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For First Time in U.s., Survivor of Munich Olympic Attack Speaks out

March 27, 2006
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Dan Alon, an Israeli fencer and 1972 Olympic athlete, never talked about his experience at the Munich Games and the Palestinian terrorist attack on the Israeli delegation. The reason was simple: No one ever asked him. At the time, he said, the media was focused on the victims and their families.

“I couldn’t just go out on the street and shout, ‘I’m a survivor, I want to talk!’ ” says Alon, 61. “So I didn’t talk about it for 30 years.”

On Thursday night, Alon’s wife and daughter heard his story for the first time, along with more than 200 students at Yale University. Alon began speaking in depth about the attack and the death of his coach, Andre Spitzer, only after Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich” prompted a Chabad group in England to seek out a survivor’s story.

The event at Yale, the first time Alon has spoken in the United States about his experiences, was sponsored by Chabad at Yale and the student group Yale Friends of Israel.

Alon began fencing when he was 12 and dreamed of competing in the Olympics. In 1972, then aged 27, Alon marched into the Olympic stadium in Munich under the Israeli flag.

“I was in heaven,” he said. “It was the most beautiful day of my life.”

Six days later, on Sept. 5, 1972, the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage in their rooms at the Olympic Village. None of the hostages survived.

Alon appears briefly in the flashback footage in “Munich.” While he says he has no special insight into the Israeli retaliation for the Olympic attack — some critics have dismissed Spielberg’s rendition of the Israeli operation as Hollywood pageantry — Alon says the parts depicting the kidnapping in the Olympic village are quite accurate.

At 4:30 a.m. Alon was sleeping in his room in the second of five units that housed the Israeli squad. He and his teammate awoke to the sound of machine gun fire. The walls of the room shook.

The eight terrorists already had captured the coaches in the first suite, inexplicably passed by Alon’s room and overpowered the weightlifters and wrestlers in the third unit.

Alon recalled that he had arrived the week before with his coach Spitzer, ahead of the rest of the Israeli delegation. The two fencers, who were the same age and from the same fencing club in Israel, were close friends.

Faced with the choice of five empty rooms, Alon insisted, for reasons he can’t explain, on taking the second one. Spitzer settled into the first suite.

Alon says his survival was pure chance.

“I chose No. 2,” he said. “It had nothing to do with me.”

On the night of the attack, the athletes in No. 2 avoided capture, but were trapped in their suite. Their clearest exits — the front door and the second-floor balcony — would expose them to the terrorists guarding the suite next door.

With tense energy, Alon described his escape for the crowd at Yale.

Initially, members of an Israeli marksmanship team at the Games proposed attacking the terrorists, but — without knowing the number of adversaries — the plan seemed too risky. Instead, the athletes decided to leave through the first-floor window.

Alon remembers one shooter hesitating as they were leaving: The man wanted to brush his teeth.

Alon and his companions walked with excruciating care down the noisy wooden steps to the first floor. One by one the four exited, sprinting toward German police officers and safety.

For the next hours, the survivors waited for news of their teammates. Late that night the hostages and the terrorists traveled to a nearby airport. German police engaged the terrorists in a shoot-out, and the Palestinians killed the Israeli hostages. In the end all of the hostages, and five of the kidnappers, were killed.

Alon said he agreed with the Olympic Committee’s decision to continue the Games.

“We can never give in to terrorism,” he emphasized.

The remnants of the Israeli team returned home on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, but it was four or five months before Alon could sleep soundly at night.

“I asked my brother to sleep with me in my bed. One night a chair fell on him, and he jumped up,” he said. “I started to scream and hit him.”

Despite his talent and many championships, Alon gave up fencing. He returned to the sport at the urging of his students only once, at age 46, when he again won the Israeli fencing championship.

He began a career in business and now is a manager-director at a plastics company. He met his wife, Adele — a native of Capetown, South Africa — while she was hitchhiking in Israel. They have three children, one of whom also fences.

Adele Alon said her husband’s willingness to relive his Munich experience astonished her.

“He knew exactly what he wanted to say,” she said. “Danny has a phenomenal memory. He remembers everything.”

Alon has returned to Munich only once since the Olympics, and — by coincidence — the trip happened to fall on Sept. 5. He took a taxi to the Olympic Village, stood outside the building for 20 minutes and then left.

Whether from the movie or from his story, Alon wants the world to know what happened in Munich. Now that he has begun talking, he says, the words come more easily each time.

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