Munich 11 widow Ankie Spitzer keeps up her fight for a minute of Olympic time

Ankie Spitzer with David Kirschtel, CEO of JCC Rockland, in front of the JCC's recently installed memorial sculpture dedicated to the 11 Israelis who died at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  (Marla Cohen)

Ankie Spitzer with David Kirschtel, CEO of JCC Rockland, in front of the JCC’s recently installed memorial sculpture dedicated to the 11 Israelis who died at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Marla Cohen)

WEST NYACK, N.Y. (JTA) — The room was splashed in blood, the walls riddled with bullet holes. Ankie Spitzer stood amid the chaos and made a vow. 

“If this is the place where Andrei spent the last hours of his life, he and his friends, I am not going to shut up. I will tell this story,” said Spitzer, whose late husband, Andrei, was the fencing coach for the 1972 Israeli Olympic delegation.

And for the past 40 years, as each Olympics approaches, she has kept her promise to remember the Israeli delegation members who were held hostage and murdered by eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September during the XX Olympiad in Munich.

The terrorists murdered two Israelis, Moshe Weinberg and Yosef Romano, at the outset. They held the remaining nine bound one to another, Spitzer’s husband included, for 20 hours, demanding that Israel release 234 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The nine died in a two-hour firefight during a botched German rescue attempt at a nearby airport. 

“It cannot be that in the Olympic Village that this happened to 11 athletes,” Spitzer said in a recent interview from her home in Ramat HaSharon, Israel. “They were not armed. They did not come to fight. They came to participate in the Olympics. It cannot be that tomorrow, nobody will talk about this anymore.”

And now, as the XXX Olympic Games in London approach, people are talking. That 2012 marks 40 years and the 10th Olympiad since the events accounts for some of the attention. An online petition at Change.org has sparked the rest. 

Spitzer’s quest began almost as soon as Jim McKay, the ABC sportscaster, uttered those now famous words, “They’re all gone,” to an international television audience. Only 26 at the time, Spitzer was a recent immigrant to Israel, speaking limited Hebrew, with a 2-month-old daughter, Anouk. A native of Holland, she had married her fencing instructor, Andrei, 15 months earlier. She returned to Israel, along with the coffins of the athletes, filled with sorrow and hate. 

About two months after the massacre, she realized she did not want to raise Anouk with such feelings.

“I could not wake with hatred in my heart because you cannot think straight, you cannot raise a kid,” she said. “Hatred and revenge are not a part of me. I am an optimist and believe in the Olympic ideal.” 

About a year later, she wrote her first letters to the International Olympic Committee. Spitzer asked not if the IOC would be doing anything, but how it would be remembering the 11 at the Montreal Games in 1976. She simply assumed the IOC would be doing something.

The letters went unanswered.

About two years into her “pestering,” as Spitzer calls it, she met Romano’s widow, Ilana, and the two began working together. She and Romano paid their own way to Montreal, where they held a packed news conference, attended the opening ceremony “and sat there like two idiots with black armbands.” 

No mention was made of the murdered Israelis.

The Jewish community of Montreal held a memorial in a synagogue attended by more than 5,000 people. Spitzer recalls the ceremony as “very beautiful, but it wasn’t what I wanted."

“We were at the Olympics. Ilana and I kept waiting for the moment when they would still do something. And we were very, very disappointed,” she said.

As the decades have passed, Spitzer, a television journalist who at 66 still aggressively covers Israel for Dutch and Belgian television and radio, has continued her campaign for a minute of silence. 

Spitzer has attended each Olympic Games since, with the exception of Moscow in 1980, in which Israel did not participate, and Los Angeles in 1984. She has continued to pursue a memorial, despite knowing it is a long shot.

Her perseverance and diligence come as no surprise to those who have watched her lobby Israel’s politicians, and confront national and international Olympic officials over the years.  

“She doesn’t give up, but there is no chance,” said Uri Afek, a three-time Israeli Olympic delegation head and past director-general of the Israel Olympic Committee. 

Time, he says, is pressing on those who want to see the IOC remember the murdered athletes now. 

“The families are not so young,” Afek, 80, said of the Munich 11 relatives. “They are looking at it like it’s the last chance.”

In May, IOC President Jacques Rogge turned down an official request for a commemoration from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. While Israel has never actively trumpeted the cause in the past, Ayalon’s interest fronts a large groundswell of worldwide political support. On Monday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution pushing for a minute of silence. A similar resolution passed in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee and in the N.Y. State Assembly. 

Canadian, Australian and British lawmakers have taken up the cause, with similar support. Germany’s foreign minister sent a letter to Rogge, and Ayalon is looking to introduce a measure in the Knesset.

The online petition at Change.org, initiated by the JCC Rockland in suburban New York, spurred much of the interest, according to Spitzer. The JCC took up the cause two years ago, making remembrance of the 11 athletes a centerpiece of the JCC Maccabi Games it is hosting in August and dedicating to the Munich 11. CEO David Kirschtel contacted Spitzer at the time, hoping she would approve of the project and attend one of the 11 memorial events leading up to the Maccabi Games. 

“You could tell in talking to her that this was a driven woman, a woman who cared deeply about the importance of remembering,” Kirschtel said. “She had nothing but consideration for the athletes, the husbands, the family members.”

Spitzer is not the only person to attribute the extraordinary attention this Olympic cycle to the petition. Ben Berger, whose Cleveland-born son, David, a weightlifter, was the only American among the murdered athletes, says the petition has really made a difference this year. 

“We’ve had anniversaries ever since 1972, but it’s pretty hard to ignore a petition that has 70,000 signatures,” said Berger, who has lobbied on his own since 1972 for a “moment of silence for peace among nations.” Thousands of signatures notwithstanding, he doesn’t see the IOC changing its tune anytime soon. 

Spitzer doesn’t see her quest as quixotic or obsessed. She likes to note that in addition to having a demanding career, she has raised four children, as evidence that she has other interests and pursuits.

Nonetheless, she has been living most of her life with the weight of what happened in Munich upon her. She had to pause to think how those events had changed her. 

“I don’t know how I would have been different,” she said. “It does teach you a few things. It teaches you how important it is when you have found the love of your life, that it exists. I did that with Andrei.”

The memory of that love spurs her forward and she vows today, just as she did in 1972, to continue. She believes that one day the IOC will cave in, if not to her, to her children or their children. 

“I think one day it is going to happen, but maybe I’m a totally unrealistic person,” she said. “If they had done it already, I’d be gone.”

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