Berger’s Burg: Evil memories of one September in Munich

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Many wonderful events occur in September. These include Labor Day; the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur; Grandparents’ Day; the beginning of cool Autumn; the football season; school openings (wonderful for parents, not so for kids); and my 39th wedding anniversary.

However, there are two not so wonderful September memories, which, are forever etched in my memory. The first one, of course, is the appalling WTC occurrence on Sept. 11, 2001. The second one, although not as monumental as the WTC disaster is nonetheless indicative of man’s inhumanity towards man, and a precursor of more such evil to come.

I refer to the 1972 Olympic massacre in Germany. In memory of this hateful event, on Sept. 6, 2002, city and church officials in Munich, Germany will gather in the Olympic village to hold memorial services to mark the 29th anniversary of the worst tragedy in the history of the often-troubled Olympics: the massacre of 11 Israeli team members by terrorist guerrillas.

At the doorway of 31 Connollystrasse, the three-story structure that housed the male members of the Israeli delegation, the officials will stand amid garlands of perpetual flowers before a memorial sign that bears the names of the slain Israelis in German and Hebrew. One of them, David Berger (no relation) was an American and a graduate of Columbia University before he immigrated to Israel. The village entrance was not far from the one-story bungalow that housed the offices of ABC Sports. The story of that day, the 11th day of the XX Olympiad, is a reminder that the current rash of Palestinian terror is not new.

The events actually began early on the morning of Sept. 5, when five young men dressed as athletes climbed over the security fence that surrounded the village. They were joined by three other terrorists, temporary workers in the village, who knew the location of the Israeli compound.

They broke into the Israeli quarters, surprised the sleeping Olympiads, quickly killed two of them and took nine hostages. A dozen others escaped and sounded the alarm. After a long day of tense negotiations with the terrorists, who identified themselves as members of the Black September movement, the German officials agreed to helicopter the terrorists and their captives to a nearby airport. There, they told the terrorists, a Lufthansa jet would take them to a country of their choice.

Two olive green German Army helicopters with nine bound and blindfolded Israelis and eight heavily armed terrorists landed on a darkened military airfield at Furstenfeldbruck, some 15 miles away. It was a late summer night, starless, hot and humid. Before the rotors of the Bell Iroquois helicopters had stopped whirring, two of the terrorists leaped to the ground and ran toward a Lufthansa Boeing 727 airliner sitting on the tarmac 150 yards away, its jet engines purring.

The two terrorists, clutching Kalashnikov automatic rifles, cautiously entered a rear door of the 727 and peered around. There was no one on board, no crew in the cockpit, no airline personnel in the passenger cabin, and no signs of immediate departure. The terrorists knew at once that the German negotiators had deceived them. There would be no flight to freedom. It was a trap.

They left the empty plane and like broken-field runners, raced back to the helicopters. They were halfway there, zigzagging among the inconstant shadows from emergency floodlights and the weak lights from the control tower, where German sharpshooters deployed around the onetime NATO air base, opened fire. The Arabs fired wildly back at them. The battle was on.

At midnight, six Panzer tanks moved onto the field. And the terrorists knew the end was near. After firing futilely at the armored vehicles for a time, they turned to the helicopters and the captive Israelis. One of the terrorists threw an anti-personnel grenade into the first one, incinerating the interior and setting it on fire. Two others emptied their automatic weapons into the remaining hostages in the second helicopter.

When it was over, some two hours later, the nine Israelis, a Munich police sergeant and five of the terrorists were dead, the others wounded and captured. After several erroneous wire service reports that the Israelis had escaped, the Munich authorities finally revealed the truth of the disaster. U.S. television audiences learned the grim news from sportscaster, Jim McKay. Hollow-eyed and hoarse from lack of sleep, McKay said simply, “They’re all gone.”

The three captured terrorists were taken to separate Munich prisons. They did not stay long. On Oct. 29, less than two months after the massacre, a Lufthansa 727, like the one used in the ruse, was hijacked in the air somewhere between Jordan and Turkey. Two men, identifying themselves as Black September members, brandished handguns and took over the aircraft. They ordered the pilot to radio German authorities that if the three imprisoned terrorists were not released immediately, the 727 with all aboard would be blown up.

With the memory of the deaths of the 17 people still vivid, the Germans took this threat seriously. After a hurried meeting with German Chancellor Willy Brandt and his cabinet, it was decided to free the three terrorists. They were taken to Libya where, after being greeted as heroes, they disappeared.

Furious at the Germans for releasing the murderers, the Israeli government of Golda Meir recalled its ambassador to Germany. But the Israelis were not content with diplomatic gestures. Over the next few months, the Israeli secret service began a high-priority operation. They tracked down and killed many Black September leaders and members in various parts of Europe and the Mideast.

But the Israeli victims have not been forgotten. As the church and city officials meet at 31 Connellystrasse for the anniversary service, they will once again be responding to the admonition inscribed on the memorial stone: “Honor Their Memory.”

However, it is indeed curious that during the start of all Olympic games that followed (including the recently concluded one), no moment of silence in respect for the fallen Olympiads was ever observed. Terrorism had won that time and the world is now suffering because of it.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 140.

Posted 7:20 pm, October 10, 2011
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