Remembering the fallen heroes of Munich

Ceremony honors the 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered 48 years ago at the Olympics.

ILANA ROMANO speaks this week next to the plaque commemorating her husband, Yosef Romano, who was one of the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. (photo credit: DANNY GROSSMAN)
ILANA ROMANO speaks this week next to the plaque commemorating her husband, Yosef Romano, who was one of the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
(photo credit: DANNY GROSSMAN)
On a quiet September afternoon this week in a beautifully orchestrated ceremony organized by the Olympic Committee of Israel and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality Sports Department, a select gathering of dignitaries, sports icons, and most  importantly the bereaved families paid tribute to the memories of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed at the Munich Games in 1972.
The Israelis who died were: Moshe Weinberg, wrestling coach; Yosef Romano, weightlifter; Ze’ev Friedman, weightlifter; David Berger, weightlifter; Yako Springer, weightlifting judge; Eliezer Halfin, wrestler; Yoseff Gutfreund, wrestling referee; Kehat Shorr, shooting coach; Mark Slavin, wrestler; Andre Spitzer, fencing coach; and Amitzur Shapira, track coach. The West German police officer killed was Anton Fliegerbauer.
Chairman of the Israeli Olympic Committee Igal Carmi opened the meticulously executed event, which enabled the country to memorialize those who fell. Blue-and-white Olympic medalists Yael Arad and Shahar Tzuberi were  among those who laid wreaths and lit memorial torches.
Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper sent moving words from quarantine, reminding all that the victims of this tragedy were not only our brave athletes, but also were martyrs of the Olympic ideals and  world of sport itself.
Tropper commended the courage and determination of surviving spouses Ilana Romano, Anke Shpitzer and all those who have labored tirelessly for the last 48 years to ensure that the memories of their loved ones would be kept alive.
Following the ceremony, Ilana Romano spoke privately of her husband’s strength, both physical and in character.
Yosef Romano was born in Benghazi, Libya, and grew up in Israel where he became a world-class weightlifter. He is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich courageously fighting off the terrorists who had broken into the apartment where he and his fellow unarmed weightlifters were sleeping.
Rather than dwelling on her husband’s heroics or physical  prowess, Ilana remembered his humor, his love of making jokes and his soft and loving manner, saying “he never raised his voice to his daughters.”
Inside Ilana, despite the sweet diminutive figure of a devoted grandmother, beats the heart of an Olympic athlete. Together with a handful of dedicated like-minded  people, she has never been deterred, even when losing battles such as in 2012, when the London Olympics missed an opportunity to properly honor the Munich 11.
Despite setbacks, the International Olympic Committee did make strides and most recently  a magnificent museum was opened near the site of the massacre in Germany.
Fittingly, Israeli Air force commander Maj. General Amiram Norkin led an inspirational flyover of this site, together with Israeli and Luftwaffe fighters, as part of an historic flight that commemorated the liberation of Dachau.
General Norkin invited the surviving families to meet with him before departing for the mission and once again upon his return.
And while unrelated to the memorial service, one little-known aspect of the Munich Massacre is the story of those athletes who survived the event.
Yehuda Weinstein was a 17-year-old fencer who grew up in Rosh Pinah and learned  to fence as a child, when the sport was introduced to the sleepy Galilee community of some 300 families.
At 13, he earned a scholarship to study and fence in England and he continued to develop his skills and eventually qualified for the Munich Games.
Weinstein had been to Munich a month before the games attending a training camp and for no particular reason he chose the second apartment of those allotted to the Israelis. Miraculously this was the apartment that the terrorists skipped over.
Following the tragedy, Yehuda returned to Israel and began his army service, signing a waiver from pilot training so he could dedicate himself to sports. But the ensuing 1973 Yom Kippur war changed all that. Weisntein had to fight to be reconsidered for the course, and ultimately finished the demanding program as a fighter pilot.
During his career with the IAF, Yehuda decided against taking time off to fulfill his Olympic dream. But one particular moment sticks out in his mind: Sitting for hours at the end of the runway in his bomb-laden Phantom at Ramat David waiting to take off and attack the leader of a terrorist organization connected with Black September.
Just before leaving the air force, Yehuda went to the headquarters to have his aviation record certified so he could be accepted as a civilian pilot (he now flies commercially for Arkia).
The young woman who helped him was none other than the daughter of Yosef and Ilana Romano.
To be sure, Munich holds personal meaning for the few who fate selected to be unwilling participants. But the event also forged a collective consciousness for Israelis, Jews and people worldwide.
One of the most eloquent and heartfelt expressions in this regard was made by Germany’s Deputy Ambassador to Israel, Jörg Walendy
“I was not born yet when this terrible breach of the Olympic spirit happened,” said Walendy. “I only learned about Munich in school and on TV. However, the murder shocked me and it still shocks me today.
“To me – a person born after 1972 – but also to the German society as a whole, it is unbearable and shameful that only 27 years after the [Holocaust], Jewish people were faced with such horror – and were murdered on German ground. It is of tremendous importance to remember, to not forget and to pass on the lessons of the past to our children.
“It is up to the next generation – like me – to honor the victims, to educate coming generations and to understand, that this act of murder and terrorism is real – and not something from the past you only hear about. On the contrary, the tragedy teaches us that we have to learn from the past and that we have to stay vigilant so that such acts of murder and antisemitism shall never happen again.”