To millions of Jews, the Olympic Games evoke an image not of limbwrenching acrobatics but of the bullets and grenades that flew during the 5632/1972 Munich Massacre. This tragedy began around five o’clock in the morning of September 5 with scratching at a second-floor apartment door in the Olympic village, near the Munich stadium.
By the time Israeli wrestling referee, Yosef Gutfreund, reached the door, it was creaking open and his ears caught Arab words. Throwing his hefty three hundred pounds against the door, Gutfreund yelled out, “Chevrah – tistalku!” (“Get out of here!”) but it was too late. After a violent struggle, two Israelis were lifeless and nine were hostage to eight Palestinian terrorists.
HATCHING THE PLOT
Abu Daoud, one of the plot’s masterminds, later described the genesis of the Munich plot in his book, Memoirs of a Palestinian Terrorist. Earlier that year, on July 5, he and two other leaders of the Black September organization were sitting at a café table in Rome’s beautiful Piazza della Rotunda square. Black September, an offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization, was named after the fateful September of 5731/1970 when King Hussein threw the Fatah organization out of Jordan in order to stop it from hijacking his country.
Huddled at their café table, the three men paid little attention to the grotesque stone fish gurgling water from their mouths in Piazza della Rotunda’s famous fountain. They were debating how to avenge what they regarded as a stinging blow to Palestinian prestige. Shortly before, the Palestinian Youth Federation had sent two letters to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requesting the participation of Palestinian sportsmen in the upcoming Olympic Games. The IOC did not even bother to reply, obviously regarding the Palestinians as a rung below non-nations, such as Puerto Rico, Bermuda and Hong Kong, which had participated in past Olympic Games.
“If they refuse to let us participate,” the Black September leader, Abu Mohammed, suggested to his two colleagues, “why shouldn’t we penetrate the Games our own way?”
This was the birth of the “Biraam and Ikrit” operation, named after two Christian-Arab villages in Upper Galilee that the Israeli military had vacated during the 5708/1948 war. The villages were hot news in the summer of 5632/1972 when a group of Palestinians were unsuccessfully attempting to resettle their ruins. The world would remember this operation as “The Munich Massacre.”
Within two days, Abu Daoud was scouting the half-built Munich Olympic village to assess its security and soon discovered that it was practically non-existent. The only barrier separating the place from the outside world was a puny six-foot fence which any healthy teenager could climb over in seconds. In fact, during the Olympics, athletes regularly climbed the fence to save themselves the trouble of detouring through the main gate.
Munich police were warned that there might be trouble. In his list of potential dangerous scenarios, police psychologist, Dr. Georg Sieber, had warned that terrorists might fly a jet into the crowd, or seize Israeli hostages in order to “turn the Games into a political demonstration.”
However, his words fell on deaf ears. No one was interested in transforming the peaceful Munich Olympics into a war zone. Germany’s prime goal was to emphasize her total turnabout from the politicized Nazi Olympics of 5696/1936. Prowling armed police and hulking armored cars would detract from the idyllic atmosphere for which they were aiming.
On August 24, another member of the Rome meeting, Abu Iyad, flew to Germany with two companions. Their five suitcases were loaded with an arsenal of Tokarev pistols, AK- 47 assault rifles and ammunition – border security was lax in those days. Grenades and other supplies came in by another route. The day before the attack, Abu Daoud assembled a handpicked team of young terrorists and delivered their final instructions:
“The operation for which you’ve been chosen is essentially a political one – to capture these Israelis alive… No one can deny you the right to use your weapons to defend yourselves. Nonetheless, only fire if you truly can’t do otherwise… It’s not a matter of liquidating your enemies but seizing them as prisoners for future exchanges. The grenades are for later, to impress your German negotiating partners and defend yourselves to the death.”
At 3:30 a.m., the group set off for the Olympic village disguised in black tracksuits. Anyone meeting them would think they were a group of South Americans returning from a late night carousel. Getting over the fence was easier than they ever imagined as a group of Americans returning at exactly the same time helped them lug their heavy bags loaded with guns and grenades over the inadequate fence.
Making their way to the Israeli apartments, the terrorists opened the door with stolen keys, and by the time sharp-eared Yosef Gutfreund leapt up and forced his weight against the door, it was too late. The terrorists had pried the door open with their gun barrels and entered. A violent furor resulted as wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg, and weightlifter, Yosef Romana, sacrificed their lives fighting back and enabling a few Israelis to escape. The Palestinians ended up with nine Israeli captives on the second-floor Olympic apartment.
Shortly after 5:00 a.m., the Palestinians threw down written messages to police crowded below. The athletes would be released in return for 234 terrorists held in Israeli jails and the release of two German terrorists, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. If these people were not released by 9:00 a.m., the Israelis would be assassinated at the rate of one every hour. The reply of Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, was short and to the point: “Under no conditions will Israel make the slightest concession to terrorist blackmail!”
All that remained was to play for time; when that option was exhausted, it would be a fight to the finish. As the Arabs lengthened their deadline to noon, 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., German police began removing ventilation grates on the roof, hoping to infiltrate air-vents and mount a surprise attack. Unfortunately, these “secret” preparations were being televised to about 500 million viewers worldwide, including the terrorists upstairs!
New possibilities arose when the Arabs demanded a plane to transport them and their hostages to an Arab country. Surely some way could be devised to free the prisoners en route. One idea was to attack them as they passed the parking garage beneath the building to get outside. Police could hide behind pillars and pick them off. But the terrorists insisted on going straight onto the street.
One chance remained – to overwhelm the terrorists at the nearby Fürstenfeldbruck airport. This plan may have had a chance had it not been the most bungled police action in history.
Soon after 10 p.m., the terrorists and their hostages bundled into two Iroquois helicopters. Meanwhile, five policemen disguised as aircrew were stationed in a Lufthansa 727 at the airport. Their job would be to ambush the terrorists when then they entered the plane. However, after a hasty consultation, the five untrained members of the ambush party decided that discretion was the better side of valor. Why serve themselves up as cannon fodder? The only force left to fight the upcoming battle was five untrained police snipers.
The helicopters thundered down at 10:36 p.m. and two terrorists leapt out to inspect the plane. Peering inside, they found it totally empty. “This is a trap!” they realized. As they raced back to the helicopters to warn their comrades, the five inadequately armed and badly positioned sharpshooters opened fire, sparking off an hours-long battle. Around midnight, armored personnel carriers finally managed to break through the traffic snarl-ups around the airport, and the trapped terrorists loosed bullets and grenades onto their bound hostages.
“Our worst fears have been realized tonight,” announced an ABC newsman. “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.”
For the first time in history, the Olympics had been interrupted for a whole day. Now, as the smoke settled, the Olympic organizers were faced with a crucial question. Should the joyful Olympic Games be called off in sympathy to the tragedy or should they go on regardless?
This question turned into a controversy between Willi Daume, president of the Munich organizing committee, who wanted the Games to cease, and other officials, including Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, who felt that the Games superceded everything. This was the same Avery Brundage who had opposed boycotting the Nazi Olympic Games of 5696/1936, arguing that “politics has no place in sport.” True to his old ways, he now insisted that no matter what, “the Games must go on!” To their credit, a number of teams left. These included the Israeli teams, of course, all the teams of the Philippines and Algeria, and a few Dutch and Norwegian teams.
During a memorial service the next day, the Soviet Union and ten Arab nations left their flags at full mast and Avery Brundage avoided explicit mention of the Munich martyrs in his speech. Reality sank in. The forces that had created the Dachau concentration camp, less than ten miles from Munich, were still alive and well.