By Harriet P. Gross
Her name was Ilse, and she had been a child survivor of the Holocaust. In the summer of 1972, she was the long-married mother of two grown children. The city of Munich was eagerly inviting back those Jews they had chased out who had somehow survived, for a municipal expense visit, and Ilse was on the list.
At first, she didn’t want to go. She was afraid. But at the urgings of her husband and his sister, her very best friend, she made the trip. She returned somewhat relieved, but still frightened. Even the Swiss police that she saw on a brief pre-Germany stopover scared her, although she said she knew they were really “a Mickey Mouse army.” She brought back new pictures to go with her few treasured childhood ones, and let me do a feature story about her, her history and her new experiences, for our local Chicago-area newspaper.
Irony: Soon afterward came the Munich Olympics.
Surely every Jew now knows what happened in that place, at that time, 40 years ago: the cold-blooded murder of 11 athletes and coaches on the Israeli team — the story of a Palestinian sneak attack followed by the taking of hostages, a botched and failed rescue attempt and, finally, the cowardly killings. We must keep the memory alive, because in all this time, the tragedy has never been recognized or its victims honored during any of the subsequent Olympic Games.
This lack emerged more clearly than ever this year as the London Olympics began with the usual fanfare and one telling, not-to-be-ignored circumstance: the current Games mark the fourth-decade anniversary of that uncommemorated bloody blot on the huge event designed to bring the whole world together in peace through sportsmanship.
Ramped-up pressure for 60 memorial seconds of silence at last Friday’s opening ceremony was firmly refused by the International Olympic Committee. Why? Old stuff: Primarily because “the Games are not political”! And secondarily, because “a commemoration of this sort [would be] ‘inappropriate’ [for] such a celebratory event.”
Professor Deborah Lipstadt, author and expert on the Holocaust, gleaned these “reasons” from recent history, and links them to something she finds much bigger and more insidious.
“I have long inveighed against the tendency of some Jews to see anti-Semitism behind every action that is critical of Israel or of Jews,” she wrote recently in Tablet Magazine. But, “Here the charge is absolutely accurate … Imagine for a moment that these athletes had been from the United States, Canada, Australia or even Germany. No one would think twice about commemorating them. But these athletes came from a country and a people who somehow deserve to be victims. Their lost lives are apparently not worth a minute. The IOC’s explanation is nothing more than a pathetic excuse … ”
(Her entire story on “The real reason the Olympic Committee refuses to commemorate the Israeli athletes murdered in Munich” can — and should — be read at http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-new-and-politics/106409/jewish-blood-is-cheap.)
As always, news items inspire spinoff stories. The New York Times found a fascinating one while exploring the history of the linked rings that became the Olympic symbol back in 1914. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who had founded the modern Games 20 years earlier, meant them to represent the five world continents with participating athletes. Much later, a myth grew that he had been inspired by the finding of an old stone, etched with a five-ring design, at a Greek archaeological site.
But the truth was that Leni Riefenstahl, the brilliant but later much (and deservedly) maligned filmmaker for Adolph Hitler, “stage-crafted a mythic backdrop when she passed through Greece to document the torch ceremony for the 1936 Games,” the Times reports. “Someone — perhaps a set designer — hacked that stone into an ersatz relic of antiquity. It was pure Goebbels-style kitsch: the Nazis would have liked us to believe that the Olympic symbol emerged from the mists of Delphi.”
Ah, the irony: those Games from which Hitler excluded Germany’s Jewish athletes were also those at which he was infuriated when Jesse Owens, America’s legendary black runner, won gold.
I’m fond of connections: the late Ilse, historian Lipstadt, Hitler, the recent Aurora massacre. At an outdoor Shakespeare Dallas performance just a day after the latter, I saw how easy it could be for some demented madman to walk right into such an open space and start mowing down innocent playgoers. My Boubby the Philosopher would surely have been relieved, even grateful, that the Colorado perpetrator wasn’t Jewish. Truth told: so am I …