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50 years after the Munich Olympics massacre, families of the slain continue to grieve — and remember

‘I’m always grateful for every day, because those are days he never had,’ said Barbara Berger, whose brother was killed in the massacre

UPDATE: This story has been updated with news that the families of the Munich massacre victims settled their compensation claims with the German government Wednesday.  

TEL AVIV – The pain feels fresh again — 50 years later.

The families of the 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and referees killed by PLO terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972 have grappled with their grief in the half-century since, and worked to ensure that their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers are not forgotten.

Michal Shahar named her son after her father, Kehat Schor, a coach for the shooting team. Her daughter and son-in-law adopted his last name when they married. Shahar’s grandson paid tribute in a school genealogy assignment to the great-grandfather he never met.

As the 50th anniversary of the Sept. 5–6 killings approaches, several public commemorations are planned in Israel and Germany. The families had originally threatened to boycott events in Germany in a dispute over compensation from the German government, but those claims were settled Wednesday and now many of the families are planning to fly to Munich. German officials did not disclose the sum that was agreed to, but German news agency dpa reported that Germany increased its offer to around $28 million dollars, up from the initial $10 million, including payments previously made. Representatives of the German government did not respond to several requests for comment from the Forward.

In interviews prior to the settlement, the families expressed bitterness over how the German government handled the tragedy itself, which they believe could have been prevented, and its aftermath. “It’s an insult, how they’ve treated us throughout,” Shahar said in an interview in her Tel Aviv apartment.

‘Days he never had’

Four of the 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation killed in Munich in 1971 by PLO terrorists. Clockwise from top left: Kehat Schorr, David Berger, Zev Fridman and Mark Slavin. Photo by Getty Images

Putting the compensation controversy aside, the trauma of the Munich killings has reverberated through the decades and across generations. And the 50th anniversary’s approach has stoked powerful feelings for the families — pain, and so much more. 

Barbara Berger considers it another opportunity to appreciate her longevity.

She’ll light a memorial candle on her brother David Berger’s yarzheit and contemplate her memories of him more than most days. David, a weightlifter, was killed at age 28. Barbara Berger and another brother, Fred, last saw David a day or two prior in Munich. He’d just finished competing.

Now 72 years old and a grandmother, Barbara Berger often hears contemporaries grumble about the trials of aging.

“My friends complain they’re so old, and I never felt that,” she said by telephone from her home in Portland, Maine. “I’m always grateful for every day, because those are days he never had.”

For Nina Fridman, the 50th anniversary brings anxiety, as did past years. She has nightmares thinking about the pain her brother, Zev, another weightlifter, might have endured when terrorists blew up the helicopter holding nine of the Israelis, killing them all in a botched rescue operation by German security forces.

On a visit to that airfield in 1983, Fridman said, she saw oil stains in the pavement where the helicopter had exploded.

Israelis attend a memorial ceremony for the victims of the Munich Massacre on Sept. 6, 1972. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

Last week, she took a visitor to a room in her apartment in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin to view a display honoring her brother. It included a triangular flag from the 1971 Asian Weightlifting Championship, in Manila, where Zev Fridman earned a bronze medal in the bantamweight division. Zev and David Berger, a Cleveland native who took a silver medal as a light-heavyweight, were friends; Berger had even considered setting his sister Barbara up with Zev. 

 (“He did?” a surprised Barbara Berger said in the telephone conversation.) 

Nina also recalled the two men riding their bicycles hundreds of kilometers to Israel’s southernmost city of Eilat. On that trip, as on others, Zev carried a gun he’d purchased for protection.

Just before Zev’s funeral, Nina’s husband, Arie Tkach, found his father-in-law (Zev and Nina’s dad) about to turn the weapon on himself. 

Tkach took it away.

Wrestler Mark Slavin, who was killed at the Munich Olympics. Courtesy of Mika Slavin

Another distraught father, Jacob Slavin, had a gun, too. Determined not to lose another child, he took it while chaperoning Mika on school outings, hovering near her and her friends — too close for the girl’s comfort, too many chaperoned outings.

At home, his wife periodically examined the possessions her son, at 18 the youngest of the Munich 11, left behind: his blue wrestling uniform, photographs from competitions, the tallit and tefillin the Israeli men received in Munich. That got Anna Slavin crying. Mika would dry her mother’s tears.

“The family fell apart after Mark never came home,” said Mika Slavin, who was born two years after Mark died. He didn’t get to compete in the Olympics; on the morning the terrorists broke into the Israelis’ dormitory, he was a few hours away from being weighed in for his first match.

The Slavin parents were both under 45 then, but they aged quickly, and declined emotionally. Mika, the youngest of four children, cared for them. The experience drained her.

Near the end of his life, her father requested that she preserve Mark’s legacy.

“I have to do everything,” she said, “so that his memory will never disappear — he and his friends, of course.”

Shahar said she treasures happy memories of her father, and tries to focus on them, rather than the violent way he died.

She recalled how Schor, in their native Romania, brought athletes home to train by lifting heavy bags of sand indoors during the winter. He was an avid reader and impressed on his daughter, his only child, the importance of excelling in science and math.

“My father was a man of principles,” said Shahar, who became a math teacher.

Memorializing the 11 in Israel

The Israeli delegation stand on Sept. 6, 1972, in the Munich Olympic stadium, during the memorial ceremony for its slain Israeli members. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

Family members of the murdered Olympians plan to memorialize their loved ones in Israel at two annual events held in Tel Aviv: a national commemoration and a gathering on the Hebrew anniversary of the deaths at a cemetery where five of the fallen men lie side by side.

Those services are scheduled for Sept. 21 and 22, with the national commemoration relocating from a Tel Aviv memorial dedicated to the Olympians, known as the Park of the 11, to a larger venue at the port. The families say that the events in Israel mean more than anything that might happen in Germany. 

“My country will embrace me. They,” said Mika Slavin, referring to the German organizers, “are doing it more for themselves than for us.”

They do, however, acknowledge efforts by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who is German. They appreciate how he included at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics’ opening ceremony the games’ first moment of silence for the murdered Israelis.

Relations between the families and the IOC, they said, have improved greatly under Bach’s leadership.

Shahar is among the Olympians’ survivors who’ve been to Munich since the tragedy. She visited the city in the late 1980s in her work as a school principal. At the dormitory where the Olympians were kidnapped and two of them were killed, she laid a wreath.

“I didn’t want to go,” she said. “I went.”

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