Fifty years after a terror attack at the Munich Olympics claimed a dozen victims’ lives, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier apologized for his country’s failed response to the massacre, and for the pain German officials had caused the victims’ families in the following decades.
The reckoning was the culmination of a long fight for official acknowledgment of missteps that contributed to the attack, in which Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli coaches and athletes hostage and killed them on Sept. 5 and 6, 1972.
Mr. Steinmeier addressed victims’ family members during landmark commemorations on Monday, just days after they had won a historic settlement from German authorities. Dozens of them had travelled from Israel to witness the event.
After being accused of stonewalling and obfuscating for years, the German government last week agreed to release classified documents related to the attack and strike a commission to study the incident. It also promised to acknowledge responsibility for failing to heed warnings before the attack, and for a botched police response. And it pledged to pay compensation to the families.
The hostage-taking began just before dawn on Sept. 5, in the Olympic village, and ended 20 hours later at a nearby airfield. In addition to the Israeli victims, one police officer was killed during a failed rescue attempt, as were five of the eight terrorists, who belonged to an extremist group called Black September.
Monday’s commemorations began with a gathering at a memorial site in the Olympic village.
Sitting between her daughter and niece, Mika Slavin listened behind sunglasses. Half a century after the murder of her brother, wrestler Mark Slavin, she said the weight on her chest has finally lifted.
“We had to fight for everything,” Ms. Slavin said in an interview. “It’s something that had to happen, the truth had to come out.”
Ms. Slavin was born two years after her brother was killed. She said she was raised in a loving family overwhelmed by grief. Memories of the brother she never met have been ever-present. Shortly before her father died, she said, he asked her to keep fighting for justice.
“It’s hard to be here. But I’m grateful that we came to this point,” she said. “We waited so many years. My parents passed away more than 20 years ago, and I wish that they were here to have this closure as well.”
In the aftermath of the attack, German officials imposed a wall of silence. There was no public inquiry and no trial for the three surviving terrorists. The victims’ families waited 20 years before receiving the first formal accounts of what had happened to their loved ones.
German and Olympic officials tried to silence the families and suppress information, Yehiel Tropper, Israel’s Minister for Culture and Sport, said in a speech at Monday’s ceremony. He accused Germany of negligence in its response to the attack and condemned the country’s cold approach immediately afterward. The Olympics resumed, while Israel was left to bury its dead, he said.
“It took 50 years for justice to be seen, but persistence paid off and justice, albeit late, was seen,” he added.
Munich’s resistance to commemorating the Olympic terror attack is part of a broader unwillingness to acknowledge the darker parts of the city’s past, said Bernhard Purin, the director of the city’s Jewish Museum. He said Munich also took a long time to acknowledge that it was the birthplace of Nazism.
The 1972 massacre is still controversial for some, Mr. Purin said. He noted that there has been public criticism of Germany’s agreement with the victims’ families. The backlash, he said, is being driven by a mix of antisemitism and anger over the idea that a foreign conflict was brought to German soil.
Nine of the Israeli victims died during a failed police rescue at the Fuerstenfeldbruck airfield, outside of Munich. Monday’s second ceremony was held there.
Amid a heavy security presence, Mr. Steinmeier attended alongside Israeli President Isaac Herzog. The German President told the people gathered there that his country must acknowledge the painful facts of the massacre.
“May the outcome of today be that you, the families, feel properly seen and heard in your pain, and feel that we take our responsibility seriously,” an English translation of his speech said.
The final word was given to Ankie Spitzer, the widow of fencing coach Andrei Spitzer, who was killed in the attack. After his death, Ms. Spitzer committed herself to what became a decades-long campaign for justice. The two had been married for just over one year at the time. “They murdered our hopes, our dreams, our future,” she said.
“Please forgive me Andrei that it took me so long. Although we have finally, after 50 years, reached our goal, at the end of the day you are still gone and nothing can change that.”
“You can rest now, and so can I.”
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