If I ever resented Dan Alon, it was because I failed him in a number of ways. Never deliberately, never with malice. I failed him by allowing myself to be cowed by the force of his persona. But I loved him almost from the moment I met him, when I recognized on him the mark of the survivor.
By the time I met Dan, a secret had been twisting inside him for nearly thirty-four years. Anyone who knew him knew he had been on the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Games in 1972. Anyone who stopped to consider would know he had survived the massacre. But as often happens with survivors, who walk away unscathed, his experience was of no consequence to anyone. He harbored a clandestine self-loathing, a remorse that he had not taken action against the terrorists who killed his eleven teammates. He felt dead inside. In truth, though he was hardly able to admit it to himself, he wished he had died.
All this he told me the first time I met him. At the behest of a mutual friend, a filmmaker who had read a story I had written for a former Massad agent, Dan came to the US from Tel Aviv to interview me. The film Munich returned the Munich Massacre to public consciousness, and Dan had recently been convinced to share his story as a cautionary tale. He was ready to broaden his audience, to make it available to the world at large. For that he needed a book.
In the first minutes, we established a kinship. His father had run from the growing darkness of anti-Semitism in Hungary to Zagreb, where he had been part of the Jabotinsky Youth movement. My mother, who was nearly the same age as his father, had lived in Zagreb until her family fled, and she, too, was a Jabotinsky follower. My mother’s father forced her to abandon her Zionist dream and come to America. Dan’s father went to Israel and joined the Ir Gun.
Dan could see that having been my mother’s first child, having watched her grow into her ability to share her experience, I knew a little something about what he felt. We talked about the way in which a survivor becomes a member of the walking dead. We talked about the way guilt and sadness block out all other feelings. Despite his great love for his wife and children, he had felt emotionally constipated. By sharing the story, he said, and by feeling that it was a worthwhile tale, he was reborn.
We worked for four years to finish the book. In the end, I should have hired insisted we hire an editor. I would have liked it to have been so much better than it was. Further, I failed to get Dan to open up and disclose the enormity of the self-deprecation, of the imposter anxiety that darkened his life, took him out of fencing, nearly usurped all his happinesses. He would not allow me to write about those, but those, I believed, would have served his audiences at least as much as the details of his escape and re-entry into the world.
He was a frustrating taskmaster. I knew I was right. But I didn’t know how to win the arguments. He paid me. He paid for all aspects of the publishing. He was in charge. I had no leverage. But it was clear to me I should fight. My acquiescence to his intensely masculine insistence that he control every word cost the book some integrity.
No matter. From 2005 until last year, Dan traveled doggedly around the world, sharing his tale with school groups and Synagogue elders, with athletes and intellectuals. On several occasions, we spoke together.
In March of 2015, he came to NY, and we appeared at a Chabad convocation on the upper west side together. He was already looking ill, and he was re-experiencing some of the PTSD symptoms that had abated. He told me he was tired. “You,” he said, “should be doing these appearances instead of me. I can’t do this traveling. It’s too much.” But whenever he was invited, Dan went. Even as his health was deteriorating.
In November of 2016, we were invited to be on a panel moderated by Bob Costas in a program called Torch Talks, a benefit for the Gerrard Berman Day School in New Jersey. Along with an auspicious complement of experts, we discussed the lessons of Munich. The evening was a tremendous success. Dan was exhausted.
Soon after, I was invited to interview Dan in Turks & Caicos, at an event sponsored by the Chabad rabbi there. The entire population of the islands was invited, and the rabbi succeeded in bringing a large, diverse audience to the hall for two sold-out presentations. The second was an especially brilliant last appearance for Dan. When the audience stood at the end of the talk, they stood with love and admiration for the hero he was.
A hero who was seriously ill. Who probably should not have made the trip. I asked if he had seen a doctor. “I have.” He sputtered. “He’s an idiot.” Dan was certain that the preliminary diagnosis of stomach cancer was a mistake, that the doctor was ignorant. His wife Adele, who had accompanied him on this trip, is a nurse. She shook her head. She knew the truth.
Despite the pain in his belly, despite the fact that his body was shrinking rapidly out of his clothing, despite his overwhelming fatigue, Dan’s message made its mark. After he wept through the details of his ordeal at Munich, he spoke of the need for tolerance, for understanding, for a spirit of community to replace the divisions that create enmities. His very presence was proof that in the aftermath of great disaster, human beings can rebuild and recommit to living. “You go on,” he said. “You prevail. That is your victory.”
Heroism is often defined as something grand like standing up to a despot or dashing into a burning building to save a neighbor’s cat. But true heroism is also quiet, introspective. It’s the resolve to make a life that matters, to give back to the world for the gifts it has doled out. Dan appreciated his renaissance. He knew how very lucky he was and never took that for granted. He carried the enormous burden of Munich wherever he went, and he showed his gratitude by teaching us all how to live with dignity.