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Israeli, German presidents commemorate 50 years since Munich Olympics massacre

German government offers apology for the way the country handled the disaster, opens avenue for official, objective inquiry

Israeli President Isaac Herzog with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the 50th anniversary memorial for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Sep. 5, 2022 (Photo: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

The presidents of Israel and Germany came together to mark 50 years since the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, in which Palestinian terrorist group Black September took hostage and murdered 11 Israeli athletes, their staff and a German police officer. 

The commemoration event took place at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, a former German Air Force base near Munich where the original tragedy occurred. Last Wednesday, the German government also agreed to a long-awaited compensation agreement for the bereaved families, following threats to boycott the ceremony by relatives.

On Sept. 5, 1972, eight PLO terrorists entered a poorly secured Olympic Village in Munich and broke into the apartment that housed the Israeli Olympic delegation. 

Weightlifter Yossef Romano tried to bar the terrorists’ entry, but the invaders opened fire with automatic weapons, murdering Romano and wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, and taking nine others hostage. The nine hostages, as well as a German policeman, died during a bungled rescue attempt at the airport the following day. Five of the eight terrorists were also killed.

“For us, as a people and as a country, this massacre has always been a national disaster,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the commemoration event. “They were brutally murdered in cold blood by a Palestinian terror organization just because they were Jews; just because they were Israelis. This brutal and barbaric massacre, which ended the lives of eleven Israeli athletes and one German policeman, was a momentous human tragedy in which the values of morality and justice were trampled; human dignity was erased; all semblance of humanity, lost. It was the moment the Olympic torch was snuffed.”

As recently as a week ago, dissatisfied with Berlin’s previous compensation offer to the victims’ families, the relatives had threatened to boycott the ceremony. Only last Wednesday, an agreement was reached, with the German government offering 28 million euros (approx. $28 million) and a first-time acknowledgment of the failings that led to the Israelis’ deaths. 

At the commemoration, Herzog thanked German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier for his efforts toward compensating the families. 

“The future of human society depends on us sanctifying the good and at the same time, repudiating and vanquishing evil,” Herzog said. “The decision to take responsibility for the failures surrounding and following the massacre, to allow for an objective and rigorous inquiry, and to compensate the victims’ families is part of that sanctification of the good and triumph over evil. It represents, half a century later, an important step of morality and justice for the victims, for the families, and for history itself.”

Steinmeier noted Sunday, at a state banquet held for the Israeli president at Bellevue Palace, it was “shameful” that it had taken the German government so long to reach an agreement with the victims’ families.

“Part of our responsibility as Germans is to shed light on the many unresolved issues, the blind spots of the attack in Munich – and also the blind spots in how we have dealt with the attack since then,” he said. 

“For far too long, we have refused to acknowledge the pain of the bereaved,” he said, adding, “And for far too long, we have not wanted to acknowledge that we also bear our share of responsibility. It was up to us to ensure the safety of the Israeli athletes.”

Speaking to the Funke newspaper group ahead of Monday’s ceremony, Germany’s official in charge of fighting anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, said it was “time for an apology.”

Over the years the Munich massacre victims’ relatives worked hard to obtain an official apology from Germany, to gain access to official papers and to receive greater compensation than the 4.5 million euros that had been offered to the families of the 11 slain, according to the AFP. Herzog noted that they simply “hit a wall” whenever they tried to raise the issue with Germany or even with the International Olympic Committee.

“I think there was tragic suppression here,” he said, noting a list of failings that were “inhuman and incomprehensible,” such as “the fact that the hostages were being led to slaughter and the Games went on.”

After an initial suspension, then-IOC president Avery Brundage had said, “the Games must go on.”

Ankie Spitzer, the widow of fencing coach Andre Spitzer, who was taken hostage, then killed, told AFP, “I came home with the coffins after the massacre. You don’t know what we’ve gone through for the past 50 years.” 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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