Column: 50 years later, the pain of Munich persists

A memorial plaque for the eleven athletes from Israel and one German police officer were killed in a terrorist attack during the Olympic Games 1972, stands at the former accommodation of the Israeli team in the Olympic village in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. The families of 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian attackers at the 1972 Summer Olympics and the German government are close to reaching a deal over the long-disputed amount of the compensation.
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“Everyone is gone.”

With those three chilling words from ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, the worst possible news about the fate of 11 Israeli hostages at the Munich Olympics was broken.

Five decades later, it’s still hard to shake those images of a masked Palestinian terrorist lurking on the balcony of the Olympic Village. It’s still hard to understand how meaningless and unnecessary it all was.

And then there are those who were left behind, to live a life full of pain in their hearts and questions that can never be answered about why it happened and what could have been.

Like David Berger’s family, a Jewish American weightlifter who joined the Israeli team in pursuit of his dreams and ended up being killed.

I was only 28 years old.

“We were six years apart,” his sister, Barbara Berger, recalled by phone Friday night from their home in Maine. “But the year before he died, I spent the summer with him in Israel. He was funny, headstrong, goal-oriented and incredibly smart.”

When Barbara had a son, she named him after her brother.

“He looks like David,” Barbara said, a hint of wonder in her voice. “He reminds me a lot of my brother. His personality, his appearance. I feel good about it. He feels like my brother is still living.”

This Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack ever launched against the world of sport.

There will be a commemoration in Munich, which will be attended by the presidents of Germany and Israel.

There will also be a ceremony Tuesday at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland, site of the david berger National Memorial, a harrowing steel tribute depicting the five Olympic rings, each split in half but pointing upward toward a more peaceful world.

Berger was a Cleveland native who went to high school in Shaker Heights.

“I can say that David Berger is very much alive in our community,” said Traci Felder, director of development for downtown Cleveland. “As a person, it was about dedication and commitment, not only to sports but also to education.”

Felder noted Berger’s lasting legacy through an education endowment established by his mother and father.

Over the past five decades, the tragic events in Munich have been remembered with documentaries and films, with plaques and monuments, and finally, last year, with a moment of silence at the Tokyo Games.

They have also created a more closed world in our stadiums and arenas, with security costs now accounting for a large portion of the budget for any city wishing to host the Summer or Winter Games.

Of course, there is no chance of completely shutting down those who would do harm to others, especially in the high-profile arena that sport provides, in pursuit of their perverted targets.

A 2013 Boston Marathon bombing left three people dead. Three were killed in the 2010 assault on a bus carrying the Togo national soccer team to a major African tournament. In 2009, terrorists opened fire on the Sri Lankan cricket team en route to a match in Pakistan, killing half a dozen policemen and two civilians, while six Sri Lankan players were injured.

I witnessed the aftermath of another horrific attack.

In 1996, while working at a media center adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park, a bomb exploded in the epicenter of the Atlanta Summer Games. One person was killed by the explosion; another later died of a heart attack.

It could have been much, much worse.

It was bad enough as it was.

“I felt the ground shake,” Desmond Edwards, an Atlanta school teacher who witnessed the blast, told me as he fled the scene on that chaotic night. “There were rivers of blood.”

Sadly, in the 50 years since Munich, we still live in a world with rivers of blood and many of the same grievances that led to the Olympic massacre.

“I don’t think anything good has come of it, given the state of the world today,” said Barbara Berger. “One can wait, but actually I think things are worse.”

Then he utters the saddest possible words of someone who lost a loved one: “I’d say he died in vain.”

Even more disheartening, recognition of the carnage and the many mistakes that allowed it to occur moved at an inexcusably slow pace among those in power.

It took 49 years for the International Olympic Committee to recognize Munich with something as simple as that brief moment of silence during the Tokyo opening ceremony.

Just this week, the 11 Israeli families finally reached an agreement with the German government on a long-disputed compensation claim, averting a threat to boycott Monday’s ceremony.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog welcomed the long-awaited deal which is reportedly worth about $28 million.

“The agreement cannot heal all wounds. But it opens a door between each other,” the leaders said in a joint statement.

Moreover, the pact came on the heels of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. refuse to condemn the Olympic massacre of 50 years. He replied that he could point to “50 holocausts” by Israel.

Amid the political bombast, we lose sight of individual angst on all sides.

The family that has an empty seat at their table. The survivor who is wracked with guilt. The viewer who can never forget what he witnessed.

Fifty years ago, Barbara Berger was in Munich together with another brother, Fred, to watch their brother compete. She remembers asking David to stay with them after she finished, but he wanted to stay with his Israeli teammates. She also remembers the nonchalant security that allowed them to visit David at the athletes’ village.

But Barbara refuses to get sucked into what-ifs. She watched him eat her parents for the rest of her lives.

“It’s a total waste of emotion,” he said. “I have enough self-discipline not to go there. Has no sense.”

Fifty years later, none of it seems to make sense.

However, we continue, doing our best to keep their names alive.

David Berger.

Ze’ev Friedman.

Yossef Gutfreund.

Eliezer Halfin.

Joseph Romano.

Mark Slavin.

Amitzur Shapira.

Kehat Shorr.

Andre Spitzer.

Yakov Springer.

Moshe Weinberg.

Hopefully their too short lives will one day inspire us to be better people, a better world.

There’s still time.


Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. write to either on Twitter @twice1963

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