The extraordinary grit of the long-distance walker

Olympic walker Shaul Ladany is a BGU professor who survived Bergen-Belsen and the 1972 Olympic massacre.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Those who survived the Holocaust weren't lucky just once. They were lucky many times over. So says Shaul Ladany, now Professor Emeritus in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). Ladany's luck began when he survived a direct hit by a German bomb, then stuck with him through years of peril as his Hungarian family sought safety in Europe. Ultimately Ladany was sent to Bergen-Belsen, only to board a ship to Palestine that nearly sank. But his closest brush with death came later in Munich, in 1972, when he was an Olympic athlete. "I was one of the few Israelis who didn't come home in a coffin," he says. Today, at 71 years of age, Ladany - internationally recognized as one of the world's greatest racewalkers - reaps the rewards of a life of hard work and perseverance, not just luck. Recently, the Council of the Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland awarded him the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for outstanding service to the Olympic Movement. Ladany, the Committee noted, is "an unusual person with unusual outstanding sports achievements during a span covering over four decades." If only they knew the rest of the story. "I was five when I first experienced the War," Ladany says. "I was born in 1936 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia to Hungarian parents. My father was both a chemical engineer and a patent attorney. In 1941, he was drafted for Yugoslavian military service and sent to Albania to fight Mussolini. We - my parents, my one sister at the time, and I - lived in a villa in Belgrade, a very strong building, the strongest in the neighborhood. A maid and a nanny stayed with us, as did several other relatives." For Ladany, "the War" began in April 1941, when the Luftwaffe began a bombing assault on Belgrade. For a fateful hour-and-a-half, 150 bombers flew over in waves, pounding the city with bombs, leaving 17,000 people dead beneath the rubble. "We ran into a basement washing room," Ladany recalls. "Many of our neighbors came for shelter, too. My mother and grandmother ran with my sister and me into the wash room, closing a steel door behind us. To protect me, my grandmother threw herself down on top of me. Then a bomb struck the house. I remember the huge noise, and how the door fell in on my grandmother. She had some cuts and bruises, but elsewhere in the basement several people were killed." With half the house in ruins, the family decided to flee. "We worried about leaving without my father, but decided we had no choice. Together with thousands of other refugees, we walked all night to an outlying village, where we stayed for a week. When things quieted, my mother sent our maid back to Belgrade - both she and our nanny were not Jewish, but they'd fled with us. When she returned, she said Belgrade was quiet again, so we decided to go back, hoping that somehow we'd meet up with my father." The family could not stay in their bombed home, "but my father had a law office in mid-town, so we went there. I still remember seeing a big poster on the wall, from the German Military Authority. It ordered all Jews to report to fairgrounds on a specified day. Then it plainly said that those who did not would be shot." With the overwhelming German attack, the Yugoslav government surrendered. "My father left Albania, riding his horse. He bought old clothes from a farmer and rode a train to Belgrade. They knew the Nazis were patrolling train stations for Jews, so as the train slowed for a curve near the city, he and several others jumped off. He walked to our home, but burst into tears when he saw the destruction. A neighbor saw him and told him we were alive, so the next day we were reunited. At that point, my parents decided the best thing to do was to return to Hungary. All the bridges had been bombed, but we found a small boat to take us across the Danube." A main problem was that the family, even though they were of Hungarian origin, had no Hungarian documents. "My grandfather was with us. He had a big mustache and a very imposing voice. We approached the guards and my grandfather spoke in Hungarian. He gave his name, telling them that during the 1917-18 Hungarian regime he'd been in charge of a very important railroad junction, and that he'd never sworn allegiance to the Yugoslavian government.'I am a Hungarian returning to my homeland with my family,' he said. Amazingly, they let us through." Once in Hungary, the family stayed with a series of relatives. "At one point, we were with my father's family. For three or four months, we lived in a huge house with a big courtyard, but I was never allowed to go out. My father was picked up by the authorities several times, but was always released. This had been his home, he'd gone to high school here, so he had contacts. But we knew we needed to move again, so we went to Budapest. There, my father found work in three places so we had money, but it wasn't long before we had to leave again. We were fearful that my father would be conscripted for forced labor. Jews sent to forced labor were rarely seen again. All this time, my parents were frantically trying to get papers and visas to leave. We finally secured protection papers from the Swiss General Counsel, Charles Lutz." Charles 'Carl' Lutz, one of the righteous gentiles, was credited with saving the lives of 62,000 Jews in Budapest by issuing them "protective letters" in defiance of Nazi orders. But in March, 1944, the Germans entered Hungary and the deportations began. "I was sent to a monastery for a time," Ladany says. "When I wrote my book Walk to the Olympics in Hebrew, recalling that period was very emotional. I'm not a person who cries, but when I wrote about that time, it all came back. It was awful. Finally, when the Allied bombs started falling, my mother decided to bring me home. If we were going to die, she thought, at least we should die together. I came home, as did my two sisters - my real sister plus my other sister who was really a cousin but was brought up by my family from the time she was six months old, after her parents were murdered." The Ladany family was deported to Bergen-Belsen. In an interview published in The Scotsman in 2005, Ladany is quoted as saying, "You know what I remember? I remember being so hungry that I was in pain and seeing wild tomatoes growing in the forest on the other side of the barbed wire. That tormented me more than anything." Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British in 1945, and by 1948 the Ladanys were heading to Israel. But even though the war was over, another penalty was imposed. "My parents had been quite wealthy in Yugoslavia," Ladany says. "They owned factories and houses. But Marshall Tito refused to allow any Jews to leave until they signed away not only their citizenship but also all their assets." The voyage itself took another miracle. "We found passage on a boat that had been converted from a cargo ship. Thousands of passengers slept in bunk beds stacked nine-high in the hold. There were three bunks on the bottom, then a grate; above that, three more bunks and a grate, then three more on top. The voyage took 14 days. We hit an awful storm near the Greek Islands. The engines failed and we were nearly driven onto the rocks - 'Mayday' messages were sent, but finally the engines were repaired and we limped into Haifa. "My parents, sisters and I, and one set of grandparents were now in Israel. Most of the rest of the family had been sent to Auschwitz. A cousin of my mother's survived Auschwitz - she was young, and had been ordered to sort through personal belongings of the Jews who arrived. Among the suitcases she unpacked was that of my grandparents. They'd been gassed." "I was 12 years old when I came to Israel," Ladany recalls. "I'd never finished elementary school. Out of eight years of schooling, I'd studied only five, and that in four different languages - Hungarian, Serbian, German and then Hebrew. For the first two years here I had a very difficult time. I had trouble with Hebrew, but in math and science I was pretty good. Eventually I was accepted into a high school in Tel Aviv. I graduated, went into the army, and served in the artillery. It was about 1955 when I began running." Although Ladany didn't realize it at the time, he'd just opened the door to his lifelong passion, sports. "The truth is, I've led a double life," he says. "I don't know whether to say that I'm an academic with an equally active sporting life, or whether it's that I've had a full life in sports and I moonlighted as an academic." Ladany's initial sport of choice was running, lasting through several 10,000-meter races and a few marathons. "But about 1958, I switched to racewalking. By the early 1960s I was good enough to win my first Israeli championship. Then I was in the US, at Columbia University, and I began training with a group who were either past Olympians or had Olympic aspirations. I wasn't great in shorter races, but in long distance walking I became the best." In the early years, Ladany balanced racewalking with both marriage and getting an education. He'd received a Masters in Mechanical Engineering before meeting and marrying his wife, Shoshana. "My wife was born in Germany, left after Kristallnacht and arrived here in 1939. We married, had our daughter, and I worked in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University as the general manager of its maintenance workshop. Then I was hired as a supervising engineer on the construction of the Knesset building. By that time, my wife, who's a biochemist, was on faculty at the Hebrew University, so I was allowed to take courses for free. I earned a Masters in Business Administration, and was encouraged to go on for a PhD. Ultimately I received the PhD from Columbia University. That's where I was when the 1967 war broke out." Ladany wanted to return to Israel. "During the Six Day War there were only six people who arrived from abroad to join the army. I was one of them. I served in the Sinai, and when the war was over I went back and finished my thesis." Doctorate in hand, Ladany joined Tel Aviv University. "I was on sabbatical in New York when the Yom Kippur War broke out - actually, I'd gone to Columbia, Missouri to compete in the 100 kilometer US National Championship Race. I finished the race - I won - then learned that the IDF needed volunteers. I paid my own way back, rejoined my unit, and again, came through fine. I returned to Israel in 1975, when I joined BGU." He puts his achievements in perspective: "I've written more than 10 books, published over 100 scientific articles, I'm a professor emeritus, still working and supervising students, still getting grants and doing a lot of research myself. But for me, sports are very important." Ladany has no idea how many races he's competed in, other than to guess it's somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000. A list of every race and honor he's won would fill pages, but notable is that Ladany still holds records that have never been broken: His world record for the 50-mile walk, as well as the Israeli National Record for the 50-kilometer walk that he set back in 1972, still stand. Also in 1972, he won the gold medal at the World Championships in the 100-km walk. He won the Israeli National Walking Championships an amazing 28 times between 1963 and 1988; the US walking championship six times, the championship in Belgium twice, Switzerland's in 1972, and South Africa's in 1975. In 1976, he became the first person ever to win both the American Open and Masters (40 years and over) 75-kilometer walking championship, then did it again in 1977 and 1981. In 2006, at age 70, he set the 100-mile world record (21:45:34 hours) for the 70-74 age group. Twice, in 1968 and 1972, Ladany was on the Israeli Olympic team: "In Mexico in 1968, I suffered from Montezuma's Revenge," he says. But in Munich in 1972, during the early morning hours of September 4 - the day after Ladany's race - all hell broke loose. Arab terrorists had broken into the Olympic village intent on taking the entire Israeli team hostage. According to a Sports Illustrated story, Ladany was first to sound the alarm, running to the first-level coach's quarters and pounding on the door of US Coach Bill Bowerman. "Can I come in?" Ladany asked. "What for?" growled the sleepy Bowerman. "The Arabs are in our building," said Ladany. "Well," said Bowerman, "push them out." "They have guns," said Ladany. "Two people are dead." Ladany says he was in a room between the two apartments where other Israeli athletes had been taken hostage. He escaped by jumping off a balcony and running through the rear garden. Ladany and four others survived. Eleven Israelis were killed by the terrorists. The Ladany luck was still holding. In spite of his enormous worldwide success and reputation, Ladany's relationship with the Israeli sports establishment has always been frosty. "For two reasons," Ladany says. "First, I was older than other people in sports. I didn't need anyone to translate or explain or to take care of me. And second, I never had a coach - I proved that without a coach, you could succeed even better than those who had them. But that also meant that I didn't have a coach out there, getting publicity for me, or telling the world how wonderful I was. My success flew in their faces - so the sports establishment decided to ignore me." Except after 1972, when a dispute flared. "It was right after the Olympics. I'd wanted to go to the 1972 World Championships that were being held in Switzerland. I applied for monetary support from the Israeli establishment, and they turned me down. In their minds, when they denied support, that meant that I was prohibited from attending. But I didn't see it that way - I went anyway, on my own. Switzerland offered me partial support, saying I had an excellent chance of winning - which I did. I won. So I came back to Israel, and what happened? I was summoned to the inner court of the sports establishment, but not for congratulations. They issued a summons, saying they were going to sue me for having participated without their permission. Well, I made a mockery of them and ultimately they withdrew the lawsuit. But from then on, things weren't good. The very first time my World Championship victory in 1972 appeared in any Israeli record book was in 2007 - it took 35 years! None of my achievements are listed in any publications of the Israel Olympic Committee as outstanding achievements in Israeli sports. Am I angry? Let's just say I'm not very happy. But Israel is my country. What can I say?" Ultimately, though, no matter who wins, who watches or who keeps score, Ladany would still keep walking. "Why do I do it? Because I like to finish," he says with an impish grin. "During every race, no matter how long, I've got two things in my mind. First, every single minute I want to stop. And second, I'm wondering when this damn thing will end. But I always finish." "I always want to quit. But I always finish. That's a lesson for life: Quitters don't win. Winners don't quit." Ladany, who lives with his wife in Omer, has a steady supply of quips: "What's the most important thing a long-distance athlete needs? Good teeth. That's because you'll be grinding them during the whole race." "Why do I do it? It's that simple: I love to finish. I look back at all these events: year after year, I'm there. And during every race, all I want is for it to be over. To get to the end. But I love to do it. During the walk, it's an effort. But at the end, I'm very happy. It's a good feeling, to have done it."