Munich Matters

When Dan Alon approached me to write the harrowing tale of his freakishly miraculous escape from the Munich Massacre, I was drawn to the tale for its depiction of the process of survival.  I had grown up in a family of traumatized escapees from disaster and holocaust, and none of them ever found the vehicle that could deliver them from their ghosts.  I was honored to offer my services to help build the transport for Dan’s journey.

At the time, I thought that my agenda would include an expression of compassion for the Palestinians.  I was emotionally conflicted about Israel.  While I understood the extreme importance of a Jewish homeland, I agreed with a close friend of mine, who used to joke that “They could ‘a’ just given us Miami.”

Frankly, Israel embarrassed me.  My grandfather had coerced my mother into abandoning her dream of making Aliyah (moving to Palestine) in 1939, and he often compared Zionists to all the other Europeans who had grabbed land from indigenous peoples around the world.  I believed that Israel should be forced to give back lands confiscated in the 1967 War, that Israel should take a more conciliatory stance.

 My point of view clouded my perception of the Munich Massacre.  Of course I never would have blamed the athletes for what happened, but I believed, like most Americans, that by disenfranchising the Palestinians and by discriminating against them, Israel was to blame by putting the athletes in harm’s way.

I was committed to sharing Dan’s as a cautionary tale — watch out, world because this could happen again, and watch out, individuals, you could survive, and then you will realize that living through the ordeal was the easy part of it all.  But I hadn’t considered the event’s other, more layered, implications.

That there is no excuse for what happened in Munich is self-evident.  A vile act of terrorism that usurped the sanctity of the Olympic arena and took eleven fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, nephews, cousins, friends from their loved ones cannot be justified or excused.  The athletes were non-combatants, and their deaths were pointless wastes of fine lives.

Eleven athletes killed at Furstenfeldbruck Airport on September 5,1972

The world clambered to give the terrorists the attention they sought.  The masked murderers of Black September became fixtures on nearly every television set in the world, and when all was said and done, they were hardly so much as chastised.  Until Mossad unleashed Operation Wrath of God, no real action was taken to so much as censure the perpetrators of the heinous violence; the Olympic Games themselves refused to skip a beat, carrying on as though nothing were amiss while half the hostages were strapped into helicopter seats and strafed with machine gun fire and the other half obliterated with an exploding grenade.

 The message was clear.  We may say the Olympics are on sacred ground.  We may pay lip service to the precept that the Games are separate from the world of politics, but Israeli journalist Yarin Kimor was right when he pointed out that “The minute you raise a flag, it’s all about politics.”  It was politically safer, more expedient for the IOC and world law enforcement agencies to just let this one go.  It was too highly charged an issue.  Take sides, and you rock the boat.  Instead, eleven athletes were sacrificed.  Nothing was really gained by the terrorists; the following year, perhaps spurred on by the Munich tragedy, the world — including the US, who had promised to defend its ally Israel — watched in silent complicity as Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the highest, holiest day of their year. . . just as they had stood silently by in the 1930’s, when everyone knew what the Nazis were perpetrating against the Jewish people.  Once again, the nations of the world stood by in hushed complacency and did nothing to lend a hand.  In the peace negotiations that followed, however, the US took the role of “peacemaker” and threatened sanctions should the Israelis prove less than propitiatory.

The world seems to believe that Israel is expendable.  Few seem to remember that less than 3/4 of a century ago, six million Jews died because they were unwelcome in the diaspora.  There was no safe haven then.  Even France, the country that first afforded citizenship to the wandering Jew, turned them out or fed them to the ruthless Nazi killing machinery; the US, my own beloved country where so many believe Jews to be firmly ensconced, denied entry to millions, despite the absolute knowledge that such denial meant certain torture and death to the shunned minions.

And there was no safe haven for the others who fell, like domino pieces, when no force prevented forfeiture of the Jews.  Hatred swallowed up great numbers of Poles, gypsies, unmarried professional women, gays, physically and mentally challenged citizens, Catholic priests, et cetera ad infinitum.

Where will they all go the next time they are so endangered?
 Forty years after Munich, the IOC continues to give tacit approval to the terror they allowed to happen.  Yet another Olympic Games will begin without the simple Moment of Silence the victims’ families have consistently sought.  The Arab nations call for the expulsion of Israel from the Games, and the IOC gives the same attention to that demand as they do to the request for the single minute of remembrance, a minute that says without words, “We are truly sorry.  What happened here was despicable, and we will never let another athlete on any team be treated this way under our watch again.”

Worse, the world looks on bemusedly when Australian swimmers post photos of themselves going to the Olympics carrying, of all things, machine guns.  Perhaps they are harmless idiots, these Aussies, but the message of the photo’s reception is that it’s okay to treat the massacre’s remaining family and friends as well as the athlete survivors with abject insensitivity.  The world shook its head and tsikatched at the boys, but there was no statement from the IOC that what they had done was intolerable, that no such behavior would be conscienced.

Munich Memoir: Dan Alon’s Untold Story of Survival is a first hand account of what it was like to be at the games when his friends, teammates, countrymen were taken and slain.  It reminds us how easily a tragedy can happen in a garden of peace and love.  It reminds us that we are all vulnerable, all candidates to stand one day as Dan did, in shoeless, shocked disbelief while people we care about are simply erased by others with a savage agenda.

It reminds us that we cannot ignore history.  It will not go away.  Let it be our teacher!

Surviving Survival

After the end of the world
After death
I found myself in the midst of life
Creating myself
Building life

      Tadeuz Rozewicz, After the End of the World 

Surviving a tragedy only the beginning of a near-daunting struggle; in fact, the survival itself just may be the easiest part of the ordeal.

My mother, who survived the deaths of two siblings and a nephew, carried her burden to the grave, never really working through the emotions. She subjugated her feelings of inadequacy and guilt to the responsibilities of daughterhood, sisterhood and motherhood but remained ever damaged, always skittish.  The wounded look in her eyes shone brightly in her proudest, happiest moments.  I learned a lot about the process of perseverance and the danger of avoidance from her; I also learned to listen more acutely and to empathize. As a result, I was always attracted to survivors’ stories, compelled to explore and write about them.

 In 2003, my friend Belle married Maurice Cohen, a self-proclaimed Israeli spy and Mossad agent.  Maurice asked me to write his story, about his relationship to his brother Eli Cohen, Israel’s most famous spy, a Syrian Jew who had infiltrated the Syrian government and assumed the powerful position of Chief Advisor to the Minister of Defense, divining critical information and transmitting it to the Israeli government.

Credited with having gathered information that eventually saved Israel and facilitated the country’s victory in the 1967 War, Eli was, of course, caught. In May of 1965, he was hanged in Damascus in an execution that was televised all over the Middle East, leaving a devastated widow and three small children; Maurice was left holding a memory of concealment.  Before his brother was captured, Maurice had discerned the secret of his brother’s undercover identity but had told no one.  Maurice spent the rest of his life (he died in 2004) regretting his supposition that by failing to disclose what he knew he had somehow contributed to Eli’s death. (The article, published in Moment Magazine, is archived here on this blog.)

For years, Maurice carried what he believed to be his dirty little secret, the proof of what he perceived as his own cowardice.  When he and I began to write the story together he began to muster self-forgiveness, and as his burden lightened, he needed to tell more and more people.  When he died, we were about to embark on the writing of his book.

While Maurice and I collaborated long distance, I went to Cannes for Festival du Film, hoping to sell a screenplay.  While I was there, I became friends with Michel Shane, who had among his many credits that he was Executive Producer of the film version of Catch Me If You Can.  He and I talked about Maurice’s story often.  Like me, he came from a family that predisposed him to taking special interest in and a feeling deep empathy for survivors of cataclysmic events.  We could not have known then how his life would turn him into a survivor; he was a powerful cheerleader, a hearty advocate, and when Fencer Dan Alon was looking for a writer to chronicle his harrowing path to victory over despair, it was Michel who recommended me for the job.

Dan Alon was born in Israel in 1943, the son of survivors who had emigrated from Hungary and Austria to settle in Palestine.  His father had been a freedom fighter, and Israel’s partition in 1948 was as much a victory for the family as it was for the nation.  But in order to achieve that triumph, Dan’s father had had to forego his dreams of competing as a fencer in the Olympic Games.  The dream was passed on to Dan, along with the talent for swordplay.

In 1972, after years of preparation and sacrifice on his family’s part to get him there, Dan qualified for the Munich Games.  Alon, his coach and best friend Andrei Spitzer and one other fencer arrived in Munich a week before the games to spar with the German National team, an honor conferred on very few competitors.  When they checked in to the Olympic Village, Dan unwittingly saved his own life while Spitzer equally unwittingly sacrificed his by choosing their separate rooms.  When the Black September terrorists invaded the peace of the athletes’ compound, they overlooked the five men in the apartment Dan chose and went directly to the one Spitzer shared with the other coaches.

For thirty-four years, Dan was unable to talk about his experience.  He could not and would not quantify his pain.  He simply forged ahead, delving into the various activities that replaced fencing in his life.  Then, in 2004, chance and Stephen Spielberg took him to Oxford University, where, at a screening of Munich, Dan’s son had told the rabbi there that his father had survived the Massacre.  Like most people, the rabbi had not realized anyone had lived through it, and he immediately  invited Dan to Oxford to share his tale.  From that moment, Dan was encouraged to find a writer and record the journey for posterity, a process that has finally freed his soul and taught him how to breathe again. (http://munichmemoir.daptd.com/)

After a number of starts and stops, Dan and I finally published our book on May 24, 2012, and in the intervening years, Michel himself has become a survivor of the worst tragedy imaginable: the violent, sudden death of a child.

In April 2010, Michel’s youngest daughter Emily was blissfully returning home from school, when she was struck and killed by a suicidal driver.  The past two years have been hellish for Michel and his family, and some peace was finally affected in May of this year, when the driver was convicted of murder.  All along, Michel and his brave wife and two remaining daughters have carried on with grace.  They established the Emily Shane Foundation, which celebrates Emily’s optimism and commitment to kindness and joy (http://www.emilyshane.org/) by encouraging people, in Emily’s name, to make the world a better place one action at a time.  Emily’s loving, generous nature lives on on that website, dancing to the song that plays a hopefully plaintive tune, asking merely that we “do it with love.”

 Surviving is horrific; carrying on, actively and emphatically participating in life afterward is beyond courageous.  Committing to life even when it begs to be rejected . . . that’s inspirational.