Friday, December 4, 2015


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A Munich synagogue held the coffins of the victims of the attacks at the 1972 Olympics. Terrorists representing a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization breached apartments housing Israeli athletes. CreditAssociated Press 
In September 1992, two Israeli widows went to the home of their lawyer. When the women arrived, the lawyer told them that he had received some photographs during his recent trip to Munich but that he did not think they should view them. When they insisted, he urged them to let him call a doctor who could be present when they did.
Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer, whose husbands were among the Israeli athletes held hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, rejected that request, too. They looked at the pictures that for decades they had been told did not exist, and then agreed never to discuss them publicly.
The attack at the Olympic Village stands as one of sports’ most horrifying episodes. The eight terrorists, representing a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization, breached the apartments where the Israeli athletes were staying before dawn on Sept. 5, 1972. That began an international nightmare that lasted more than 20 hours and ended with a disastrous failed rescue attempt.
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Ankie Spitzer, the widow of the fencing coach Andre Spitzer, at the Olympic Village in 1972. She said she and family members of the other victims learned the details of how the victims were treated only 20 years after the attack. CreditAssociated Press 
The treatment of the hostages has long been a subject of speculation, but a more vivid — and disturbing — account of the attack is emerging. For the first time, Ms. Romano, Ms. Spitzer and other victims’ family members are choosing to speak openly about documentation previously unknown to the public in an effort to get their loved ones the recognition they believe is deserved.
Among the most jarring details are these: The Israeli Olympic team members were beaten and, in at least one case, castrated.
“What they did is that they cut off his genitals through his underwear and abused him,” Ms. Romano said of her husband, Yossef. Her voice rose.
“Can you imagine the nine others sitting around tied up?” she continued, speaking in Hebrew through a translator. “They watched this.”
Ms. Romano and Ms. Spitzer, whose husband, Andre, was a fencing coach at the Munich Games and died in the attack, first described the extent of the cruelty during an interview for the coming film “Munich 1972 & Beyond,” a documentary that chronicles the long fight by families of the victims to gain public and official acknowledgment for their loved ones. The film is expected to be released early next year.
In subsequent interviews with The New York Times, Ms. Spitzer explained that she and the family members of the other victims only learned the details of how the victims were treated 20 years after the tragedy, when German authorities released hundreds of pages of reports they previously denied existed.
Ms. Spitzer said that she and Ms. Romano, as representatives of the group of family members, first saw the documents on that Saturday night in 1992. One of Ms. Romano’s daughters was to be married just three days later, but Ms. Romano never considered delaying the viewing; she had been waiting for so long.
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Ilana Romano, left, the widow of the weight lifter Yossef Romano, with Spitzer in 2012. CreditJack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 
The photographs were “as bad I could have imagined,” Ms. Romano said. (The New York Times reviewed the photographs but has chosen not to publish them because of their graphic nature.)
Mr. Romano, a champion weight lifter, was shot when he tried to overpower the terrorists early in the attack. He was then left to die in front of the other hostages and castrated. Other hostages were beaten and sustained serious injuries, including broken bones, Ms. Spitzer said. Mr. Romano and another hostage died in the Olympic Village; the other nine were killed during a failed rescue attempt after they were moved with their captors to a nearby airport.
It was not clear if the mutilation of Mr. Romano occurred before or after he died, Ms. Spitzer said, though Ms. Romano said she believed it happened afterward.
“The terrorists always claimed that they didn’t come to murder anyone — they only wanted to free their friends from prison in Israel,” Ms. Spitzer said. “They said it was only because of the botched-up rescue operation at the airport that they killed the rest of the hostages, but it’s not true. They came to hurt people. They came to kill.”
For much of the past two decades, Ms. Spitzer, Ms. Romano and Pinchas Zeltzer, the lawyer, mostly kept the grisly details to themselves, though at least one prominent report about the images surfaced. When Ms. Romano returned home that first night, she told her daughters the pictures were “difficult” but said they should not ask her more about them. Her daughters agreed.
At various points over the next 20 years, Ms. Romano said, she did make occasional references to the mutilation of her husband, but she always kept the photographs of the episode hidden.
According to Ms. Spitzer, confusion about what had happened to the victims existed from the beginning. The bodies of the victims were identified by family or friends in Munich — Ms. Romano said an uncle of her husband identified his corpse but was shown only his face — and, as per Jewish law, burials were held almost immediately after the bodies were flown back to Israel.
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Israeli and Olympics flags in 2002 near a plaque in honor of the members of the Israeli Olympic team killed during the 1972 Munich Olympics.CreditEnric Marti/Associated Press 
Since much of the attention from Israeli officials after the attacks focused on security breaches and mistakes by German and Olympic officials that had allowed the terrorists to strike, consideration of the plight of the dead victims had been a priority only to their families.
“We asked for more details, but we were told, over and over, there was nothing,” Ms. Spitzer said.
In 1992, after doing an interview with a German television station regarding the 20th anniversary of the attack in which she expressed frustration about not knowing exactly what happened to her husband and his teammates, Ms. Spitzer was contacted by a man who said he worked for a German government agency with access to reams of records about the attack.
Initially, Ms. Spitzer said, the man, who remained anonymous, sent her about 80 pages of police reports and other documents. With those documents, Mr. Zeltzer, the lawyer, and Ms. Spitzer pressured the German government into releasing the rest of the file, which included the photographs.
After receiving the file, the victims’ families sued the German government, the Bavarian regional government and the city of Munich for a “deficient security concept” and the “serious mistakes” that doomed the rescue mission, according to the complaint. The suit was ultimately dismissed because of statute-of-limitations regulations.
Nonetheless, the families have largely focused their efforts on ensuring a place for remembrance of their loved ones in the fabric of the Olympic movement. After decades of lobbying, the victims’ families were heartened when the International Olympic Committee, led by a new president, Thomas Bach, agreed this year to help finance a permanent memorial in Munich. There are also plans to remember the Munich victims at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
At the moment, the victims will be included in a moment of remembrance for all athletes who have died at the Olympics; Ms. Spitzer and Ms. Romano continue to press for the Israeli athletes from Munich to be remembered apart from athletes who died in competition, arguing that their deaths were the result of unprecedented evil.
“The moment I saw the photos, it was very painful,” Ms. Romano said. “I remembered until that day Yossef as a young man with a big smile. I remembered his dimples until that moment.”
She hesitated. “At that moment, it erased the entire Yossi that I knew,” she said.