Irrepressible Memories

In her second report from the Olympic city, Atlanta native Melissa Fay Greene, author of "Praying for Sheetrock" and "The Temple Bombing," reports on the memorial that the Olympic Committee refused to embrace.

Topics:

ATLANTA –
We passed through a series of checkpoints, a party-going summer-night crowd. Soldiers with walkie-talkies rummaged through our purses and camera-bags and studied our drivers’ license photos — not only, one felt, against enemies currently at large in the land, but retroactively, against historic enemies, including the ones whose murderous acts we’d come to mourn, the ones no soldiers and checkpoints had been set up to waylay.

The sun-glazed crowd in summer cotton, linen, and gold moved toward a white tent raised over a parking lot and greeted friends with the tactfully placed kisses of the socially skilled. The creme-de-la-creme of Atlanta Jewry had planned, funded, staged, and now attended this event to memorialize the 11 Israeli athletes killed by a Palestinian terrorist group at the 1972 Olympics in Munich and to welcome and honor their 14 grown children.

Also finding places on folding chairs under the tent were several members of the International Olympic Committee (though not President Juan Antonio Samaranch), members of the Georgia Congressional delegation, the 1996 Israeli Olympic team, and Gretel Bergman, the one-time European record-holding high-jumper from Germany, excluded from the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin because she was Jewish.

Beneath the words in memoriam murmured by rabbis and lay leaders, there was this complaint, this accusation — that the IOC projected a sanitized version of Olympic history by refusing to acknowledge publicly the terrible toll Israel alone had paid among the countries of the world: witnessing the slaughter of its Olympic delegation. This dark moment was not invoked during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, though Samaranch had led the slain athletes’ families to believe “something” would be done here. The service under the tent at the Atlanta Jewish Federation on Sunday night, within view of glittering downtown, was intended to repair, on a communal level, the neglect experienced on the international level.

But first, new business: “Let us rise and observe a moment of silence,” said Rabbi Arnold Goodman, “to mourn the murder of Alice Stubbs Hawthorne and the wounding of over a hundred people.” And as the crowd stood to grieve the deaths of the community leader and the death by heart attack of Turkish journalist Mehlih Uzonyol, they grieved as well for the shattered Olympics.



Within the promise and the joke of the Georgia Olympics, the “cracker Olympics,” the “Bubba-lympics,” was the hope that we could welcome the world “down-home.” We would entertain the arriving millions in their turbans and dashikis and keffiyahs on our front porches, tell them “hey y’all,” serve them grits, serenade them with banjos, and bed them down at night under the stars, to the sounds of crickets and cows and the scent of honeysuckle. We offered the world a peaceful visit to the country, and hoped Southern hospitality and Coca-Cola would make it happen.

But these are complicated times. The grits and the crickets and the fresh peaches are here in Atlanta, but so are metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, aerial police photography, surveillance cameras on telephone poles, and an ubiquitous military presence. All that was not even enough to prevent a terrorist attack. The sorrow of the past and the sorrow of the present mingled bitterly as we sat and faced the Israelis and heard their story.

In brief, it was this: at 4:30 in the morning of September 5, 1972, Israeli athletes and coaches were ambushed in their apartments in the Munich Olympic Village by members of Black September. Yoseph Gutfreund, the wrestling coach, tried to bar the door but was overwhelmed by eight attackers. Coaches Amizur Shapira, Andre Spitzer, and Kehat Shor and wrestling judge Yaacov Shpringer were tied up. Weight lifter Yoseph Romano was murdered. Wrestling
coach Moshe Weinberg entered the apartment, resisted, and was also killed.

West German authorities offered themselves in exchange for the Israeli hostages. Black September demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Prime Minister Golda Meir held to Israel’s policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt asked all competing countries to lower their flags to half-mast in recognition of the two athletes murdered; when 10 Arab nations objected, he withdrew the request.

At 10:20 p.m. nine Israeli hostages and eight terrorists were taken by bus to two helicopters and a 727 jet demanded by the terrorists to take them to Cairo. Ambushed by West German sharpshooters at the airport, the terrorists fought back for over an hour while the Israelis sat bound and blindfolded in the helicopters. Then a terrorist threw a grenade into one of the helicopters, killing five Israelis. Another terrorist stormed the other helicopter and shot the surviving four. When the gunfire ended, one policeman and five terrorists also were dead. The Olympic Games continued the following day.

“Even after 24 years we remember the massacre as if it happened yesterday,” said Oshrat Romano, a lovely slender young woman with long unruly hair, speaking in accented English. She addressed her father. “We all shudder that all of you were murdered on the altar of Olympic brotherhood.” She spoke of standing in the stadium at this year’s Opening Ceremony, waiting for the words that would somehow validate her unending sense of loss. “On this hundredth anniversary of the Olympic games, we felt the spirit of our fathers. We your children stood and remembered you, and felt your pride in us.” When their memory was not invoked by Samaranch, she said, weeping, it was as if the presence of the fathers dissipated.

“I was three weeks old when my father was killed,” said handsome Guri Weinberg. “I have walked through my life haunted ceaselessly by this terrible thing,” and he, too, began to cry. The others stood and lit memorial candles for Gutfreund, Romano, Shapira, Shor, Spitzer, Shpringer, and Weinberg; and then they lit candles for David Berger, Zeev Friedman, Eliezer Halfin, and Mark Slavin, who died young and unmarried, without children. Anouk Spitzer lit an eternal flame within a sculpture commissioned by the Atlanta Jewish community, which combined the Olympic rings with the inscribed names of the dead.

Mayor Bill Campbell spoke. “I’m here to say Kaddish [the mourner's prayer] with you tonight,” he said, “because no man is an island. In the words of Elie Wiesel, ‘What would the future of man be if we were devoid of memory?’ It is only the oppressor that benefits from silence,” said the mayor. “It is evil that thrives on silence, not good. No people can have a future without a past, not the Jewish people, not the African-American people. On behalf of the people of Atlanta, I want to thank you for kindling our memories.”

The question is, will the IOC thank the Jewish community for kindling these memories? Will President Samaranch find the opportunity at Closing Ceremonies to remember the Munich 11? To remember the two dead in Atlanta? Will the names of Alice Hawthorne and Mehlih Uzonyol be spoken and their memories carried forward in Olympic history, or is there only room in the collective memory for leaps and high jumps and laps and split-seconds? How can we have a full sense of human progress if milestones, however tragic, are not marked?

“This year, father,” spoke dark-eyed Oshrat Romano, “we witnessed Palestinian athletes marching under their own flag. We will combat terror together with them and not surrender to it.”

Memory first. Then progress.


Read Melissa Fay Greene’s first Olympics report.


Quote of the day

Having it both ways

“We can have both in America. We can have both right here in California. We don’t need to pit one against another. We can have both. We can have both — an Administration that wants to have both. If you don’t want to have both, you’re not going to have both.”


– Bob Dole, in Northern California, on having a strong economy and a safe environment at the same time. (From “Dole Finds Environment A Problem And an Issue,” in Tuesday’s New York Times).

Melissa Fay Greene is the author of "Praying for Sheetrock" and "The Temple Bombing" (Fawcett), both National Book Award finalists.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>