Impressions of Munich
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Impressions of Munich

After a day spent looking at the site of the Olympic massacre, a visitor thinks about terror and forgiveness

The outside of the Olympic Village in Munich  as it looks today. (Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner)
The outside of the Olympic Village in Munich as it looks today. (Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner)

As a sports lover, Zionist and historian, I have been fixated on the Olympic terror of 1972. For years, I have had a yearning – an almost inexplicable need – to witness the sites of these terrible things that happened to Olympians. Reading about it was not enough.

So this summer, near what would be the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, I booked a flight and went to Munich for one night, two days. Just me, travelling light, with a knapsack and a camera and a journal.

I went from the airport directly to the former Olympic Village, which looks identical to the historical pictures and old film footage. The building, on Conollystrasse, is nondescript save for a cascading façade with concrete balcony ledges and recessed windows. I parked underground on Conollystrasse, where two Israeli athletes who heard gunshots ran into the dark garage, escaping the horror that followed.

I made my way up the flights of stairs from the garage to 31, the building that housed the Israeli athletes. Today, it is a dormitory for the Max Planck Institute, which, ironically, teaches about social and behavioral sciences.

I was able to charm my way in to peek in the apartment. Nothing was noticeable or recognizable from that tragic night. Outside the door was a simple bronze plaque, written in German, about that night. Outside the building’s front door there is a cold gray granite block with the names of the Olympians and the one German police officer who were killed. It is stacked with stones, as if it were the grave of a mightily missed soul.

While the gray summer sky and misty air seemed appropriate for my day, devoted as it was to memory, it was just an ordinary morning for the Germans who live in the space where tragedy struck the Jewish people.

As Jeff MacGregor wrote for ESPN in 2012: “Munich recalibrated our international night terrors and joined the inventory of American horrors that ran straight from JFK and MLK and RFK to My Lai and Kent State. It was the new age of political blood or maybe it was the Stone Age, but falling was the constant then, like gravity, the sick acceleration as the floor dropped away beneath you and me and Brezhnev and Donna Reed.”

Although it happened a year almost to the day before I was born, and before the fateful Yom Kippur war, I still feel like I watched live when a physically exhausted and emotionally drained Jim McKay told the anxiously waiting world “They are all gone.” It was a scarring moment that played the familiar dirge of pain, death, and tragedy, a tune that had been performed after pogroms, wars, and suicide bombings.

This granite memorial is outside 31 Connollystrasse, where the Israeli athletes were attacked. (Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner)

For decades, Israel waited patiently for an apology from the Olympic committee. After the release of the surviving terrorists a few weeks after the Olympic incident, Israel decided to take justice into its own hands.

And for 40 years and 10 Olympiads after Munich, Avery Brundage and the International Olympic Committee said nothing. They did not even allow a moment of silence on the 40th anniversary.

Only the temerity of Bob Costas, who defied the network and offered five seconds of silence in the face of the Olympic decision to ignore the moment, gave a sliver of solace from long pain to the Jewish people.

A few weeks after my visit to Munich this summer — and in no way connected to it — Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, went to Fuerstenfeldbruck, the airfield outside Munich where the Germans disastrously botched a rescue attempt that ended in the deaths of nine hostages and one police officer, and apologized. “We are talking about a great tragedy and a triple failure,” he said. “The first regards the preparation of the games and the security concept; the second the events of September 5 and 6, 1972. The third failure begins the day after the attack: the silence, the denial, the forgetting.

“We cannot make up for what happened, or for what you [the people of Israel and the Jewish people] experienced and suffered in the way of resistance, ignorance and injustice,” he continued. “That shames me.

“As this country’s head of state, and in the name of the Federal Republic of Germany, I seek your forgiveness for the inadequate protection of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich and for the inadequate resolution afterward; for the fact that what happened could happen.”

Many people missed these remarks. Ask most recent Jewishly identified college students and they might not even have heard of the Munich massacre, and if they did, it seems to them to be as ancient as the Stone Age. But for me, for those who survived the events, and for those who were shaped by the tragedy, it was a balm to a sore and aching 50-year-long burn that I have been craving, which soothed but did not fully heal.

In American jurisprudence, statutes of limitations establish periods after which people cannot be tried or found responsible for many crimes. But both in our American legal system and in Judaism, there is no statute of limitation for forgiveness. While Yom Kippur, which was just a few days ago, and this penitential season offer a great opportunity to seek forgiveness, that attempt isn’t timebound. It can happen whenever we can muster the fortitude to seek necessary forgiveness for any wrongdoing, no matter when it happened.

Some people will decryÓ Steinmeier’s tardiness. Of course, it should have come sooner. But it did arrive eventually, in full sincerity and with all the necessary components of apology: regret, guilt, sorrow, and empathy.

Yom Kippur reminds us that we do not have to seek forgiveness only for the sins and misdeeds of the past year. There is no time limit on seeking to correct inequities– whether between us and others, God, or even ourselves.

Many Olympic games have timed events. Forgiveness is no such game, and no clock ticks for it. Forgiveness — offering it and granting it, whenever it comes — helps us heal. It doesn’t magically fix the wrong, but it is an important part of the process of beginning again and restoring hope and belief in the gift of humanity.

David-Seth Kirshner is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Closter and past president of the New York Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis.

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