A moment of silence for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered during the Munich Olympics in 1972 was observed at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo last week.
This marked the conclusion of a multiyear quest for recognition of the tragedy by Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, widows of two of the murdered athletes. Their cause was taken up by leaders of JCC Rockland when the community center hosted the quadrennial Maccabi games in 2012.
“Finally there is justice for the husbands, sons and fathers murdered at Munich,” the two widows said in a joint statement. “We went through 49 years of struggle and never gave up. We cannot hold back our tears. This is the moment we’ve waited for.”
“We’ve proven you can accomplish anything if you try,” David Kirschtel, the JCC’s CEO, said.
“It was very emotional watching this,” Steve Gold said. He’s a longtime JCC lay leader who headed the JCC’s committee to work for a minute of silence in 2012. He and another committee member, Micki Leader, drafted a petition on change.org calling for a minute of silence that eventually got the attention, and support, of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as more than 100,000 others who signed as well.
“Knowing how much energy we put into this, seeing it happen was an amazing accomplishment,” Mr. Gold said. “It’s pretty intense that small Rockland County can make a positive impact on history.”
The moment of silence came after the announcer named athletes who died of coronavirus and other causes before this year’s games.
“In particular we remember those who lost their lives during the Olympic games,” the announcer said. “One group still holds a strong place in all our memories and stands for all of those we have lost at the games: the members of the Israel delegation at the Olympic Games Munich 1972.”
“Ankie couldn’t stop crying,” Mr. Kirschtel said. “She is grateful she was able to get this done in her lifetime.” Mr. Kirschtel said that he and Ms. Spitzer forged a close friendship as they worked on the cause together. “I’ve spoken to her twice since the minute of silence in Tokyo.”
In 1972, members of Black September, a Palestinian terror group, attacked Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and murdered 11 of them. Two of the Israelis were killed in the Olympic Village. The terrorists kidnapped another nine of them and demanded, in return for their freedom, the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as well as two prominent West German leftist militants.
After a failed attempt by German security forces to retake the hostages, the Palestinians turned their weapons on the Israelis, killing them all.
The International Olympics Committee had rebuffed all earlier calls for a commemoration as potentially alienating other members of the Olympic community.
“We must consider what this could do to other members of the delegations that are hostile to Israel,” an Israeli committee member told the BBC in 2004, when a small memorial was held at the Israeli ambassador’s house in Athens before the Olympics there.
In 2012, before the London Olympics, the IOC rejected an international campaign for a moment of silence. “The opening ceremony is an atmosphere that isn’t fit to remember such tragic events,” Jacques Rogge, then the leader of the IOC, said at the time.
The first official Olympic ceremony held to honor the victims was before the 2016 Rio Olympics. But instead of happening during the opening ceremony, it was held two days before.
So why now? What changed?
Mr. Kirschtel said that Ms. Spitzer believes that it was Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who made it happen.
Mr. Bach was elected to an eight-year term as IOC president in 2013, after the IOC noticed the Jewish community’s activism, which was led by Rockland JCC, Mr. Kirschtel said. (In 2020, the Rockland campaign was the subject of a 43-minute documentary by director Joe Allen called “There Was No Silence.”)
“Ankie had a good relationship with him from the start,” Mr. Kirschtel said.
Mr. Bach is German. He is also a former Olympic fencer. Ms. Spitzer’s husband, Andre Spitzer, had helped found Israel’s National Fencing Academy and competed in the Olympics in fencing. Ilana Romano’s husband, Yossef Romano, was Israel’s light and middle-weight weight-lifting champion.
Starting with the 1976 Games in Montreal, Ms. Spitzer and Ms. Romano went to the Olympic Summer Games to help memorialize their husbands every time they were held. They paid their own way until 2016; that year, the IOC paid for them to go to Rio.
Mr. Bach held a minute of silence at the Olympic village in Rio that year.
“After 2016, it was easier,” Mr. Kirschtel said. “Nothing terrible happened when the memorial happened in 2016. Over the years they said the Arabs would walk away, they said all this negative stuff would happen. This was anti-Semitism at its finest. The IOC should have simply given a minute of silence in 1976 and they wouldn’t have had to put up with it for 40 years.”
Mr. Kirschtel was 13 years old in 1972. Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, he was “a huge sports kid,” he said. “A huge Red Sox and Patriots and Bruins fan, and the Olympics, that’s magic. I was watching as a 13 year old kid, I remember sitting in my den, watching this whole thing unfold. All of a sudden this terrible thing is going on.”
Now, 49 years later, he is proud to have helped heal part of that wound. “If you don’t stand up, nothing is going to happen,” he said.
Times of Israel staff and Emily Burack of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this story