(August 3, 2022 / Israel Hayom) A telephone call on the morning of Sept. 5, 1972 woke up three East German journalists who had been sent to cover the Munich Olympics. This was the first Olympic Games in which East Germany was participating as an official, independent entity, a great achievement for its communist regime, which had been fighting for international recognition for decades. It was also the first Olympics held on German soil since World War II.
The phone call was from the Olympic village, where the East German delegation was staying, and it said that armed forces had breached the village overnight and taken over the Israeli delegation’s accommodations. There had been shots fired and there appeared to be casualties.
While the outside world—including the West German security forces—was unaware of the scale of the events in the Olympic village, which would end with Palestinian terrorists murdering 11 Israeli athletes, the three East German reporters got precise information about what was taking place and immediately headed out. One of them was barred entrance at a gate close to the unfolding attack. A West German police officer told him, “You’d better not go in, if you don’t want to come out as a corpse,” and directed him to a different gate. The other two went in without a problem, using a system of underground tunnels.
Hours had passed since the attack began, and West German security forces still hadn’t closed the village off hermetically. The three reporters were able to walk around freely and deliver detailed reports to the Stasi, the East German secret police, whose agents were keeping close tabs on the delegation and the crowds of visitors who had come to the games from East Germany.
One of the East German athletes housed across the street from the Israeli delegation was Klaus Langhoff, a handball player. Langhoff—then 32, now 82—tells Israel Hayom about the moments of horror.
“Around 5 am, the head of our delegation woke me up … and told me, ‘Klaus, go through all our rooms and tell our athletes that in the building across from us, about 15 meters away, where the Israeli delegation was staying, there was a terrorist attack. We don’t know exactly what happened, but everyone needs to stay in their rooms and lock the doors and windows that face the street.’ We weren’t allowed to leave the building to go to the dining room for breakfast. We were told to wait for further instructions,” Langhoff recounts.
Q: So you didn’t hear the shots from across the street?
“I think I heard shots in my sleep, but it didn’t wake me up. I had a room of my own. In our building there were rooms for five people, three people, two people and singles. From my room, I could see straight to what was happening across from us, mostly the entrance to the Israeli delegation’s building, where negotiations with the terrorists were taking place.”
A game behind closed doors
We meet in Langhoff’s hometown of Rostock, where he began his sports career, which took him through the ranks of the German Handball Association. He never forgot the slaughter of the Israelis in Munich, although the fact that the two delegations were neighbors did not lead the two groups of athletes to form any particular bonds.
Even before the 1967 Six-Day War, East Germany was the most hostile to Israel of all the members of the communist bloc, most of which cut ties with Israel entirely after the war. The East Germans never had relations with Israel. The East Germans did, however, have close ties with Israel’s Arab enemies, including the PLO. At the end of October 1971, a delegation led by Yasser Arafat visited East Berlin and was promised increased aid. As early as the Six-Day War, the East German regime had considered military intervention on the Arabs’ side, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War decided to send planes and pilots to Syria, who wound up not joining the war because a ceasefire agreement was signed before they could do so.
This was the hate-filled atmosphere in which Langhoff and his handball teammates first encountered Israeli athletes, three years prior to the Munich Olympics.
“We played against the Israeli team in 1969 as part of the preliminary matches of the world championships, which were held the next year in France,” he says. “The draw required us to play against Israel. Our team leadership couldn’t refuse to play Israel, because then we would have lost the chance to make it into the world championships. So that is how that game came to pass, on Nov. 19, 1969, if I remember correctly. The first game took place in Schwerin, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. To our regret and the Israelis’, our team directors decided that the match would take place behind closed doors. Maybe 50 spectators were invited. We won by a huge margin: 35-2. The game was very fair by both teams.”
Q: Did the East German media report that the Israeli delegation was being hosted?
“Yes, but only in brief reports, not like they usually covered our games. Handball was a very popular sport in East Germany. Obviously, there were a lot of handball fans who’d have liked to see the Israeli team [play]. Many people saw the authorities’ treatment of the Israeli team as embarrassing, but we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Q: And why wasn’t the rematch held in Israel?
“The game was supposed to be held in Israel in early December. We always got contradictory information. At first, they told us the game would take place in a large gymnasium on a kibbutz, I think near Nahariya. We were even given a lecture by an Israeli communist, who came specially to tell us about Israel, at the invitation of the East German government. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name.
“What he told us in Germany excited us. It’s almost certain that our team didn’t know what he intended to tell us. But happily, and almost certainly making the East German Communist Party angry, he described Israel and its development since 1948 in a very positive light. He told us what the Jewish people had done there, how it turned from a desert to fertile ground, the pride of all its citizens. You could feel his pride in the State of Israel. Even now I can see how he stood there, full of joy, talking to us about Israel, his eyes glowing. It thrilled us.
“Even before that, I’d collected information about Israel, because when we traveled to Arab states to play, I noticed they always talked about Israel negatively. I didn’t like it. In Egypt, even in the early 1960s, they gave us informational leaflets full of anti-Israel incitement. So, on every trip to an Arab country, I looked for information about Israel—books, pamphlets, newspaper reports, to learn more. The Israeli communist’s lecture made me really happy. It was a very important meeting for all of us. We didn’t expect him to talk positively about Israel.
“But sadly, the game in Israel was never played. According to the rules of handball, the court had to be a certain size and have a certain amount of space around it, so players wouldn’t hit the walls. Israel didn’t have a space like that, and the international federation told us that we’d made it into the world championships without a rematch. We won second place in those championships.”
Q: Other than the match, did you have contact with the Israeli team while they were in East Germany?
“Despite what was accepted at the time, no; there was no shared meal for both teams. Before the match, we greeted each other on the court. We stood next to them and were friendly. The players had no reason to ignore the Israelis. The Communist Party leadership and the authorities told us that the game should take place under normal circumstances, but without any exhibition of friendship on the court. That’s what we did. The game was sportsmanlike by both teams.”
A disaster on live TV
Langhoff pulls photos he took on the long day during which members of the Israeli delegation were being held hostage out of his jacket pocket.
“Here you can see the entrance to the Israeli delegation’s building, near where they threw out the body of Moshe Weinberg. … His body stayed there for a long time until it was removed. It was an awful sight. Terrible. Horrifying. We were in quarters across the way and saw everything. Then the negotiations with the terrorists started, with the chief of the Munich police, the West German Interior Minister Dietrich Genscher and other people. They were talking with one terrorist near the entrance, who was holding a grenade the entire time. The negotiations went on all day. It was terrible,” he says.
In photos, some in color, Langhoff documented the Olympic village, the accommodations, his team and some moments of the terrorist drama taking place across the way, including black-and-white close-up images of the terrorists and the food brought to the Israeli accommodations at their demand. A detailed report by the East German journalists to the Stasi was written at 8:15 am on the first floor of the East German accommodations, looking out at the Israeli building: “Five armed men are looking at us, laughing. Near the ground-floor entrance door the commander is wearing a gray sweatsuit with a white hat, his face painted red. On the second floor a man is stationed who is wearing a dark gray hat with a wide brim, with big red sunglasses, a patterned shirt, open and a gold chain.”
Q: When did you learn about the tragic end to the event?
“I had a small TV in my room. I was watching reports all day. Everything was broadcast live. In the afternoon, they marked the lawn behind our building with three X’s. Later, three helicopters landed to take the terrorists and their hostages to the Fürstenfeldbruck airport. Suddenly, that night, we saw movement in the building across the way. We could see the elevator going up and down. Buses moved through the village underground.
“We were informed that the nine living hostages had been taken to the helicopters, and around 9 pm, maybe later, we heard the helicopters take off. Later they said that the event had ended all right. Close to midnight the report of what really happened came in: The helicopters landed, German snipers tried to shoot the terrorists after turning spotlights on them. The distraction didn’t work, because the terrorists immediately threw a grenade into the helicopters, and the athletes were murdered. The planning of the operation was amateurish. It came as a shock to us.”
After some deliberation, Olympic officials decided to pause the competitions, but began them again the next day.
Q: Did you stay in your rooms the whole day?
“Some of the East German delegation left the Olympic village that day, as scheduled. Other handball teams went out to practice, but we didn’t. Our trainer, Hans Zeiler, said, ‘The Games are over.’ The next evening, we got the announcement that the games had been stopped for a day and would then continue. The game we played the next day was against the Soviet Union, and we lost.
“A team that returned to East Germany from the Olympics without medals wasn’t worth anything. Only medals counted. The attack on the Israeli delegation weighed on all of us. I was thinking about it all the time. It was inconceivable that someone could exploit an event as big as the Olympic Games for terrorist attacks.
“I was born at the end of 1939. I have childhood memories of the end of World War II. Rostock was heavily bombed. Even now, I can’t go into dark basements or hear noisy car motors. Even now, I can’t understand people fighting wars. That terrorist attack left a terrible mark on me. Generally speaking, East Germany was involved in it because it allowed Palestinian terrorists to pass through it and prepare themselves. They knew that, if necessary, they could quickly cross the border from West Germany and seek refuge. One of the organizers of the Munich attack, Abu Daoud, was protected in East Germany.”
Q: Members of the Stasi who were with the delegation didn’t cooperate with the terrorists?
“Of course, we had Stasi agents with the delegation, but I don’t know if they were involved. There weren’t many agents with the delegation. The spectators’ delegation, who were allowed to stay only a few days and then were replaced, had a lot of Stasi agents.”
Q: Why didn’t the East German delegation take part in the memorial for the athletes held after the slaughter?
“There were instructions from the Communist Party in Berlin’s central committee that the East German Olympic delegation was not to participate. We, the athletes, weren’t asked. The chairman of our delegation, Manfred Weber, informed us. Without explanation. We had to accept the instructions. We couldn’t do whatever we wanted. Of course, we discussed it among ourselves. But we knew we had to be careful because there were a few athletes among us who were Stasi informants. We didn’t know who they were. At the time, I was playing for Leipzig, where I went to university. The rest of the Leipzig players and I could trust each other and we talked freely. We thought it wasn’t reasonable not to attend the memorial, but we couldn’t talk about it with the players from Berlin or other places.”
Q: What do you think about the German authorities’ attitude when it comes to accepting responsibility for the failures at the Munich games?
“After the terrorist attack, there was total silence in Munich. The press and the authorities denied what had happened. In East Germany too. It was completely suppressed. Only in 1997, 25 years later and after the German reunification, did they start talking about it again. Only in the final days of East Germany did they make attempts to form ties with Israel. Before that, it was always presented in a negative light. They always blamed Israel for the conflict with the Arabs. Of course, some people thought differently and tried to get different information about Israel though contacts with the west—scientists, doctors who attended conferences abroad. But ordinary people usually had nothing to do with the issue of Israel.”
Q: Were you invited to the ceremony this coming September to mark the 50th anniversary of the slaughter?
“Yes, but I don’t plan to go. My wife is about to undergo surgery, and I won’t go alone. I told my wife that when she recovers, I’ll go with her and I’ll show her everything. It’s important to me, personally. Since then, I’ve gone back to the Olympic village a few times with the German handball team and given the athletes a tour of it. A mass event like the one planned isn’t a true memorial. They will make speeches about reconciliation, but the athletes themselves won’t really have a chance to be alone with their memories of the events.”
Q: Do you understand the decision by the families of the Israeli victims to boycott the ceremony because of the German authorities’ attitude?
“This is the first time I’ve heard about it, but I can understand Israelis who don’t want to come to Germany.”
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.
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