“They’re all gone.” Those tragic words spoken by legendary ABC sportscaster Jim McKay on Sept. 6, 1972 let the world know that 11 Israeli athletes had been murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the Munich Olympic Games. News traveled slowly in 1972, and when McKay informed the world at 3 a.m., most people were asleep and didn’t find out about the horrific event until later that morning.
This year, we observe the 50th anniversary of this shocking, senseless and gruesome terrorist attack, which took place in the same Germany responsible for the Third Reich and the Final Solution, just 27 years after the Holocaust.
As a young boy, I came to learn a great deal about the Olympics and heard stories about the 1968 Games in Mexico City that included the raised “Black Power” fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I was eager to watch the 1972 Games and see Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz compete.
However, on the morning of Sept. 5, 1972, the world shook. At 4:30 a.m., five Palestinian terrorists from the group Black September, dressed in black athletic sweatsuits, climbed a six-foot fence and entered the Olympic Village. They did not go unseen, but apparently, their behavior seemed normal because athletes were coming and going over the fences on a regular basis. The terrorists carried bags in which it was easy to hide weapons. They were joined by three additional terrorists who somehow managed to obtain credentials that allowed them in.
Knowing exactly where the Israelis were staying, the terrorists knocked on the door. Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg opened the door and immediately knew something was wrong. He yelled to warn his fellow Israeli Olympians and tried to hold the terrorists at bay with weightlifter Joseph Romano, but they were unsuccessful and both were killed.
Later that morning, Black September announced they were holding nine Israeli hostages and unless Arab prisoners were released, the Israelis would be killed. Eventually, an agreement was reached and two helicopters were arranged. The Israelis were split up and put on each one. However, sharpshooters attempted to take out the terrorists at the airport and a battle began. The terrorists blew up one of the helicopters, killing all the Israelis aboard. The remaining hostages on the second chopper were shot and killed by the terrorists.
The names of the slain athletes are David Berger, Ze’ev Friedman, Yossef Gutfreund, Moshe Weinberg, Yossef Romano, Mark Slavin, Eliezer Halfin, Yakov Springer, Andre Spitzer, Amitzur Shapira and Kehat Shorr. Last year, at the rescheduled Tokyo Games, these victims were finally recognized at an Olympiad.
What is truly incredible is that the murder of 11 Israelis was not enough to prompt the organizers to cancel or postpone any of the 1972 Games. Nothing was canceled—not one event. “Incredibly, they’re going on with it,” wrote Jim Murray of The Los Angeles Times. “It’s almost like having a dance at Dachau.”
The World Maccabiah just concluded in Israel, and the San Diego JCC Maccabi Games just hosted thousands of Jewish teenagers. Jewish halls of fame across the United States continue to recognize great Jewish contributors to sports. However, we must always do this work with the memory of the “Munich 11” integrated into the program. May their memories continue to be a blessing, and may we never ever forget the ultimate price they paid for being Jewish and Israeli.
Steve Rosenberg is the principal at the GSD Group and current board chair of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.