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More than 40 years later, Munich 11 will get Olympic moment of silence

American weightlifter David Berger was one of 11 members of the Israeli team killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. (Courtesy Barbara Berger)

Security was lax entering and leaving the 1972 Olympic Village in Munich. Barbara Berger knows this firsthand, because she was there on Sept. 3, 1972 to watch her 28-year-old brother, David Berger, an American, lift weights as a member of the Israeli Olympic team.

The next morning, Berger and her other brother, Fred, left to go camping in Austria. She intended to travel around Europe before starting law school in the fall. On the morning of Sept. 5, “I was on my way to the shower at the campground and heard a news broadcast in English,” Berger told the AJP. There had been a shooting at the Munich Olympic Village, and 11 Israeli athletes and one German police officer were dead.

Barbara Berger
Barbara Berger

Berger asked the campground owner if she could use the phone, which the owner denied. “I can’t imagine the reason. I’m sure it was pure anti-Semitism. The owner said, ‘Your brother is not Israeli. You’re speaking English,’” Berger recalls. “We drove to Salzburg and called the American Embassy.” She discovered that David was one of the 11 members of the Israeli team who were abducted and murdered by Palestinian terrorists who had invaded their dormitory.

Berger then called her parents, Ben and Dorothy Berger, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “They already knew,” she says. Forty-three years later, Berger still remembers going in and out of the Olympic Village. She and Fred had invited David to stay with them in a pension. David had invited Fred to stay with him in the dormitory. Neither invitation was accepted. “But imagine if Fred had stayed in the dormitory. I would be without both of my brothers,” she says.

Following David’s death, “my parents never wanted retribution. They wanted to move forward in a peaceful way. My brother was a pacifist,” she says. “They set up scholarships” at Shaker Heights High School, where David competed on the wrestling team; Tulane University, his college alma mater; and Columbia University, where he earned M.B.A. and law degrees while training for the Olympics.

The elder Bergers “always wrote letters to the [International] Olympic Committee, asking for a moment of silence [at future Olympics], as did other families,” notes Berger. “My father also lobbied on his own but it got him nowhere in more than 40 years. My father asked for a moment of silence for peace, not in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered.”

Berger, who now lives in Tucson half the year, recalls her brother David as “the brilliant one, a scrawny kid who at 13 took up weightlifting and just loved it. He took it up and never quit.” She grew up in a Reform Jewish family in Shaker Heights. “Often Jewish guys end up in sports writing,” not as athletes, says Berger. But David “was determined to bulk up.” He would drink what he called “my revolting drink,” which included protein powder and raw eggs — drawing a response of “ick” from his kid sister.

In the Olympics, “he wasn’t at the level where he was going to be a medal contender. Those were the stronger guys, the Russians and Germans,” she says. “He won all the [weightlifting] awards at Tulane. He felt certain that he would make it to the Olympics from Israel” and moved there in 1971 to try out for and train with the Israeli team.

David was always reading Strength and Health magazine. “I haven’t been able to throw out a box of the magazines in my father’s condo,” says Berger, who took care of her father for four years until he died in September 2014 at age 97 in Portland, Maine, where she now lives half the year.

Family friends commissioned and paid for a memorial in the absence of a moment of silence. The David Berger National Memorial, a sculpture created by the late David E. Davis, is now located at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland. Through the efforts of former Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, a longtime friend of Berger’s father, Congress authorized the memorial as a National Historic Landmark on March 5, 1980.

On March 3, Berger received an email from David Kirschtel, CEO of the JCC Rockland in West Nyack, N.Y., which has long advocated for a moment of silence, informing her of the IOC’s decision to commemorate the Munich massacre victims during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. “You played a key role in bringing this about,” Berger replied in an email thanking Kirschtel, adding, “I am so thrilled. I only wish my parents were alive to hear it.”

In previous years, some ceremonies have taken place offsite, including one organized by the Israeli Embassy and the London Jewish community during the 2012 Olympics. Moments of silence also have been held at JCC Maccabi tournaments.

In 2016, the IOC will establish a special area in the Olympic Village to commemorate the memory of the 11 Israeli athletes killed by terrorists in the 1972 Munich Olympics. In addition, a “moment of reflection” in honor of the victims will be held during the closing ceremony. IOC President Thomas Bach said, “the IOC will remember all those who lost their lives during Olympic Games,” citing Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died in a crash before the start of the 2010 Vancouver Games, according to ynetnews.com.

“I do feel that if American[team members] had been killed they would have had a moment of silence long ago,” said Berger. “My father would say, ‘What’s wrong with a moment of silence for peace? Who could be offended by that?’ The response from the IOC was that it was ‘too political.’” In Rio, she says, “I would like to see it be a moment of silence for peace because the world we live in is now so crazy. It would be a good platform to promote peace.”