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50 years after Munich Olympics attack, victims’ families are compensated

Two West German police officers, armed with submachine guns and wearing athletes tracksuits, get into position on the roof of the building where armed Palestinian terrorists are holding Israel Olympic team members hostage in 1972. (AP)
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Fifty years ago Monday, on Sept. 5, 1972, Palestinian extremists infiltrated athletes’ dorms at the Munich Summer Olympics, an attack that resulted in the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a German police officer and set off an international crisis.

It also led to five decades of complaints from the athletes’ families that German authorities had botched the response to the attack and concealed key details from them.

Now, after years of legal wrangling, Germany has agreed to give 28 million euros to the families of the murdered Israeli athletes, the Israeli and German governments announced on Wednesday.

“We are pleased and relieved that an agreement on historical clarification, recognition and compensation has been reached shortly before the 50th anniversary,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a joint statement with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

The agreement came just days before a 50th-anniversary commemoration that the families had planned to boycott unless the German government offered what they deemed just compensation.

Just a few weeks ago, the families had turned down an offer from Germany that would have amounted to about 200,000 euros for each family, according to Ankie Spitzer, whose husband, Andre, an Olympic fencing coach, was murdered during the hostage standoff.

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Calling the initial offer “an insult,” Spitzer told German officials they could keep the money “because it is not a dignified offer,” Spitzer said in a phone interview from her home outside Tel Aviv. She noted that compensation for international acts of terrorism usually ranges from $3.5 million to $22 million per victim, according to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Families of passengers on the Pan Am Flight 103 that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 each received $10 million, for example.

The new agreement provides 1.2 million euros for each of the 23 eligible family members, Spitzer said.

Billed as “the Happy Olympics,” the 1972 Munich games were the first to be broadcast internationally on television. Looking to shed its Nazi past, West Germany aimed to project a harmonious image to the world, to erase memories of the 1936 games in Berlin that were used as a platform for Hitler’s propaganda.

Swimmer Mark Spitz won a record-breaking seven gold medals, a feat that remained unsurpassed until Michael Phelps won eight in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The USSR’s Olga Korbut, dubbed “the sparrow from Minsk,” became an international celebrity after stunning performances on the balance beam, floor exercises and uneven bars.

But in the early morning on Sept. 5, the image of unity was shattered when Palestinian militants with submachine guns stormed the apartment where 11 Israeli athletes were housed. The activists were members of the Black September group, which sought to bring attention to the Palestinian cause.

Black September leaders thought the Olympics, with an international TV audience, would put their politics on the map.

The eight guerrillas immediately killed two athletes, and nine others were taken hostage, handcuffed and beaten. The Palestinians demanded Israel, West Germany and other nations release more than 200 political prisoners. If the demands weren’t met by a certain time, the terrorists would kill one hostage per hour until all the prisoners were released.

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“The Olympics of serenity have become the one thing the Germans didn’t want them to be: the Olympics of terror,” ABC-TV announcer Jim McKay told his audience, according to the 1999 documentary “One Day in September.”

The image of a hooded Palestinian holding a machine gun on the balcony of the Olympic apartment became a worldwide symbol of lawlessness. West Germany contacted Israeli officials, experienced at negotiating with terrorists, but in the end turned down their offers to help.

German officials had been warned of a potential action by Palestinian militants. But more concerned about maintaining a peaceful appearance, officials decided not to have armed police officers at venues, instead using unarmed security officers.

For the next 20 hours, Germany tried to rescue the hostages but were consistently foiled, including when cameras captured undercover police maneuvers, which the Palestinians saw on TV in the Israeli team’s apartment.

Meanwhile, the United States hustled Jewish American Mark Spitz out of the Olympic Village for fear he’d be targeted.

With talks stalled, that night, the Palestinians requested an airplane to fly the remaining nine hostages to an Arab nation to continue negotiations. German officials hatched a plan: They would send five snipers to Fürstenfeldbruck, a German Air Force base outside Munich, and put police officers on the airplane to overtake the terrorists. Under West German law, the army couldn’t get involved in what was called a civil matter, so Bavarian police with no counterterrorism experience had to lead the operation.

Munich police officer Guido Schlosser was 21 and had just finished training when he was called to join 13 other officers to pre-board the Lufthansa plane and overtake the Black September leaders, he said in an email interview.

The police officer in charge “saw no chance of success in overpowering the terrorists in the confines of the airplane and said it was a suicide mission,” said Schlosser, 71, who is retired after 42 years as an officer and detective.

The officer proposed a vote to abort the mission, and the young, inexperienced lawmen agreed to abandon the plane.

When two helicopters holding the Palestinian terrorists and Israeli team members landed at Fürstenfeldbruck, chaos broke out. Two Palestinians boarded the Lufthansa plane, saw it had no crew or fuel, and realized it was a setup. As the German snipers opened fire, the Palestinians responded by firing back and hurling grenades at the helicopters, killing all the Israelis and one German police officer. Five Palestinians were killed in the shootout; three survived and were arrested.

Families of the 11 murdered Israelis have decried how German authorities handled the episode. When searching for answers, family members said they were met with obstruction and sometimes hostility.

“After it first happened in 1972, one official told me, ‘You Jews brought the terror on yourselves,’ and refused to release any documents,” Spitzer said.

Finally, in 1992, documents and photos were anonymously sent to Spitzer’s lawyers, “and then we saw the horror,” she said. Photos showed the hostages brutally beaten, chained together and covered in blood and feces.

Before last week’s agreement, families of the Israeli victims had received small humanitarian payments from the German Red Cross and later the German government, which never formally accepted responsibility until now, Spitzer said.

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Wracked with guilt, Guido Schlosser made a bold move last year: He reached out to Spitzer and her daughter, Anouk, to finally apologize for his role in the aborted rescue attempt.

“I saw the dead Israeli athletes shot and tied up in their blood sitting in the helicopter,” he said. “I saw the Palestinians shredded by their own hand grenades — all terrible images I couldn’t get out of my head.”

“When he said he was sorry for not being able to help save my husband and Anouk’s father, we all cried,” Spitzer said.

“Afterwards, I felt relieved as if a heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders,” Schlosser said. “I was able to make my inner peace.”