1972 Israeli Olympic team survivor shares his experience at Munich

By Karen Billing

It was 40 years ago this September at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games when an unthinkable tragedy invaded an event meant to symbolize friendship, peace and unity among nations. Eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September.

Dan Alon, one of five survivors from the Israeli Olympic team, shared his painful story with Rancho Santa Fe Chabad on Aug. 7.

“In ancient Greece, Olympia was a sacred place and anyone who entered with a force of arms was committing a sin against the gods,” said Alon. “In 1972, a group of people committed a sin against the gods and the world.”

“For 34 years, I kept silent,” said Alon. “I didn’t talk about it, not to the media, to the public or to my family or friends. I was very shy and I felt a coward that I escaped. And I was very angry.”

Alon only broke his silence after the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie “Munich” shed light on the Munich massacre and its aftermath. After the movie’s release, a Rabbi from Oxford University asked him to tell his story to his students and Alon accepted.

While the experience was hard and Alon said he could barely talk, he soon accepted another speaking engagement at Yale University and found there was value in telling his difficult story.

His book, “Munich Memoir,” was published two months ago and is available online.

“It’s not certain something like this cannot happen again,” Alon said. “I became a messenger, that’s the only thing I can do. It’s very hard for me to talk about it still. After 40 years it’s still hard for me.”

Alon went to compete in the 1972 Olympics as a fencer. He says he was born with a sword in his hand due to his father, a great fencer from Budapest.

“From morning to night I was fencing at home, moving chairs and furniture to fence with my brother,” said Alon, whose first fencing coach was his father.

He won his first championship at age 12 and at 16 was the Junior National Champion before joining the army at age 18. After his service he was crowned the Israeli National Champion at age 23, a title he kept for many years until Munich.

He was 27 when he traveled to the Olympics with his fellow Israeli teammates, including Andre Spitzer, his good friend who served as a fencing coach.

They arrived two weeks early to the Olympic Village and had their pick of the apartments in their building. Without hesitation, he and fencer Yehuda Weisenstein picked apartment #2 while Spitzer selected #1 to be separate. It was a fateful decision.

“The opening ceremonies were a special day for me,” said Alon. “I felt so proud to be there for my father and to represent Israel. We were walking on German soil…I remember thinking ‘I will always remember this moment.’ It was my dream and I couldn’t realize or think that this dream would become a nightmare for me.”

On the night of Sept. 4, the Israeli delegation went out together to see “Fiddler on the Roof,” meeting the cast backstage and taking photos together, which would be their last.

Alon went to sleep at 1 a.m., but he was woken by loud noises, explosions and shouting at 4:30 a.m. He didn’t know what it was, thinking maybe it was an Olympic celebration of some kind so he went back to sleep. About 20 minutes later he heard the distinct sound of machine guns.

“The wall behind my bed was shaking and I knew something was wrong,” Alon said.

The shooters had started in apartment #1, taking hostages, and went to all the other rooms except Alon’s — #2. At one point, Alon and his teammates snuck a peek and saw an armed terrorist speaking with a German police woman, telling her that they had taken hostages and were demanding Palestinian inmates be released from Israel. Alon and the others saw the body of the wrestling coach thrown out in front of the building.

They contemplated an attack on the terrorists, using rifles from the shooting team, but they still did not know how many of them there were and whether it would incite a panic and get them and their fellow teammates killed.

The five decided their only option was to escape on foot, one by one slowly creeping down wooden stairs and running into the night where German authorities were waiting.

Along with the rest of the world, they waited to see what would happen next. After negotiations, the terrorists were transported with their hostages by bus to the Munich Airport where helicopters waited to take them to Egypt.

Initially, the Israeli team was told that all the athletes were released and they were coming back. But that was not the case.

“At 3 a.m., we got the bad news that all 11 athletes were dead, all nine hostages were killed at the airport,” Alon said. “It was for us a big shock and still very difficult to describe. The next morning we had to take all their belongings and fly with the coffins back to Israel.”

It was particularly difficult going into the #1 apartment to collect his friend Spitzer’s belongings, discouraging his grieving wife not to enter the room because there was so much blood.

“Again, Jewish blood in Germany,” said Alon. “It was really something I will never forget.”

Thousands waited for the plane returning the team and the victims at the Tel Aviv Airport, thousands of people quiet and weeping, Alon said. The next day the funerals were held, followed by Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

“Apple and honey is still bitter for me,” Alon said of symbolic Rosh Hashanah customary food.

After 1972, Alon gave up fencing competitively for many years because he lost the heart for it. He still continued to coach and at age 47 was convinced by his students to compete again.

At age 47, he was able to win the National Championship. He has since taken up golf.

The memory of Munich will continue to haunt Alon—two months ago he and the five survivors met again for the first time in 40 years to tell their story for an Israeli and German documentary. He said it was “terrible” to sit in front of a camera for hours and relive the tragic events, but he knows that his story is important to tell, if it encourages people to continue to live, to let the past make them stronger and to one day find a peaceful solution.

“Israel did not surrender to terror,” Alon said. “We would send delegations for all Olympics to come.”

To learn more about Dan Alon and his book “Munich Memoir,” visit

munichmemoir.daptd.com

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