Sunday, December 25, 2005

Munich...Spielberg's film

 

Tel Aviv -- The last time Ankie Spitzer saw her husband was on television in September 1972. He was standing half-naked at the window of the Israeli team's apartment in the Olympic Village in Munich with a gun to his back.

Andre Spitzer, 27, was an Israeli Olympic fencing coach and he had just been taken hostage by eight Palestinian terrorists who burst into the apartment on Connollystrasse at daybreak. The events of that day served as the basis for the new Steven Spielberg film, "Munich," which opens today. Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, two widows of the murdered athletes, were invited to a private screening of the movie and shared their opinions about the movie as well as their memories of the events.

Spitzer said Spielberg's attitude to the Munich victims' families was "very strange." He didn't talk to the widows, she says, and his staff told her not to bother writing -- their letters would "all end up in the garbage can." But both women said that their husbands' memory had not been dishonored and that Israel's hunt for the killers was presented fairly.

"Before we saw the film, we were terribly frightened," said Romano. "We wanted to know what use would be made of the memory of our husbands, sons, fathers who were murdered in Munich. It was important to see how they would be portrayed and whether their honor would be respected."

"The memory of the athletes is respected and portrayed appropriately," she said. "We were relieved."

Romano said the families' other concern was that Israel's mission against the terrorists would be portrayed negatively.

"Spielberg called the film 'Munich' and not 'Vengeance' -- that's very important to me because I don't believe my country went out seeking vengeance," she said. "My country went out to prevent terrorism, to put it on the defensive rather than on the attack. My country had no other choice."

The events that were the inspiration for Spielberg's movie began when armed gunmen slipped into the Olympic Village and broke into the building where the Israeli athletes were staying. A few escaped, but the gunmen ended up holding 11 hostages, including Andre Spitzer and Romano's husband, weightlifter Josef Romano. Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg was the first to be wounded and then killed as he jumped on one of the gunmen to let a colleague escape. Next to die was Romano, who was shot, tortured, castrated and bled to death on the floor of Andre's bedroom as his teammates, tied hand and foot, could only sit and watch.

Spitzer was brought to the window in the afternoon to negotiate between the police and the terrorists. He had returned to the village only hours before the attack after a two-day break with his young wife and their 6-week-old daughter. Ankie, then 26 and married for just 15 months, was at her parents' home in the Hague, Holland, when she turned on the television that morning to see the horrific scenes unfolding. She had spent three weeks in that apartment with Andre. At 5:30 p.m., he appeared on the screen.

"Suddenly I saw him in front of the window," Ankie said in an interview at her Tel Aviv home. "I looked at him and he was not wearing his glasses, which was bad because he could not see. He was half naked. They pushed him in front of the window. I saw one of the terrorists standing behind him. He was talking from the first floor to the crisis team that was standing down below. Of course I could not hear what he was saying on TV. He spoke German so he was like the liaison between all these people. Then the conversation was finished after a couple of minutes and I could see that he was hit by the butt of the rifle and he was pushed back into the room. Then the curtains were closed and the window was closed. That was really the last time I saw him.

"I was happy when I saw him," she added. "It was very selfish but I understood that he was not the second one who was killed."

But her happiness was short-lived. At 9:30 that night, the terrorists and the nine surviving hostages were helicoptered to the Furstenfeldbruck military airfield nearby, where they were promised a plane to fly to safety. As they landed, the German police opened fire, but their equipment was faulty and they didn't have enough snipers. In the Hague, Ankie watched in horror.

"You could see the whole drama," she said. "The Palestinians fired at all the lights, so suddenly there was darkness. Then at one point I could see somebody threw a hand grenade under one of the helicopters and the whole helicopter exploded. Then it was quiet again for 20, 25 minutes and nobody knew what they were doing."

Then the official German government spokesman announced that all the hostages had been saved, and Ankie's parents broke out a bottle of champagne. But still Andre had not called. She phoned the Israeli team through the night, but they knew nothing. Then, just after 3 a.m., ABC commentator Jim McKay announced: "They're all gone."

Ankie flew to Munich the next day for the memorial ceremony. Surrealistically, the games continued as she approached Connollystrasse.

There she encountered a horrific scene. Romano's blood had spilled under the door of Andrei's room and down the stairs outside. His teammates urged her not to go in.

"There were four huge holes where they shot Josef Romano at very close range," she said. "Half of the wall had collapsed back into the room. Then they brought food that nobody ate and they didn't let them go to the bathroom. The scene was just too incredible."

"All the time I was thinking, if this is where my gentle, funny 27-year-old husband spent the last day of his life, his hands and feet bound, with Josef Romano castrated and bleeding to death in the middle of it all, I'm not going to shut up about it," she said.

"I left there thinking that somebody will have to pay for this because nobody should be faced with anything like this, especially not my husband," she said.

As Ankie watched the horror unfolding from the Hague, Ilana Romano was back in Tel Aviv with their three daughters, without live television coverage. At 7:30 a.m. a neighbor knocked on the door with the news -- terrorists had broken into the Olympic village and seized the athletes.

"I ran to the phone and called the Olympic Committee," Romano said. "They said Moshe Weinberg had been killed -- which was terrible, because I knew him, he was my friend. I thought, OK, Josef knows I'll be panicking. If he's outside, he'll pick up the phone. Each time the phone rang, I jumped to answer it. It wasn't him."

"At midday they told me Josef was a hostage in the room," she said. "I knew Josef wouldn't let them lead him like a lamb to slaughter. He was a strong man, with a strong temperament. He loved his friends. I knew he wouldn't go quietly."

"Then I heard there was someone wounded in the room. In the pit of my stomach something told me it was Josef. At 6 they knocked on the door and told me Josef was very badly wounded. I told them they were wrong. They said: 'You're right. Josef is the second athlete dead.'"

A week later, the families of the slain athletes met Prime Minister Golda Meir and senior officials in Jerusalem. Meir offered her condolences and explained why Israel refused to negotiate with Black September, which demanded the release of more than 250 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the athletes. She said capitulation would only invite the next attack.

"Then she told us that the government had decided to hunt down all those who were directly or indirectly involved in Munich or any other terrorists who have blood on their hands, and they would hunt them down to all corners of the earth," Ankie recalled. "We looked at each other. There were no cheers of joy, revenge. Nobody reacted that way at all. One parent even asked: 'Is this going to bring back our sons?' The prime minister replied: 'No, of course not. But there is no other option.' "

"We went home. Nobody asked for revenge, because we knew that the most important thing in our life was taken already. I really believed when she said that they were going to go around the world, arrest Palestinian terrorists or their handlers or their brains and bring them to Israel so they can stand trial in Israel. Later I understood that was not the case. They explained to us that there was no other option at the time because the problem of terror was only and solely an Israeli problem," said Ankie.

Israel stood alone. Three of the terrorists survived. Fifty-four days after the attack, in a Lufthansa airline hijacking staged with the secret cooperation of the German government, the three were released, given millions in cash and flown to freedom. Mossad started planning the elimination of terrorist leaders in Black September and the PLO.

That hunt, which began a few weeks later with the assassination of the Black September chief in Rome and continued until 1993, is the subject of Spielberg's film. Filmed amid intense secrecy, "Munich" aroused controversy from the beginning.

Spielberg chose to base his version on "Vengeance," a book which all the key participants say is mostly fiction. It tells the story of a supposed Mossad assassin who came to regret the mission, but the man was never in the Mossad, let alone a hit man.

Now Spitzer and Romano are hoping that Spielberg's film will help educate a new generation about what happened in Munich -- and inspire the International Olympic Committee to remember the murdered athletes.

Thirty-three years later, the families are still campaigning to have a minute's silence or even a mention at the opening ceremony. Olympic officials reject the idea.

"I want it during the opening ceremony," said Spitzer. "I want you to say: Let us not forget the 11 Israelis, or the 11 athletes, who came to the Olympics to be part of this festival of peace and brotherhood and who were killed by murderers. Because they were not accidental tourists to the Olympics. They were part of the Olympic family and you owe them the respect which everybody gives to members of his family."

 
I shall never forget Munich, 1972.
 
I had walked the streets of Munich, drank beer in the the great Beer halls, ate huge, hot pretzels and mild white radishes with salt, singing and stomping to the wonderful oompapa bands...  listened to and watching the chiming of the Glochenschpeil , visited cabarets and marveled at the wonderful old architecture, four years before, in 1968. 
 
I also remember walking by very old churches, still bombed-out shells of themselves, left in disrepair since the War. It hit me that it was probably our bombs that had gutted them. I did not feel all that proud of it. Certainly not as victors are supposed to.
 
Certainly, I was glad that Hitler and almost everything associated with him was gone. I was raised on the tales of WWII and saw first hand, the news reels of the Holocaust victims, both barely living and dead.
 
But the German people seemed nice enough. Especially when they had had a stein or two of Hofbrau. No one mentioned Hitler, the Nazis or WWII. We didn't. They didn't. We sang German Beer songs, learning German as we went, and they sang Dixie with us, as most of us on the tour were from the southern U.S., and we all laughed and clapped insanely for each others off-key singing and bad pronunciation.  
 
My Cousin knew a little German, from living in Germany as a boy, with his military/civil service family. He taught me enough to get by and we had a marvelous time.
 
One day, we went for a day trip to Bavaria, in the alps. It was cool and drizzly, somewhat of a relief from the sauna that was Italty..
 
Still, we just had to see Mad King Ludwig's great castle. So, up the alp we hiked. As we were winding our way up the road, there were German women making there way down it.
 
Just then, a flight of jets roared, seemingly just over the treetops. It was annoyingly loud and we Americans covered our ears and looked up with very annoyed expressions, like the expression one gets when the guys next door decide everyone in the neighborhood needs to be exposed to their music at 1:00 am.
 
But the little old German women, their Babushkas wrapped tight against the chilly wind, their cloth coats pulled closely around them, hurried for cover, into the bush on the side of the road.
 
I stood there for a moment open-mouthed. My first thought was to rush to them, help them up...they were, after all, elderly and I wasn't and I was taught respect for my elders. My cousin's hand stopped me.
 
"Don't," he said. "You are American. They probably don't want your help right now."
 
Those little old women had seen at least one, maybe two wars involving their country. It dawned on me that Americans really had no idea what war was. Not since the Civil war had that horror touched our soil. I couldn't stop thinking about those women, for a very long time. I still think about them today, every once in a while.. They allowed me to realize a great lesson.   
 
When I was in Munich, they were tearing up the streets for the purpose of putting in an underground rail system; already, they were sprucing up their city to host the world's finest athletes, in peace and good will, even though the cold war raged and there was social turmoil around the world.
 
By the time 1972 rolled around, I had been to Vietnam and back. So much had changed in my life, none of it good..
 
I looked forward to the Olympics that year. Friends and I would gather 'round the TV, hoist a few and pull for the best athletes.
 
Of course, when The USA won, we cheered. But we loved watching them all. We loved the Russian gymnasts, the Kenyan cross country runners, the Chinese volleyball players; we were not nationalists when it came to the Olympics. Those two weeks, every four years, were like a time out of context, when the whole world seemed sane, for just a little while.
 
Then came Munich!
 
I remember thinking, among many other things; Oh, God, the poor Germans, having this terrible thing happen on their soil.
 
I remember Jim McKay's cracking voice: "They are all gone"
 
I wept, from the bottom of my soul; for the athletes from Israel  and their friends & families, for all of the athletes of all the nations whose Olympic Games would always be marred by this act of terror and for all of us, for whom one more ray of light had been extinguished.
 
In the last few years, terror, and the threat of it, have hung over the games until I no longer have an interest in them. It is sad, really.
 
!972: The year that terrorism entered my conscious in a big way.
 
I shall never forget it.

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