Massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games

a rusted memorial of broken Olympic rings surrounded by gardens
The David Berger National Memorial. NPS Photo.

The David Berger National Memorial is a sculpture that honors the memory of David Berger, an American/Israeli citizen who was one of the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. The Memorial is located on the grounds of the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland. This article details the tragedy.

The Tragedy Unfolds

Television satellite technology allowed an estimated one billion people around the world to watch as tragedy unfolded at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Many of these people heard Jim McKay utter the words that informed the world that hopes for a positive outcome would not be realized.

The disastrous events of September 5th, 1972 came after an evening of fun for the Israeli athletes who, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), had enjoyed a night out at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof before returning to the Olympic Village. Later, as the athletes slept, eight armed members of the Palestinian group Black September, breached the Olympic compound by scaling the surrounding six foot fence and entering two apartments used by the Israeli team.

While investigating a noise at the door of the first apartment, Israeli wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund, watched as the door began to open and saw masked men with guns on the other side. He yelled to the others as he threw his weight against the door and in the ensuing confusion two athletes escaped and another eight managed to hide. According to the CBC, weightlifter Joseph Romano grabbed an intruder's gun but was shot and killed, as was wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, when he tried to attack one of the kidnappers with a fruit knife as the hostages were being transported.

The Palestinian terrorists were led by Luttif Afif, his deputy Yusuf Nazzal, and other Black September members Adnan Al-Gashey and his cousin Jamal Al-Gashey, Afif Ahmed Hamid, Khalid Jawad, Ahmed Chic Thaa, and Mohammed Safady.

Following their initial assault, the terrorists had nine living hostages. They were referee Yossef Gutfreund, American-born weightlifter David Berger, weightlifter Ze'ev Friedman, wrestler Eliezer Halfin, track coach Amitzur Shapira, shooting coach Kehat Shorr, wrestler Mark Slavin, fencing coach Andre Spitzer, and weightlifting judge Yakov Springer.

Terrorist Demands

When the hostage-takers demanded the release of 234 Palestinians jailed in Israel and two jailed in Germany, the swift and decisive response from Israel was that there would be no negotiations. Munich police chief and the head of the Egyptian Olympic team, negotiated directly with the kidnappers, offering them unlimited amounts of money. The Tunisian and Libyan ambassadors to Germany also tried unsuccessfully to make progress through negotiations with the kidnappers.

The terrorists demanded transportation to Cairo following more than twelve hours of unsuccessful negotiations. Authorities led the terrorists to believe they would comply while in truth they were planning to ambush them at the airport. Shortly after 10 p.m., two helicopters transported the terrorists and their hostages to nearby Fürstenfeldbruck airbase, where a Boeing 727 aircraft was waiting.

Rescue Fiasco

The rescue attempt that unfolded was a fiasco for many reasons. First, the German snipers that were chosen had no sharpshooting experience, had no communication with each other, and believed there were only five captors when in truth there were eight. Second, the police were not properly outfitted. They did not have helmets, bulletproof vests, night-vision scopes or long-range sights on their rifles, and had not requested back-up in time. Lastly, the flight crew, made up of German police who had volunteered for the assignment to overpower the terrorists when they boarded the plane, abandoned their post as the helicopters arrived carrying the terrorists and their hostages.

Six of the Palestinian terrorists disembarked from the helicopters with the four pilots held at gunpoint. When two of the terrorists inspected the plane and found it empty, they sprinted back toward the helicopters and the police snipers opened fire.

As the shots flew several of the terrorists were killed. Those still alive attempted to flee, returned fire, and attempted to shoot out airport lights that were illuminating them. A German policeman in the control tower was killed by the gunfire. The pilots fled, but the hostages, who were bound inside the helicopters couldn't escape.

Just past midnight of September 6, one of the terrorists, opened fire into one of the helicopters killing Springer, Halfin, and Friedman and wounding Berger in the leg. It is believed that another terrorist opened fire in the second helicopter killing Gutfreund, Shorr, Slavin, Spitzer and Shapira. David Berger died of smoke inhalation when a terrorist next tossed a grenade into the helicopter causing an explosion.

Terrorist leader Luttif Afif Issa and another terrorist were killed as they fired at police. Three of the remaining terrorists, two of whom were wounded, were captured by police. Yusuf Nazzal, second in command for the hostage taking, escaped and was tracked by dogs. He was shot after an exchange of gunfire.

The rescue attempt was over and in every way it had failed. Amazingly, with the world watching the seige unfold on their television sets, the initial news reports, published all over the world, indicated that all the hostages were alive, and that all the terrorists had been killed. For the families of the victims and for citizens around the world who watched and hoped for the best, the truth was soon revealed.

Last updated: November 9, 2023