Dan Alon kept quiet about his experience as an Israeli athlete at the Munich Olympics of 1972 for more than 30 years, but Steven Spielberg’s recent movie about the massacre that took place at the Games inspired Alon to speak out, he said in a talk on Thursday.
Alon spoke about the tragedy for the first time in the United States and the third time ever in front of packed audience of about 150 in an auditorium in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, narrating his memories of the Olympics and the massacre. Alon represented Israel as a fencer in the Munich Olympics and was in the Israeli dormitories when 11 members of the Israeli delegation, including his coach, were taken hostage by a Palestinian terrorist organization, which was trying to get almost 250 prisoners released from Israeli prisons. All 11 Israelis were eventually killed in a botched rescue attempt. Alon said his goal for the talk was to share his side of the story.
“It is very hard to talk about it,” he said. “I am not a professional speaker. I’m going to tell the story only [from] my own experience.”
Alon, who had been fencing since age 12, said that entering the Olympic stadium as a representative of Israel, especially given Germany’s Nazi past, was one of the best moments of his life.
“I was really in heaven,” he said. “It was the most beautiful day of my life. … We came in with the Israeli flag. That is really something I can’t explain.”
One week after the opening ceremonies, on Sept. 5, Alon was awoken at 4:30 a.m. by loud noises and explosions, he said. At first he thought it was another team celebrating a win, he said, but soon it became obvious that something was very wrong.
“We heard very strong noises and explosions and shooting,” he said. “My room was really shaking.”
Alon said he went to the entrance of the dormitory to investigate, where he saw a man in a white hat talking to a German police officer. The man told the officer that he was taking nine Israeli athletes hostage, and had already killed two others, Alon said.
At that point, Alon said, he and the other athletes in his dormitory realized they had to escape.
“We knew that we were in … the center of the problem,” he said.
Alon and the other athletes snuck out through the back entrance of the dormitory, jumped over a balcony, and ran to German police who were waiting nearby. After their escape, they were taken to the central office of the Olympic village, Alon said, where they awaited news of their teammates and coaches. Despite initial reports that all of the hostages survived, all nine died in a failed rescue.
“The worst thing that really happened was the next morning, when we had to go back to the rooms,” Alon said. “When I saw the bullets over my bed, I realized why the wall was shaking that morning.”
One of the dead was Alon’s coach, Andre Spitzer, who was also one of his closest friends.
Alon said his survival was due to pure luck. He happened to pick a room in Entrance 2 of the dormitory, he said, while the terrorists took hostages from entrances 1 and 3.
“We were lucky that I chose No. 2,” he said. “Why they didn’t choose No. 2 I don’t know.”
The Israeli government sent a group of Israeli intelligence agents from the Mossad after three terrorists who were released from jail in Germany following the hijacking of a Lufthansa airplane, but Alon said he did not believe violence was the solution to the problems in the Middle East.
“You are angry,” said Alon. “You want … to kill them. I think that’s not a solution. When you kill the terrorists you become other ones.”
Audience members said they thought Alon was an engaging and inspiring speaker.
Rachel Butler ’08 said she liked hearing about the massacre on a personal rather than a political level.
“I thought it was very important to hear him speak,” she said. “I always hear discussion about Israel in a very political sense. … [But] it didn’t actually seem like he was coming from a specific angle or agenda.”
Leon Kotlyar ’07 said he enjoyed hearing Alon speak, but he felt that the audience was not properly respectful.
“I didn’t appreciate the questions asked,” he said. “I thought they were out of line, some of the questions involving how he felt.”
The talk was the first time Alon’s wife, who was in the audience with his daughter, has heard the story of his experience, he said.