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.


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.

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