11 Israeli Heroes: We Cannot Forget
By Zaq Harrison
I grew up like most boys in the US playing sports. I still love to play and compete. When my kids were old enough I couldn’t wait to help coach their teams. I enjoyed it so much I continued coaching after they were done. This is my story of how a moment in sports history changed my life.
I lived in the small Appalachian town Williamsport, PA, the birthplace of Little League. It was August 1972, the Olympic Games were on. What a thrill to see the world on parade right in my living room. So many sports, many I knew nothing about and some I couldn’t take my eyes off especially swimming. I loved baseball but I was a swimmer. I was a fish and loved competing. I had a new “idol.”
Mark Spitz, the new King of the sports world. Spitz was the trifecta - #1 the greatest athlete on the planet, #2 a swimmer and #3 most importantly he was Jewish. Just like me. My own Jewish Superhero. The joke in our small community was after Spitz won those medals it was said the last Jew that had this much gold was King David.
As a child I heard the stories about the war and the death camps. Mom’s family wasn’t far removed from Europe, the ones who left before the war lived the ones who didn’t perished. My father was in the US infantry under Patton. Pop lived through Bastogne, he crossed the Rhine and helped liberate a slave labor camp in Eggin on the way to Frankfurt.
But summer 1972 was a new day in Germany. The Nazis were gone and the superstar of these games was Jewish. Here in the very same place where Hitler hosted the 1936 games. This was too good to be true.
God has a sense of humor my mother said.
September 4th. We watched at home when Jim McKay broke the story on ABC Sports.
The initial reports of terrorists taking Israeli Olympians hostage. Then fear as the story dragged on. I was glued to the TV. The Israelis were held hostage in the Olympic Village, in their suite at 31 Connelystrausse.
What was going on? Why was this happening? Terrorists live on my TV.
Mr. McKay seemed to have stayed on non-stop from the beginning until the end.
At one point I looked over at my parents, I saw something different in their eyes. The Munich Games were not that far removed from the war years for them. They knew this wouldn’t end well.
I looked and looked at the TV screen through my eight year old eyes. This just didn’t seem right. A year before the Munich games we travelled to Israel for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. My father gave us a very strong Jewish Identity in an Appalachia that wasn’t always kind. It was important to him that we see certain things through his eyes and his heart.
The Israel I experienced then was full of people that were tough as nails. The heavy security at the airport was still fresh as was the memory of the soldiers with rifles in the streets during our visit. They were so tough even the girls had Uzis. But this was the Olympics, sports. I knew something was wrong on TV but I just didn’t understand. It felt like ketchup on ice cream.
I am one of those guys who doesn’t cry much. The birth of my children and the death of my father. In 1939 my father just missed being part of the very first Little League. Sports was a constant in my relationship with my father.
In 2006 I found myself living in Israel and the Manager of the Israeli National Little League Team. That summer in a small town in the Czech Republic we were set to march in the opening ceremonies of the European Championships.
We entered the stadium to the sound of the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah, The Hope. I stood next to our 2nd baseman, my son, tears poured from my heart and down my cheeks. It was all coming back to me.
Copyright © Photo by Getty Images
In August 1972 during the opening ceremonies, just miles from the infamous Dachau concentration camp, the Israeli Olympic delegation had marched into the Stadium in Munich also with Hatikvah playing. Marching into their stadium just like I was marching into mine.
In Munich they all knew what it meant to be able to walk behind the Israeli flag.
None of them could have imagined what was to happen. Man plans, God laughs. I never knew how much Munich had affected me.
During the lead up to the baseball tournament I assigned the players a project. They drew lots and were each given an envelope with the name of a world class Jewish athlete who had made sacrifices but never compromised their identity.
I included the Munich 11. The kids were to research their athlete on the internet and write a one page bio on what made their athlete special. Wikipedia was the first place they looked. I found out later that only two, David Berger and Andre Shpitzer, were listed.
I arranged during our meals at the tournament for the kids, eleven and twelve year olds, to give a short talk about “their athlete.” Many of the parents had traveled to the tournament and were visibly moved by what the kids wrote. One by one they took their turn. When the last presentation was completed I finally stood and spoke. As their manager I was so proud in their children’s accomplishments on the field, we got the bronze, we were 3rd in all of Europe, our best ever. I wasn’t done.
I then told the parents about the contributions off the field. I wanted them to know that as a team we updated Wikipedia to include the biographies of all of the men. A small gesture but now anyone in the world could look up the Munich 11 on Wikipedia and learn who they were. These kids with a few simple keystrokes made sure we’d never forget.
Third place in Europe was amazing, 1st place in life is forever. Through sports these kids had made a difference.
As our trip in Czech wound to an end I bid goodbye to the team as my son and I took the short flight to Munich. The Olympic grounds are still impressive. The pool where Mark Spitz electrified the world is still amazing. We walked and walked eventually we found our way to where the Olympic Village once stood. 31 Connelystrausse. I was shaking.
There on the building was the only physical reminder of what happened. Written in Hebrew on a small plaque were the names of the Munich 11. I leaned forward, I put my hand out. I touched the plaque and for a brief moment the soul of an eight year old boy. I brought my hand back and kissed it gently. I was standing with my son on hallowed ground. My journey from Williamsport to Israel to Czech and then Munich. This was my ground zero, where my childhood ended. And where sport transcended the arena.
After the tournament I read that Jim McKay was in declining health. I wrote his son asking him to thank his father for the heartfelt reporting during the event that changed my life. I shared my story of the baseball team in Czech, of Wikipedia and wished his father well. I received a touching letter in return. We exchanged short notes when his father passed in 2008 and again when my father passed in 2009.
As an 8 year old sitting in Williamsport heroes in sports won races, hit home runs, ran for touchdowns. As an adult, I have a better understanding what a hero really is.
Yosef Gutfreund used his massive body to block the door, screaming to his teammates to flee.
Several teammates were able to escape. Later Moshe Weinberg and Yosef Romano attacked the terrorists so their teammates could escape were heroic, both paid with their lives.
In my heart the real heroes in the world of sports are Moshe Weinberg, Yosef Romano and the 9 other teammates who died in Munich. We say their names out loud, something spoken is not forgotten.
Moshe Weinberg - Yosef Ramano - Ze’ev Friedman - Yosef Gutfreund - David Berger - Yakov Springer - Eliezer Halfin - Kehat Shorr - Mark Slavin- Andre Spitzer - Amitzur Shapira
I’ve seen plenty of amazing moments on TV - Willis Reed, Franco Harris, Dr J & Carlton Fisk in their immortal moments. I’ve seen others live - an epic Rose Bowl - McGwire’s 62nd – An NCAA Final - The Bartman game.
There has only ever been one experience that changed my life. A ball wasn’t thrown, a race wasn’t won and my team didn’t win the championship. I wanted to be an Olympian. Just like Mark Spitz.
I was eight when that dream died that September day along with a small part of my soul. I mourned as best as any eight year old could.
If I close my eyes right now I see Jim Mckay’s face. I remember how terrible he looked. I hear his voice like he’s standing next to me. I still cry, I’ve always cried when I hear his voice or read the words he spoke:
"When I was a kid, my father used to say "Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized." Our worst fears have been realized tonight.
They've now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone.” Jim McKay, ABC Sports, September 5th 1972
On TV we saw the 11 Israeli flags, each white, two blue stripes and a blue Star of David, hugging those 11 simple pine boxes.
In September 1972 I made a promise to myself that my 11 heroes from Munich did not die in vain.
Zaq Harrison has taken his commitment to the memory of the Munich 11 and created http://wecannotforget.com/, an interactive program focusing on dilemmas, choices and heroism.
More on Munich:
Times Of Israel