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Breaking The Munich Silence

Breaking The Munich Silence

New Haven, Conn.

Dan Alon can give two reasons why for 34 years he never spoke about the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich, where 11 members of the Israeli delegation were killed by Palestinian terrorists, where he was an athlete on the Israeli team, where he was among five Israelis who escaped by jumping to safety off a balcony in the Olympic Village.

First, no one asked.

"Nobody was interested in what happened to us, the survivors," he said. "The media was concerned about the people who died, about the terrorists, about the Mossad."

And if someone had asked, he still wouldn’t have discussed his experiences.

"It was very hard for me to talk," Alon said, providing the second reason.

Today he’s speaking. Alon broke his silence last month at Oxford University in London, and last week told his story at Yale University.

The former world-ranked fencer can give a two-word reason for the change of heart: Steven Spielberg.

Alon, who lives in Tel Aviv and works in the plastics industry there, was invited three months ago to a private screening in his hometown of "Munich," Spielberg’s cinematic treatment of the terrorist killings at the ’72 Games and the subsequent years of Mossad reprisals against the perpetrators.

Friends who had rarely broached the subject of Munich with Alon began asking about "Munich." Alon began answering. He accepted the invitation from Chabad of Oxford University.

His March 23 speech at Yale was his first in the United States and the first in this country by any Munich survivor since Spielberg’s film was released.

Alon’s appearance, sponsored by the Chabad at Yale and the university’s Friends of Israel organization, drew a standing-room crowd of at least 200 mixed in age and ethnicity.

It was a respectful audience that came to a lecture hall surrounded by bronze relief busts of such figures as Shakespeare, Dante and Plato, with none of the hecklers or demonstrators that are common at university speeches presented by Israelis.

In a question-and-answer period following his speech, students asked Alon about the terrorist killings, about the bungled rescue attempt by the West Germans, about the murdered Israelis.Few asked about the movie or its authenticity.

"It’s the event, not the movie" that brought people to Alon’s speech, said Daniella Berman, a Yale junior.

She called the terrorist attack, which was credited with putting the Palestinian issue on the world political map, "not beyond the frame of reference" of students born more than a decade after the Munich Olympics.

"It wasn’t that long ago," she said.Berman said Alon’s speech "put a face" on an international event, "it fleshed it out."

Jared Levant, a Yale senior, said he had "a vague idea" about the events of September 1972 and that Alon offered details.

Alon, introducing his remarks, said "I will tell you only my own experiences. "I was born as a fencer with a sword in my hand," he started.

His father, a championship fencer in Hungary who had come to Palestine in 1938, was Alon’s first coach. Alon began fencing at 12; within three years he was winning youth championships in Israel.

"I had some talent," he said.

Alon is still fit at 61, slightly tanned, his hair a little grayer than in the photo on the poster that announced his Yale speech: "Reliving Munich ’72: A Survivor’s Tale."

After his army service (he served in the 1967 and 1973 wars) he set his sights on Munich.

"I had a dream, like all the other athletes in the world, to take part in the Olympic Games," Alon said.

He qualified for the Olympics during the summer of ’72, and joined another Israeli fencer in Munich in the middle of August, invited by the German Olympic fencing team to come two weeks early to train with its fencers.

A Room With A BalconyAs the first Israelis in the team’s Olympic Village apartment, he and his teammate had their choice of rooms. Alon chose No. 2, a room in the back of the second floor, because it had a balcony.

Housing for the Israeli athletes had five entrances and no apparent security, Alon noticed.

"No security at all," he said.

His words are a veiled criticism of Israel, which he said has improved its security measures for traveling athletes post-Munich.

In those relatively innocent days, the athletes didn’t worry about their safety, he said. "We were thinking about other things": their performances in the soon-to-start competition.

Then Sept. 5 came.

The Israeli delegation had attended a performance of "Fiddler on the Roof" in Munich the previous night.

"It was the last photograph of the delegation [together]," Alon said.At 4:30 a.m., Alon woke up.

"I heard noises. I heard shooting. I heard explosions," he recalled.

The eight Black September terrorists who had scaled an unguarded gate around the Olympic Village and broken into the Israelis’ apartment had begun their killing.

Alon didn’t know that yet. The noise subsided.

"Maybe it’s some other delegation celebrating," he thought.

Twenty minutes later he heard the sound of machine guns and explosions. "My room was shaking," Alon said. "We jumped out of bed."

The violence had resumed.

Alon carefully looked outside his room. He saw two armed terrorists and the body of an Israeli coach on the sidewalk outside. He overheard one terrorist talking on the phone with German police.

Alon, who knows German, translated the terrorist’s words for his teammates: Israel had to release 200 imprisoned Palestinians or "the rest of the Israelis" being held by the terrorists would die.

The terrorists had not seen Alon. He quietly rounded up four of his teammates. They would try to escape.

"We were very afraid," Alon said.

They moved slowly, inching their way to the balcony.

"We didn’t have any choice," he said.

They jumped off the balcony to safety with the German police.

The five followed the day’s events on television: the negotiations, the Germans’ unsuccessful rescue attempt at a local airfield and, ultimately, the death of the nine Israelis under police protection.

"It was a long day," Alon said.

The next few days were a blur.

Alon and the other survivors went back to the Olympic Village apartment, gathered their belongings and the property of the murdered Israelis, attended the Olympic memorial ceremony and flew back to Israel "with 11 coffins." Rosh HaShanah arrived.

"It was a very sad beginning of a new year," Alon said.

He quit fencing.

"Emotionally I was shot," Alon said. "I took valium every day."

Besides attending an annual memorial ceremony in Israel for the Olympic martyrs, he put September 1972 behind him. He didn’t tell his wife or three children what he had seen.

The other four Israeli Olympians who had escaped (that does not include two female competitors who had been housed elsewhere in the Olympic Village and two sailors up north) also stopped competing or talking about their experiences.

‘Munich’ As Catharsis

About two decades later, Alon began teaching and coaching younger fencers. They persuaded him to start competing again. He did once, undergoing intensive training for two months. At 46 he won an Israeli fencing championship.

"Then I quit again," he said.

Alon accepted the invitation to the screening of "Munich" because "it interested me to see" how Spielberg depicted that part of his life.

His review of the film?

"I liked the movie very much," he said. "It gives a good message for Israel," showing how Israel was a terrorist target.

Spielberg, who had not consulted any of the other survivors for the script, "did a very good job," Alon said. "It was very close to reality."

Too close, he added. "It was very painful" to watch the film. "I had deja vu."

Alon had not served in Israeli intelligence, but friends in the Mossad told him that the film’s version of undercover operations "is quite valid."

A Yale student asked about the film’s implied "moral equivalency," condemning both the terrorists’ murders and the Mossad killings.

There is no equivalency, Alon said. But in guarded terms, he said he disagreed with the Mossad’s targeted assassinations of the terrorists.

"I don’t believe in bloodshed," he said. "That’s not the solution. There are other solutions." He suggested that political pressure and economic boycotts "are more effective."

When reprisal killings take place, Alon said, "the killings never stop."

Alon cautioned that he is not a member of Israel’s peace camp; his politics are not liberal.

"I am not left-minded," he said. "I am [on the] right."

Kathryn Matlack, a Yale senior, said Alon with "his message against violence was very compelling.

"Watching the film was cathartic, Alon said.

"I was released," he said.When people started to ask questions, he started to answer. When Chabad of Oxford approached him, he agreed to go.

"They were so curious," Alon said.

His speech would be good public relations for Israel, he thought.

Chabad at Yale, which sponsored Alon’s speech as part of a series of speakers on contemporary and not necessarily religious issues of Israeli society, viewed a firsthand look at the Munich killings as "an opportunity to help educate today’s Jewish students about the struggles of Israel," said Rabbi Shua Rosenstein, its executive director.

Rabbi Rosenstein also arranged for Alon to speak at Princeton, Dartmouth and the University of Connecticut.

"As unfortunate as it is," Rabbi Rosenstein said, "the Munich Olympics massacre is a major part of modern Jewish and Israeli history that must never be forgotten."

At the Oxford speech, Alon said "it was very hard for me to talk," that the words stuck in his throat.

Speaking at Yale, for the second time in public, was easier, he said.

Someone in the audience asked Alon why he had survived when 11 Israelis died.

"It was fate. It was a coincidence," he said. "It was because I chose No. 2," the room in the back with the balcony. "Unfortunately, Andre Spitzer didn’t listen to me."

Spitzer, Alon’s coach and old friend, decided to stay in a room without a balcony. Spitzer, captured by the terrorists, was among the 11 victims.

After his speech, Alon was surrounded by students and older members of the New Haven community peppering him with more questions in English and Hebrew.

His speeches about Munich and "Munich" probably will not end after he returns to Israel this week, he said.

"If I’ll be invited, I’ll keep on talking," he said. "Why not? It’s good for Israel."

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