial and a museum will be opened in memory of the victims. 

Read more: IOC honors Israeli victims of 1972 Munich games 

Ankie Spitzer went to the Olympic Games with her husband Andre, the coach of the Olympic fencing team. Two days before the attack, both had left for Amsterdam to look after their sick baby daughter. On September 4, Andre Spitzer returned to Munich alone.

Woman sitting on a chair
Ankie Spitzer has been urging German authorities for years to set up a permanent memorial for those killed in the terror attackImage: Privat

Ankie Spitzer: When I heard the news from my parents the next morning, I wanted to immediately go back, so I called the Israeli embassy. They begged me not to go back to Munich and to stay in Holland. So we sat there the whole day in front of the TV. It was horrible. The terrorist had said at 9 a.m. they were going to shoot an Israeli every hour if the Israeli government did not free 236 Palestinian prisoners from prison in Israel.

Finally at around 5 p.m., I suddenly saw the window opened on the second floor, where they were kept hostage. I saw Andre in front of the window. I saw his hands were tied behind his back. There was a terrorist standing next to him. Of course I could see him on television, but I could not hear what they were saying. But he was talking to the crisis team. Later on I understood that they had asked him, what is the situation inside? He said all are ok except one. When they asked what happened to him and when he wanted to answer - you could see he was hit by the terrorist. It was all live on TV. He was pushed back into the room, they closed the window, they closed the curtains and it was the last time I saw him alive.

DW: In the evening, the nine remaining hostages and their kidnappers were taken out of the Olympic village and flown by helicopter to the airbase of Fürstenfeldbrück. At midnight the German authorities announced that all hostages were fine. When did it dawn on you that things were far from fine?

Germany Remembers the Munich 11

At first, my family was celebrating when they announced it. But I said, the first thing Andre will do is call me, if it is true what Conrad Ahlers [German government spokesman - Editor's note] said. So I waited. It was the middle of the night. Every half an hour I phoned the head of the Israeli delegation, they said we don't know what is going on. And then, at 3 a.m., the anchor of ABC television came on air and he said: there were 11 Israelis, two were killed at the Olympic village, nine were murdered at the airport. They are all gone.

The next day, there was a memorial service at the games, where none of the Arab countries were present, and none of the Arab countries put their flags half mast. I still remember going to the stadium and on both sides of the road athletes were still training. And then Avery Brundage [President of the Olympic committee at the time - Editor's note] said: The Games must go on. It was hard to believe. After that we asked if we could get the personal belongings from the room - the place where they had been held hostage. I said to myself I have to see where my peace-loving, 27-year-old husband spent the last hours of his life. So I went up - and the scene in the room, I cannot even describe it. It was one huge chaos. That's where I made the vow: if this is what a human can do to other human beings, I am never going to shut up about it. This should never happen again.

Picture of a man
Andre Spitzer was the coach for the Israeli fencing team and killed during the rescue attemptImage: Privat

It took 45 years for the German authorities to finally build this memorial and a museum in Munich. How do you feel about that?

We wanted some place that reminded the world about what happened at the Olympic village. In 1978, Ilana Romano (widow of weightlifter Yossi Romano) and I asked then Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher if the building where it happened could be turned into a small museum. And they said no, it is private property. This went on for many years. We wanted the history to be told, the biographies to be shown and we wanted also an educational part so that young people can learn about it. For us the opening will be a mixture of emotions, on the one hand we're very grateful that it will finally open, on the other hand very sad because we know what happened there.

Read more: Remembering the Munich 1972 Olympic attack

Why do you think took it so long for German authorities to go ahead with the memorial?

It should have been the most simple and basic thing. But I am sure at that time, after the attack in 1972, we were facing officials who were totally uninterested. I saw it also as antisemitism. But today, the new generation of leaders in Germany have a different mindset and don't carry the burden of the history, of the Nazi-past and they understood why it is necessary to do it.

A memorial in a park
It's taken German authorities 45 years to finally build a memorial for those killed in the terror attackImage: Brückner & Brückner Architekten Tirschenreuth | Würzburg

Right after the attack, the German authorities had a very hostile and humiliating attitude towards us. One of the German officials told me after the attack: 'You Israelis, you brought terrorism on German soil. You brought your war to Germany.' For 20 years we asked for the ballistic reports, for the pathological reports. We wanted to know what happened to our husbands. For 20 years they told us, we don't have those files. Until 1992, when the German authorities had to admit that they had all the files.