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A black September day

Bettina Marx / crlSeptember 5, 2012

The Munich Olympic Games in 1972 were overshadowed by a horrific terrorist attack. Eleven Israelis were killed during the failed rescue operation. Forty years on, the survivors can hardly forget.

Olympia 1972 in München: Die Olympische Fahne ist während der Trauerfeier im Münchner Olympiastadion für die Opfer des palästinensischen Terroranschlages auf die israelische Olympia-Mannschaft im September 1972 auf Halbmast geflaggt. Mitglieder der Gruppe "Schwarzer September" hatten das Quartier der Mannschaft im Olympischen Dorf überfallen, zwei Israelis getötet und neun Geiseln genommen. Bei der Befreiungsaktion kamen die Geiseln, ein Polizist und fünf Terroristen ums Leben. Zum zweiten Mal nach den Ereignissen von München sind die Sommerspiele jetzt von einem Anschlag betroffen. Am frühen Morgen des 27.7.96 explodierte im "Centennial Park" von Atlanta eine Bombe. Dabei wurden zwei Menschen getötet und 111 verletzt.
Olympia 1972 in München Olympische Fahne auf HalbmastImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Shaul Ladany's house, in the small town of Omer in the Israeli Negev desert, appears much like a museum. The athlete's large collection of trophies and medals are proudly displayed behind a glass cabinet. The walls of his home are covered in various awards and certificates, and among them are also memories of the Munich Olympic Games of 1972.

Shaul Ladany has kept just about everything sentimental, including the tie in pastel tones, entrance tickets, photographs and his black mourning ribbon. He keeps the remnants of nostalgia together in an album, along with the many letters he's received from fans, even those with incomplete return addresses. "Dear Prof. Shaul Ladany, Olympic athlete, in Munich in 1972, Israel," he reads aloud, laughing. "At that time I was not yet a professor," he says. But the 36-year-old was the oldest athlete on the 1972 Israeli Olympic team.

Terrorist attack in the Olympic village

It was Shaul Ladany's second time competing at the Olympic Games. Forty years later, the 76-year-old industrial engineer remembers the games as though they were only yesterday. He competed on September 3, and up until September 4 everything had been fine. That evening, he - along with the entire Israeli delegation - had attended a musical event in Munich. But, in the early hours of the morning on September 5, Ladany was awoken by his friend with horrifying news: Arab terrorists had taken 11 members of the Israeli team hostage in the Olympic Village.

"I put on my shoes and, without thinking, went to the door of our apartment and looked down the hall," he says. He could see three policemen and one policewoman standing in front of the apartment next to his. They were speaking to a man wearing a hat. "I stood there listening without a clue as to how dangerous this was. The policewoman asked the man in the hat to let the Red Cross in to assist the hostages. She told him: You should be more humane. He said: The Jews are not humane. The man in the hat didn't notice me, so I retreated and closed the door."

Überlebende des Olympia-Attentats von 1972 Olympia-Attentat. Shaul Ladany, der als Geher an den Olympischen Spielen 72 teilnahm. Copyright: DW/Bettina Marx
1972 Olympian Shaul Ladany is one of the lucky suvivors of the Munich terror attackImage: DW/B.Marx

Escaping Death

As a child, Ladany was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and it was only by sheer luck that he survived the Holocaust. He remembers it all with remarkable clarity. And in Munich in 1972, Ladany's apartment had, for some unknown reason, been spared by the terrorists. Just down the hall, terrorists had taken his fellow athletes and coaches hostage, barricading themselves within their apartments. In the initial stages of the hostage takeover, two Israelis who had resisted had been shot dead by the terrorists. Ladany and his roommate, however, were able to escape to safety through a rear building exit.

Olympic swimmer Shlomit Nir-Toor also can't forget that dark September day. She was 19 at the time and competed in the 100- and 200-meters breaststroke at the Olympic Games. "I can't say that I achieved an amazing result, but I was proud to represent my country. This was a great honor," she says. The small Israeli team, donning their blue and white flags, had marched in front of some 60,000 excited spectators in the Olympic Stadium. Nir-Toor had planned to return to Israel soon after her race so she could get married to her fiancé. But the head of the Israeli team had requested she wait to travel back with an injured fellow athlete. And it was that fateful day that the Israeli team was attacked.

Überlebende des Olympia-Attentats von 1972 Olympia-Attentat. Shaul Ladany, der als Geher an den Olympischen Spielen 72 teilnahm. Copyright: DW/Bettina Marx
Shlomit Nir-Toor witnessed the hostages being taken away, just hours before they were killedImage: DW/B.Marx

Shlomit Nir-Toor, however, wasn't taken hostage by the Palestinian terrorists, because she had been residing in another building allocated to women athletes. But the next day, she - along with other survivors - witnessed the hostages being taken to the helicopters.

The last image: Bound hostages

"I remember the last time we saw our friends," says Nir-Toor. German authorities had taken the remaining Israeli team members and coaches to the ninth floor of the building. From the window, Nir-Toor watched as the two helicopters landed on the Olympic Village lawn. They were supposed to be taking the terrorists and the hostages to an airbase in Fürstenfeldbruck. From there, they were to be flown to Cairo. "We watched from the ninth floor window as the two buses arrived. Four blindfolded athletes with their hands tied together got off the first bus. They were put on the first helicopter. Then, another five hostages got off the second bus and climbed onto the second helicopter. That was the last image we saw. Although we were on the ninth floor, we could still see it well.”

Just hours later, the Israeli team received the dreadful news that all nine hostages and a German policeman had been killed in the failed rescue operation at the Fürstenfeldbruck airbase. A total of eleven Israelis were assassinated by the Palestinian terrorist group that called itself "Black September."

Am 5. September 1972 entführen während den Olympischen Spielen in München palästinensische Terroristen israelische Sportler. Bei der gescheiterten Rettungsaktion kamen 17 Menschen ums Leben. Ein Scharfschütze geht auf dem Dach im Olympischen Dorf in Stellung.
A German policman and 11 Israelis died in the Munich attack.Image: picture-alliance/dpa


Since the 1972 Munich Games, Ladany and Nir-Toor have regularly attended commemorations for the murdered athletes and also met up with fellow survivors. Shlomit Nir-Toor, who now works for the Israeli Ministry of Sport, advocated for an official one minute of silence at this year's London Olympics. The players had been murdered at the Olympic Games, therefore, it seemed appropriate to take the time during the Olympic opening ceremony to remember them, she says. But neither her, nor the two widows Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, could convince the International Olympic Committee to devote a brief remembrance to the victims of the attack.

While some people in London gathered on the grounds of the Olympic Games and Olympic Village, no official minute of silence was allocated during the opening ceremony. "Our husbands were from the wrong country and were of the wrong religion", the two widows say bitterly. Nir-Toor and Ladany were indeed disappointed by this, but they're not bitter about it. Nir-Toor is just grateful that the City of Munich has acted on her proposal to build a grand memorial on the grounds of the Olympic Park dedicated to those athletes murdered in Munich in 1972.