On September 6, 1972, at eight in the morning, Ankie Spitzer stood at the foot of the stairs and watched the trickling current of blood. The man by her side put a hand out and said, ‘Don’t go up there.’ But Spitzer, the Dutch-born wife of Israel’s Olympic fencing coach, who had given birth to their first daughter only three weeks earlier, wanted to see where her husband Andrei had spent his last hours on earth.
She walked up the stairs, alone, and looked into the dormitory room in the Olympic Village. This was where the athletes had been held. This was where Yossef Romano, an Israeli weightlifter, had been executed, his body brutalized as a warning. She opened the door.
‘They are a corrupt organization, led by greed,’ said Spitzer, noting that a great deal of funding comes from the oil-rich gulf states
“After looking at that room I said to myself, ‘If this is what happened to that peace-loving man, my husband, who wanted nothing more than to take part in the Olympics, then I will never shut up, never stop talking about the travesty to the Olympic ideals,’” she said.
The International Olympic Committee, while promoting peace and fraternity, also has a history of honoring the despicable. In 1936, some 11 months after the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, the committee allowed Hitler to host the Olympics in Berlin. In the 1980s, the committee bestowed its highest honor, the Olympic Order, on Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Erich Honecker of East Germany. In the 1990s, the committee welcomed Saddam Hussein’s psychopathic son, Uday, as the head of Iraq’s National Olympic Committee even though it was well-known that he regularly tortured and killed athletes who underperformed during the Games.
“They are a corrupt organization, led by greed rather than the Olympic spirit,” said Spitzer, noting that a great deal of funding comes from the oil-rich gulf states.
In 1972, during the second week of the Olympic Games, a Fatah terror group, operating under the name Black September, took 11 Israeli Olympians hostage. Two of the Israelis tried to resist and were killed in the dormitories on Connollystrasse 31; the other nine were executed at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield amid a bungled rescue operation.
The eight terrorists burst into the Israeli dorms — the only ones not marked by a flag — at 4:10 a.m.; the Games were only halted 12 hours later. The following day, once it had been revealed that all of the Israeli hostages had been killed, a memorial was held in the main stadium. During the ceremony, the Olympic flag was lowered to half-mast but, under threat of boycott, 10 Arab flags fluttered at full height. The first and only American IOC President, Avery Brundage, speaking in front of 80,000 people in the stadium, bemoaned the fact that the 20th Olympiad had “been the target of two terrible attacks because we have lost the struggle against political repression in the case of Rhodesia.” The emphasis was on the blow to the Games and not the people killed. He assured the crowd that, despite all, “The Games must go on!”
In 1976, at the Montreal Olympics, she said officials acknowledged the justness of her claims but told her that their ‘hands were tied’, citing the 21 Arab countries participating in the Games, all of which threatened to boycott.
Since then, Spitzer has led two crusades: to compel the German government to own up to its criminal negligence in the rescue, and to force the IOC to commemorate the Olympians within the framework of the Olympics.
In the first, she was largely successful. In 2003, after years of legal battles that she and Yossef Romano’s widow Elana waged, the families accepted a three-million-euro settlement out of court. Of the 25 remaining family members only Spitzer was opposed to accepting the compensation. In the end, though, she agreed, saying that the offer, which came to $115,000 per person and hardly covered legal costs, was at least proof of responsibility.
The second mission remains unfulfilled. Since Munich there have been private Israeli memorials at all of the Olympic Games except for Moscow in 1980. They have been held in a JCC in Atlanta, in the Israeli ambassador’s backyard in Athens, and in the Hilton Hotel in Beijing, among other places. IOC representatives attend but will not allow the memorials a toehold within the Olympics themselves. This summer, during the London Games, the August 6 memorial will be held far from the Olympic grounds, in Guildhall.
In a campaign launched by the Rockland, NY JCC and championed by Spitzer, over 90,000 signatures have called for a moment of silence during the opening ceremony on July 27. The initiative has garnered the support of the German Bundestag, the Canadian House of Commons, the US Senate and the Australian House of Representatives. And yet, in late May, the Belgian IOC President Jacques Rogge announced that “The IOC has officially paid tribute to the memory of the athletes on several occasions,” and would not do so in London. The IOC has not changed its position since.
The reluctance, Spitzer said, has nothing to do with protocol. In Vancouver, Nodar Kumaritashvili, the luger who died in a practice run, was remembered during the Games. In Salt Lake City, in 2002, a tattered American flag from the World Trade Center was marched to the podium in silence by athletes and police officers during the opening ceremony.
“I have to call the baby by its name,” Spitzer said, “the IOC’s refusal is pure discrimination.” Equal parts “greed and anti-Semitism,” she added.
Spitzer knows Rogge personally. They speak the same language and have been in touch for years. She has made her case to him repeatedly, stating that her husband and others were not “accidental tourists” but rather Olympians, who were killed as Olympians, and deserve to be remembered as such.
In 1976, at the Montreal Olympics, she said officials acknowledged the justness of her claims but told her that their “hands were tied,” citing the 21 Arab countries participating in the Games, all of which threatened to boycott. This year, when she approached Rogge, he said there were now 46 Arab and Muslim countries and that his hands were really tied. “No,” she shot back, “my husband’s hands were tied, not yours.”
The Road to the Olympics
Spitzer does not hold Israeli citizenship. She was born in The Hague to a father who later served as The Netherlands’ state comptroller. During her teens and early twenties she traveled, spending time in Australia and Canada and studying French Literature at the Sorbonne. In 1968, like so many young Europeans, she came to
Israel to work on a kibbutz. She wanted to experience egalitarianism firsthand and to help build a fledging country. She wanted to drive a tractor and pick oranges. Instead, in Kibbutz Ramat David, she found herself relegated to the kitchen, peeling onions that had been imported from Holland.
Back at home she took up fencing. Before long she found herself in the national fencing academy in The Hague. The fencing coach was a dark-haired taskmaster. He spoke Dutch and she figured he was “from the Balkans or something.” During one long and demanding session, a Hebrew word of frustration came to her lips. “Maspik,” she yelled, “enough.”
Andrei Spitzer, Israel’s top fencing coach, looked up and smiled and invited her to lunch. Soon after that, they were living together and the following year she was on her way to Israel. “All because of the word maspik,” she said.
They moved to the Olympic training village in Biranit, along the Lebanese border. In Holland people had warned her that there was nothing there: no concert hall, no movie house, no grocery. “And yet it was the loveliest year of my life. I would have gone to the end of the world to be with him.”
She fenced in the morning and rode horses in the afternoon. In the summer of 1972, she gave birth to a baby girl named Anouk.
Two weeks later the Munich Olympics began.
Andrei flew to Munich with the rest of the delegation. Ankie went to Holland, put the baby in her parents’ care, and continued on to Germany.
They rented an apartment near the Olympic Village. During the day she breezed into the village through the exit lane. “They are German,” she said. “The exit is for leaving and the entrance is for coming in. No one checked the exit. If someone asked, I would say guten tag and breeze right in.”
This, of course, was an omen of things to come. But at the time they were riveted by the fanfare and camaraderie of the Games.
The Munich Olympics, meant to erase the memory of the 1936 Berlin Games, were known as the Olympics of Peace and Joy. Even the police wore what Spitzer called “cute little jump suits.”
Nights, they went to Munich’s beer halls, and during the days Andrei mingled with the international athletes and coached his fencers. Only after all of his events were over did Ankie tell him that her brother, a pediatrician, had taken Anouk to the hospital for observation because she had been crying continuously.
Andrei insisted that they leave at once. They stopped first at Dachau concentration camp, a mandatory part of the Israeli delegation’s schedule, and then hitchhiked from Munich to the Dutch border, where they were stopped, as they knew they would be, because Andrei did not have a passport. He was traveling on a group document along with the rest of the Israeli Olympic delegation. Ankie called her father, the diplomat, who pulled the necessary strings and had them admitted to the country.
They spent the next two days in the hospital. When the doctors assured them that their daughter would be fine, Ankie drove Andrei to the train station. He had only received two days leave from the head of the delegation. Already on the way, Andrei demanded that Ankie return to the hospital so that he could kiss Anouk one more time. She said no, there was no time. He insisted, and missed the train. “But then I drove like mad for around 30 kilometers ” Ankie said, and she managed to deliver Andrei to the next station just as the train was leaving. Andrei caught it at a run and pried the old metal doors open.
That was the last time she saw him.
Andrei Spitzer arrived at the Olympic Village in the middle of the night and found the Israeli quarters deserted. The rest of the delegation had gone to see a rendition of Fiddler on the Roof. He called Ankie on the phone and they spoke before drifting off to sleep.
Several hours earlier, at midnight, eight Palestinian terrorists met at Munich’s central train station. They were given weapons and red track suits and told the particulars of their mission. At 4:10 a.m. they arrived at Gate 25A and helped a few drunk American athletes over the low fence. Then they walked over to the Israeli dorms and pulled AK-47s from their gym bags.
By the time Ankie Spitzer’s parents came into her childhood bedroom in The Hague, Moshe Weinberg, a young wrestling coach, and Yossef Romano, a Libyan-born weightlifter, had been shot and killed. The eight other members of the delegation, including her husband, had been bound and gagged and were under the armed guard of the terrorists.
In the afternoon, Ankie received a call from prime minister Golda Meir. ‘She told me they would not negotiate with terror.’
Both of Ankie’s parents came into her room to wake her. This was unusual. “Then they asked me how many people there were in the delegation and who was the boxing coach.”
She jumped out of bed, told them there was no boxing coach, and ran into the living room, where the TV and radio were on. Moshe Weinberg’s body was splayed outside the door of the Israeli dorms. ABC News coverage informed her of the terrorists’ demands: they wanted 234 terrorists freed, including Kozo Okamoto, of Japan, as well as Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof of West Germany. The group calling itself Black September — a front for Fatah, reportedly headed by Abu-Iyad, a deputy to Arafat — said it would execute a hostage every hour beginning at 9 a.m.
The leader of the group, Muhammad Massalhah, went by the codename Issa — Jesus in Arabic.
In the afternoon, Ankie received a call from prime minister Golda Meir. “She told me they would not negotiate with terror. I asked why not? And she said, ‘If we give in to their demands, no Jew will be safe anywhere in the world.’”
Time began to move in a haze. Her mother would put food in front of her and then remove it. Coffee would appear and disappear. Her eyes were fixed on the screen.
Amazingly, throughout the morning, the IOC refused to stop the Games. And so, while Ankie Spitzer sat in her living room, feeling “that a little bit of me was dying,” Japan played West Germany in volleyball.
The Games were stopped at 4 p.m. A few minutes later Ankie saw her husband on TV. He was pushed to the second floor window. Without his glasses, in his undershirt, he answered one question and was then hit in the back of the head with a rifle and dragged away — he had begun to say that one of his teammates was lying dead on the floor.
What followed were six hours of cruel incompetence. A rescue team climbed onto the roof of the hostages’ dorms and only then realized they were on live TV; the athletes and the terrorists were airlifted to the airport, where the five German sharpshooters realized there were eight terrorists; the 17 West German police officers waited on the plane the terrorists had ordered, dressed as pilots and stewards, but then took a vote 15 minutes before the terrorists arrived and decided to abort the mission, filing off the plane in unison; the sharpshooters had no night vision devices and no walkie-talkies; the armed personnel carriers were stuck in Munich traffic; the police officers never stormed the terrorists and, after more than an hour of exchanging fire, the terrorists executed the Israeli hostages. They were seated in two helicopters, bound and tied together. One of them died from smoke inhalation; the rest from rifle fire and a grenade that was lobbed into one of the helicopters.
In her parents’ house, though, Ankie, surrounded by her siblings and family, heard government spokesman Conrad Ahlers say that he had good news: all of the terrorists had been killed; all of the Israelis had been freed.
Her father opened a big bottle of champagne. Ankie told everyone in the room to wait: “We’ll know he’s okay when he calls me,” she said.
Shortly before three in the morning, as Aaron J. Klein wrote in “Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response”, prime minister Meir received a call from Mossad head Zvi Zamir. She had gone to sleep after hearing the good news from West Germany. Zamir, however, had witnessed the tragic events. He was calling the prime minister from the Olympic Village. “Golda, I have bad news,” he said. “We just returned from the airport, all nine were killed… not one was saved.” She said she had heard that they were all safe. “I saw it with my own eyes,” Zamir said. “No one was left alive.”
At 3:20 a.m., Ankie Sptizer, still seated in front of the TV, heard Jim McKay deliver the awful news to the world: “‘They are all gone,’ he said, I remember him saying those words.”
She was 26 years old at the time. Since then, she has married and divorced and had three more children. She has sued the German government and, as a journalist for Dutch TV, interviewed Yasser Arafat and spent two nights with him and his wife Suha in their Gaza home. She has interviewed the widow of Abu-Jihad, the PLO second in command, who was killed, allegedly by Israeli troops, in his home in Tunis. His wife sobbed; Spitzer kept her professional poise. And most recently, this past Thursday, she married off her eldest daughter, Andrei’s daughter, Anouk, in the backyard of her Ramat Hasharon home.
“I’ve lived a wonderful life. I am not bitter. I am not eaten up from the inside. But,” she said of her quest to have the IOC publicly embrace the Israeli Olympians, “justice has to be done.”