The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich.18.04.13

The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich                                                 18.04.13


Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening I saw the film, The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich 1976 that had its North American premier at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. There have been many films on the capture and deaths of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1976 Munich Olympics and the Israeli hunting down of the terrorists. They include:

21 Hours at Munich (1976)

Sword of Gideon (1986)

One Day in September (1999)

Munich (2005)

Munich: Mossad`s Revenge (2006)

Now we have the 2012 documentary The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich 1976 directed by Emanuel Rotstein.

The most famous of the above is probably Stephen Spielberg`s 2005 movie, Munich, written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth based on a Canadian, George Jonas, book listed below which, after recounting the events of the terrorist attack in the first half, focused on the Israeli response to the attack and how Israel`s Mossad dealt with the terrorists. The film was nominated for five academy awards, though its fictional construction of how Mossad developed the target list of 11 terrorists, the controversial portrayal of the fictional construction of guilt-ridden Mossad agents and posing the killing of the members of Black September simply as a tit-for-tat revenge operation, had little basis in historical fact. However, the depiction of the actual hostage taking and the German police response, as well as the names of the Black September terrorists involved in executive decisions, planning and executing the attack, is generally correct. The errors were mostly pointed out in the 2006 documentary, Munich: Mossad`s Revenge.

There are also many books written about the capture and death of the athletes and the response of different governments and authorities at the time and afterwards. The main ones include:

Serge Groussard (1975) The Blood of Israel: the massacre of the Israeli athletes, the Olympics 1972

David B. Tinnin and Dag Christensen (1976) The Hit Team

George Jonas (2005) Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Team

A.J. Klein (2005) The 1972 Munich Massacre and Israel`s Deadly Response

David Clay Large (2012) Munich 1972.

The film The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich 1976 is not about the Israelis killed by the terrorists so we do not see pictures of them, though they are referred to in the memories of the survivors. Nor is it about the terrorists so we only have fleeting accounts of them as the survivors tell the stories of what they remember and how they experienced the attack and its aftermath. Nor is it about how the German authorities bungled the attack on the terrorists, though reference is made to that accident-prone effort – again through the memories of the survivors. Finally, the film is not about the insensitivity of the Olympic officials at the time or subsequently to memorializing the killed Israeli athletes, though the surviving athletes make reference to their memories of the memorial that was held at which 80,000 attended and how they were moved. Their response to how the Olympic authorities handled the memorial to the deaths of the eleven Israeli athletes is more muted in the film.  

The movie is a conventionally constructed well produced documentary that provides the key historical background and interweaves interviews with eight of the survivors with historical footage and a revisit of seven of those survivors to the Olympic village site forty years after the massacre. Because of the focus on the survivors, do not expect the film to deal with any of the following questions:

1) Who was killed and how they were killed, though, because Moshe Weinberg, the wrestling coach, and Yossef Romano, the weightlifter, were both killed in the Olympic village, their deaths are described in the film in some detail as well as the response of the survivors to their murders. For the record, the following nine were killed after they were transferred to the NATO military base in the bungled German effort to kill the terrorists:

David Berger (weightlifter)

Zeèv Friedman (weightlifter)

Yossef Gutfreund (wrestling referee)

Eliezer Halfin (wrestler)

Amitzur Shapira (track coach)

Kehat Shorr (shooting coach)

Mark Slavin (wrestler)

Andre Spitzer (fencing coach)

Yakov Springer (weightlifting judge)

In the film, there is a memorial plaque shown with the names of the eleven slain athletes beside the front door of 31 Connollystrasse.

2) The Terrorists. There are descriptions of two of them who were seen by several of the survivors when they seized the apartments in which the Israeli athletes, coaches and officials were staying, but there is no depiction of how the terrorists learned where the Israelis were staying, how they got into the athlete village for men except for the many references to the openness, and certainly not about how Mossad tracked the surviving terrorists that they assassinated. It is not clear whether the survivors knew that two of the terrorists had jobs working for the Olympics.

According to the generally perceived account, in the early hours of the morning of 5 September 1972, the eleventh day of the Olympics, eight members of the Black September terrorist organization in tracksuits with duffel bags packed with AKM assault rifles, Tokarev pistols and grenades, scaled a two-meter chain-link fence, assisted by other athletes who thought that the terrorists were also athletes who had been out carousing and were sneaking back to the village late. There is a dispute whether the terrorists had keys to the apartments, but the survivors` testimonies do not indicate any knowledge of keys. One survivor does describe one terrorist seen as having grenades strapped to his belt.

3) The German Authorities. There are many references in the film to the intentions of the German authorities to use the Munich Olympics to get the world to understand the new Germany and forget Nazi Germany of the 1936 Olympics, the friendliness, the openness, the bright colours, and the casual but very efficient but non-militarist approach. The survivors do question why the Israeli athletes were placed in what was perhaps the most exposed location in the athletes village for men, the lack of any perceived security, and the repeated bungling of the response. In the movie, there is no question about the information the German authorities had in advance due to a tip off by a Palestinian informant in Beirut two weeks before the Olympics opened that there would be an attack – all of which has emerged and confirmed with the release of German documents about the events.

The survivors do question why the German authorities, in particular, Chancellor Willy Brandt and interior minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, did not accept the Israeli government offer to supply special forces units designed to deal with the terrorists or at least to advise the German authorities. Why were not Zvi Zamir and Victor Cohen who were Israelis with vast experience in dealing with terrorists and were present at the German airfield not asked for their input?

However, this film is not about the bungling – how the German authorities based their response on an inaccurate count of the number of terrorists originally given by Genscher who had been allowed into the apartment to see the captives, why authorities permitted the initial attempted police attack on the apartment to be televised and, therefore, watched by the terrorists, the poor locations of the helicopters in the airfield, the reasons why some of the sharpshooters left, the lack of telescopic lenses for the sharpshooters, the absence of armoured vehicles, the bungling of the plan to get the terrorists before they reached the helicopters. In the end, to the horror of all Israelis and Jews, the German authorities traded the three terrorists who survived and were in prison for the release of a Lufthansa plane and its passengers hijacked by terrorists.

4) The Olympic Authorities. Though Avery Bundage is depicted in the movie saying the games must go on and the Olympic spirit must be kept pure and clean and honest, there is no explanation of why he did not cancel the games, why he never even mentioned the names of the athletes who died in his press conferences and addresses, why the Olympic authorities bungled the security for the athletes or why subsequent Olympic officials have repeatedly refused to acknowledge the death of the Israeli athletes with a minute of silence. There is a reference to the fact that the East German and Arab teams all boycotted the memorial event that was held with 80,000 in attendance for the murdered Israeli athletes, coaches and officials.

I was surprised that the director did not get the survivors to talk about their performances at the Olympics before they left prematurely and returned to Israel with the coffins of their colleagues. What the movie is about is those who were ignored in the focus on all of the above – those who went through the horror and survived, what they experienced, how they reacted to the initial false information that the nine Israelis that had been taken to the NATO base had been rescued, how they responded to revisiting the apartments where two athletes were killed and where the toys that the Olympians had bought to bring back to their children were splattered with blood that many of the police and investigators had just trampled through without respecting the athlete left to bleed to death for hours. 

The movie does not explain why one of the athletes in the film is not among the seven in the movie who returned in 2012 to visit the Olympic Village. In the Q&A, Avraham Melamed explained that the missing athlete was not physically well enough to travel back to Munich. Melamed also explained why the ninth athlete did not accompany them. Tuvia Sokolovsky, a wrestling coach, had been the one to escape from apartment 3 on Connollystrasse when warned. Weinberg had tried to keep the terrorists out at the door of the apartment and was killed. Gutfreund kept his body against the door to the bedroom which he shared with Sokolovsky, allowing the latter time to escape through the window. Gutfreinde had evidently responded to scratches he heard at the door, saw the masked terrorists with guns and, while Weinberg blocked the terrorists, ran back to warn the others, especially his room mate, to get away.

Afterwards, some dolts accused Sokolovsky of cowardice for escaping – a view not shared by the survivors interviewed. Further, Sokolovsky was involved in the making of another film about Munich and was advised that there might be a conflict of interest if he became part of this film. I have never been able to reconcile the figure of 12 Israeli Olympians in apartments 1 & 3 with the fact that a second captive, Gad Tsobani, a wrestler, managed also to escape when they were being escorted together in one apartment because Weinberg attacked one of the terrorists escorting the captives at the cost of his own life.

Nor are we given much insight into their various personalities and why, for some, the 1972 Munich Olympics have been a dark shadow over the rest of their lives while Professor Shaul Ladany, the race walker and the sole Holocaust survivor on the team, remembers and memorializes, but has not been haunted by 1972 but instead remains determined to get the Olympic authorities to recognize and memorialize the event. Further, Ladany had been at the 1968 Olympics in Tokyo but was not asked to contrast his experience there with his first impressions of Munich in 1972. Ladany had been awakened by the commotion by Gutfreund’s screams and, as bullets whistled past, jumped from his bedroom rear window to the lawn below.

Avrahem Melamed, who attended the Mexican Olympics in 1964 as well as the 1978 games, did compare the different games, and, contrary to the stories about lack of security, insisted in the Q&A that security at Munich was far tighter than at Tokyo or Mexico. He knew because, though he is listed in the program as a “member of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team”, he actually was not though he lived in apartment 2 in the Olympic Village. Because he was not part of the team, he had no official documentation and had to sneak around to get anywhere and that is why he was fully aware of the security at the Olympics. In the Q&A, he also elaborated on why he was not officially part of the team.

It was Israeli bureaucracy that I have discussed in previous blogs. He and his four fellow swimmers were in the United States training. They were four hours late returning to Israel to register for going on the team. The Israeli Olympic official – who in my mind had absorbed the true Olympic pompous spirit – barred the swimmers from the team. Melamed, with the sympathy of the media who sponsored him, went to the Olympics anyway and became the coach of one of the Israeli female swimming competitors.   

All but two of the survivors who had lived in that section of the Olympic Village returned. Besides Ladany, the other six included sharpshooters Henry Hershkowitz and Zelig Stroch, the fencers Dan Alon and Yehuda Weisenstein, and the team leader, Shmuel Lalkin and one other whose name I cannot make out in my notes that I made in the dark of the theatre. Dan Alon was most expressive in describing the dark cloud that has hung over him his whole life since the Munich Olympics. In their original visit to Germany in 1972, the athletes had been overwhelmed with the fact that they were not just individuals, not even just Israelis, but Jews returning to compete in Germany, the land of the Nazis that had murdered six million.

When this kept coming up, I wondered if Mark Spitz, the famous American Jewish gold winning swimmer who was at the 1972 Olympics, had the same feeling. American security officials certainly hustled him away from the Olympics quickly enough. Spitz was evidently very upset and very saddened by the deaths of the Israelis but was evidently too stunned – as well as too protected – to express his feelings at the time. It is too bad that the filmmakers did not reach him and get the feelings of Jewish as well as Israeli survivors. Spitz was not the only one. For example, the javelin thrower on the American team, Bill Schmidt, was Jewish.

The survivors all were impressed by the efforts of the German government to project an image of the new Germany even though they were only a few miles from Dachau. Many of them, however, wondered which Germans continued to have anti-semitic feelings, though no one indicated that they encountered any such sentiments – only friendliness, camaraderie and a sense of the brotherhood of all humans. All of them had been overjoyed to attend a performance the evening before the attack of Fiddler on The Roof as special guests of the famous Israeli actor, Shmuel Rodensky. They were overwhelmed at the reception they had been given. However, after the massacre they left with the impression that German authorities were simply anxious to get the terrorist problem out of the way for the murders had spoiled their big party.

When one watches the film, as when watches the news coverage of the bombing at the Boston marathon, I personally was embarrassed as news commentators then – and at Boston – asked the survivors and member of the team how they felt about what happened. I wanted to scream – How do you think they felt, you moron?  Instead of asking is there anything you feel you want to say or would like to express, they ask insensitive and dumb questions.

The movies does explain how everyone in apartment two escaped while everyone but the one who escaped in apartments one and three were captured and killed. Weinberg had evidently insisted that there were no Israelis in apartment two and led them to apartment three where he felt the athletes there – wrestlers and weightlifters – would be strong enough to challenge the terrorists, whereas the race walkers, swordsmen, sharpshooters and swimmers in apartment two were not in as good a position to do so. The film does not ask Ladany that question for he insisted in other interviews that the members of Black September had detailed information of who the athletes were and where they were housed. Instead, he said that the terrorists did not go to apartment two because there were two sharp shooters in that apartment. They did not want to take the risk. But this dissenting view of the conventional explanation was not in the movie.

The movie makes clear that the survivors had never been brought together for the last forty years to talk about their experiences and compare notes. The trip was, therefore, very therapeutic for them. They were also not united on whether the Olympics should have been cancelled or not. The ones interviewed on the subject seemed to feel they should have been. But Ladany held that that would have given the terrorists another victory. Ladany even argued that the Israelis should not have left but should have stayed and participated in the final parade of teams.

The greatest bitterness is probably aimed at the Olympic authorities rather than the terrorists. We know from the recent American presidential election that Mitt Romney, had refused, along with IOC Chief Jacques Rogge, a request to memorialize the Israeli murdered athletes on the 30th anniversary at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 – but did memorialize Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo-Jo) reputedly the fastest woman racer of all time but whose had nothing to do with the Olympics. She died in her sleep from an epileptic seizure in 1998. However, in the rivalry for the presidency last year, in London in September, Romney not only criticized the British Olympic preparations to worldwide embarrassment for him, but then echoed Obama in calling for the same memorial that he had rejected ten years earlier. On his visit to the London Olympics, and subsequently Israel, he supported an official minute of silence at the opening ceremony of the Games to honour the eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics. That could not be expected to be told in this film, but a viewer wonders why the survivors were not probed in greater detail about their feelings and thoughts on the issue of a minute of silence.

In addition to the therapeutic effect on the survivors and the insistence of Jews that they remember everything, just as the Jewish body part collectors must gather every particle of a blown up body that they can find for burial, there is an important memorializing and therapeutic effect on the viewers. We also sympathize and cheer when the survivors insist, “We are still alive,” and testify to the importance of Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment not to give Hitler a posthumous victory.