Back in 1972, as the Olympic hostage crisis came to a head, a German newspaper ran a story with the headline: “On his second visit to Germany, luck didn’t hold for Prof. [Shaul] Ladany.”
At the time, even his wife thought Ladany was among the eight Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists during the summer games in Munich.
It turned out, news of his demise was premature. Ladany, a speed walker, had never been captured by the Black September terrorists. The Holocaust survivor, who as an eight-year-old had been interned at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, had indeed had luck on his side on his trip to Germany.
Now 76 and a professor of industrial engineering, Ladany was recently in Toronto, where he described his experiences as a member of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team to a UJA Federation of Greater Toronto audience. He, along with five other athletes and an unofficial swimming coach, were in one of three apartments occupied by Israelis when terrorists struck in the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 1972.
Terrorists entered apartments one and three in the athlete’s village, leaving apartment two undisturbed.
Ladany believes it was more than blind luck that spared he and the others. The terrorists had surveilled the building and, using freely available data provided by Olympic officials, knew that Ladany shared a room with two athletes competing in shooting events. At the time, the marksmen were allowed to keep their guns and ammunition in their rooms, likely deterring an attack, he speculated.
That, of course, did not help the Israelis in the apartments next to his. Two were killed within minutes as they resisted the onslaught. Terrorists killed the others during a botched rescue attempt by German police.
Despite the passage of 40 years, Ladany can recall the incident in vivid detail.
The evening of the attack, the Israeli team attended a performance of Fiddler on the Roof in a local theatre. The group returned to the athletes’ village around midnight. The last thing Ladany did before going to his room at 1 a.m. was to return an alarm clock to wrestling coach Moshe “Muni” Weinberg. “He wanted to get up early to take a wrestler to a weigh-in,” Ladany recalled.
After setting the alarm to ring at 5:30, Ladany returned to his room and finally dozed off around 3. He didn’t hear the commotion that ensued.
“I’m an excellent sleeper,” he said. “As an artillery officer, I could sleep even during shelling.”
At around 5:30, a roommate jostled him. The first words he heard were, “‘Arabs have killed Muni.’ At first I thought he was joking. He was my roommate at the Mexico Olympic Games [in 1968] and was a joker,” Ladany said.
“I opened my eyes and saw my roommate dressing. I got into my track shoes and without realizing how serious it was, I walked to the door.”
He peaked into the corridor where he saw “a man with dark skin and hat” talking to four security guards. One of the guards, a woman, “asked the dark-skinned man to allow the Red Cross to enter to provide first aid. He refused.”
Ladany, still unseen, quietly closed the door and went to the second floor of the apartment where the other athletes were already dressed. He asked what had happened and one of the athletes – a shooter – pointed out the window to the apartment next door where Ladany could see a dark stain on the floor. “’This is from the body of Muni,’” he was told.
“The Arabs may try to catch us also, let’s get out,” one of the Israelis said.
The group descended to the ground floor, where a glass patio door opened to the outside. The first one out, Zelig Stroch, one of the marksmen, ran out in a zigzag pattern away from the building.
As Ladany slipped on a warm-up suit with “Israel” emblazoned on the back, he wondered why Stroch was taking those precautions. He quickly realized the terrorists had a clear view of anyone leaving the building and could shoot them down.
The others followed Stroch the same way, but when it was Ladany’s turn, he walked along the outside of the building to a nearby apartment occupied by the Israeli chef de mission.
The chef was on the phone, warning other Israelis about the danger and calling members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Soon, they, too, left the building, “with brisk steps, not running, not zigzagging” until they reached police lines.
After the Israelis were debriefed, Ladany was free to move around the Olympic village, and he did so, with his Israeli jacket still over top his pajamas.
“I never thought it dangerous to walk with an Israeli team suit,” Ladany said. “I’m not a coward, and I walked freely and didn’t think there was any danger.”
As police negotiated with the terrorists, Ladany and the remaining athletes were kept in the dark. He felt the hostages would be rescued.
In the end, German rescue efforts at a nearby military airport failed miserably. All the Israelis were killed, along with five of the eight hostage-takers.
Ladany heard the news “in two stages.” Around midnight, German radio reported the hostages had been freed safely. “We were extremely happy and we all went to sleep,” he recalled.
Around four or five in the morning, he was awoken with the news of what really happened. “It was an awful feeling,” he said, but probably worse for his wife, who believed her husband was dead.
Ladany, the lone track and field athlete on the team, did not have close personal ties to the other athletes. He had only known them a short time, meeting them shortly prior to departing for Germany.
He had exchanged words with David Berger, a weightlifter who, like himself, held a PhD from Columbia University in New York. “We had some conversations about our common experiences,” he recalled.
Because the others were unknown to him, “I came out of the massacre without any mental problems.” Others experienced nightmares for years afterward.
Ladany also credits his mental toughness to the life-and-death experiences he had suffered at earlier times. As a five-year-old, he endured Luftwaffe bombings of his native Belgrade. At eight, he was a refugee in the Budapest ghetto, and a few months later, he was a prisoner in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
Much has been written about the Munich massacre and it recently received the Hollywood treatment in the film Munich, which deals with Israeli efforts to track down and kill the perpetrators. Ladany has unkind words for the film’s premise. “Munich was very bad, not artistically, but because it equated two things: the action of the Arab terrorists to kill innocent people with the action of the [Israeli] Mossad where they planned to punish those who planned and executed that action… This equation is not acceptable. These were different kinds of action.”
He supported the Mossad’s retribution and was pleased to read one of the killers, living the high life in Lebanon, had “joined the other five members of the team to smell flowers from beneath.”
Ladany, who still walks his age in kilometres on his birthday, is critical of the IOC for refusing to hold a minute’s silence for the slain Israelis, but he also disapproves of the way proponents have pushed the issue.
They’d have more success if they phrased it differently and played down the Israeli aspect, he said. Perhaps a reference to Olympic athletes, only parenthetically mentioning they were from Israel, would work. The way it’s put now “is like a red flag for a bull at a bullfight,” he said, drawing the ire of Muslim countries and other anti-Israel nations.
Over time, overt references to Israeli athletes could be included, he suggested.
So what was it like, returning to Germany and then having a front row seat to the massacre? “That’s a long story. In my book, King of the Road, you can find it,” he said.
But after his experiences during the Holocaust and after serving in the Israeli army in the Six Day War and then the Yom Kippur War, “I have seen things in life and experienced many things that most people don’t experience even once,” he added.