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The Munich massacre: A survivor’s story

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Story highlights

CNN talks to a survivor from the 1972 Munich massacre

11 Israeli athletes were killed during the siege

40 years on, Israel asked for a one minute silence at London's opening ceremony; but the IOC refused

Olympic walker Shaul Ladany survived the Holocaust and the Munich Massacre

CNN —  

Professor Shaul Ladany has a busy schedule to keep these days, but lays down one important condition before agreeing to speak to CNN.

“Every morning I roll up the carpet and do my exercises,” he explains.

“So when I talk to you I might be breathing quite heavily, inhaling and exhaling. I hope that is OK for you.”

It is no surprise that the academic and former Israeli Olympic walking champion leads an active life. Aside from his job as an engineering professor at Ben Gurion University, he still walks – not as in a stroll but as in the punishing race-walking discipline much mocked for its unique waddle – 15 km a day.

On every birthday he walks his age in kilometers. So on his most recent anniversary he embarked on a solo 76 km walk around his home town of Be’er Sheva in Israeli’s southern Negev desert.

Professor Ladany has made a virtue of making every year – every day – count.

Maybe that is not surprising given he fled his native Yugoslavia after the Luftwaffe had destroyed his home and lived in hiding in Hungary. Shortly after – when he was just eight years old – he was captured and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He also fought two wars in the Israeli army as an artillery captain.

Ahead of the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics back in July, his mind fixed on the moment that should have been the pinnacle of his race-walking career, but instead turned into a moment of infamy: the 1972 Munich Olympics and the massacre of his teammates.

More accurately, his mind will fix on the absence of an absence: the lack of a minute’s silence tonight to honor the 11 Israeli athletes killed by members of the Palestinian Black September group who took them hostage in what remains the darkest chapter in Olympic history.

“I do not understand,” Ladany said of the International Olympic Committee’s decision not to hold a minute’s silence before the start of the Games. “I do not understand and I do not accept it.”

Marching to the Olympics

Ladany started out as a marathon runner but switched to walking in 1967 after the Israeli army was invited to the Vierdaagse, a four-day marching event in Holland that attracts tens of thousands of people to this day.

He soon discovered, during an unofficial competition between the best military marchers in the world that he could cover twice the distance of anyone else. He was entered into an official 3 km walking race and beat the field by an entire lap.

“I decided to become a full-time race walker so I moved to the United States where my aptitude for long distances became clear,” he said of a sport that is much maligned but is arguably the toughest, physiologically, of all the Olympic track and field disciplines.

“You need a certain type of mental attitude: a willingness to take punishment, to have a lack of comfort and pain, to continue and continue.

“I’m not a psychologist, but was I stubborn, so I entered race walking. Or did I enter race walking and become stubborn? It’s the same of all long-distance events. Quitters don’t win and winners don’t quit.”

Return to Germany

Munich was not Ladany’s first Olympic Games. He had competed in Mexico 1968, but Munich was his best chance of a medal. Only a few months previously he had broken the 50-mile world record, a time that still stands today. But he had reservations about an Olympic Games that was due to take place in the birthplace of Nazism just 27 years after the end of World War II.

“I didn’t think it was too soon but I had mixed feelings. You have to remember, of all the Israeli Olympic team I was the sole Holocaust survivor,” he explains.

“I wanted to show that the Israelis could perform like every other nation in the world. That we are as good as the others and I had that ambition to show that on German soil in the same way that the famous American athlete Jesse Owens wanted to show the world (at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) the hatred policy against blacks in Germany. He wanted to say, ‘Look I am the best.’ “

The Germany that Ladany left as a young child was unrecognizable to the country he returned to. Yet there was still the odd moment that reminded him of the past.

“They wanted to show the world the new Germany was not the same Nazi machinery of the Third Reich,” he recalls.

“Everything was totally different: nice colors, flowers everywhere, no arms and so on. Almost no guns, freedom. It was a very nice open atmosphere … It was very efficient. In fact the smooth machinery reminded me of the Third Reich, of how they tried to solve the Jewish problem.”

However, morale was good in Munich. Despite Ladany viewing older Germans with suspicion (“I would try to figure out what they might have done in the war”) the athletes would joke about the long-held German stereotype of a people prone to following orders.

At no time were they distrustful of their hosts, and although Ladany had reservations about the Israeli team visiting the Dachau concentration camp – just a few miles from Munich – he still went along.

The Games begin

The Olympics began and Ladany ended up finishing 19th in his race two days before the moment that would define the Munich Olympics. He was sleeping in apartment number two of block 31 Connolly Street when the eight members of Black September approached. It was not until he was woken by his roommate telling him that wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg had been shot and killed that Ladany knew anything was wrong.

“I was an artillery officer so I can sleep through almost anything,” he says.

“My roommate woke me and said that Weinberg had been shot and killed. I had shared a room with him in 1968 and he was a big joker. But this was something that you don’t joke about.

“I dressed and left the room and thought I’d see a war scenario. There was nothing. Outside apartment one I saw someone (a member of Black September) wearing what I thought was an Australian hat. He was talking to four of the unarmed village guards and a lady who said, ‘You must let the Red Cross in. Be humane.’ He replied. ‘The Jews are not humane.’ “

Somehow everyone in room two escaped unharmed. The Oscar-winning documentary about the massacre, “One Day in September,” claimed that athletes in room two were spared because the first hostage to be taken and killed – Weinberg – led the terrorists to the room where the weightlifters and wrestlers were: big men, who, he reasoned, might have a chance fighting off their attackers.

But Ladany disputes that, as the men had an intimate knowledge of the park, the athletes and the rooms.