In reconstructing Munich massacre, I learned history is ever-present
Perhaps you too can identify a primal Olympics, an Olympics that made a deep connection when you were young and impressionable, ready to be seduced by the promise of the Games.
Mine was Munich.
The 1972 Olympics, scarred and star-crossed, laid a claim on me by leaving so much of that promise unfulfilled. Yes, the gold-medal performances of Lasse Viren and Olga Korbut, of Mark Spitz and Frank Shorter, engaged me as they did so many others. But I was 15 then, just beginning to make sense of a world in turmoil. With race, protest and Cold War rivalry playing at the surface, the Munich Olympics became a pageant of vulnerability, American and otherwise. The endgame of the basketball final between the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- Yes! ... wait ... no ...
That atrocity echoes 40 years later, on the eve of the London Games, because it confirmed that the Olympics would forevermore be fair game to the determined fanatic. London understands this: The city won its bid on July 6, 2005; Islamist terrorist bombs ripped through the city's transport system the next day, a date the British have known ever since as 7/7. Even this week, as the weather turns perfect and the torch arrives, it's easy for Londoners to read the worst into the scramble to fill staffing gaps left by security contractor G4S.
"There's going to be an element of holding our breath that all goes well," says Peter Power, whose crisis management consultancy worked on security exercises with London's Olympic Delivery Authority. (For more information on London Olympics security,
Munich was a more innocent time, before experts tossed around terms like "asymmetric risks" and "cyber terrorism," and threat levels came color-coded. That's one reason the completely human inflections in the voice of ABC's Jim McKay, as he relayed updates on the hostage drama, held so much power. Sitting in front of the TV, I recognized the funeral march at the memorial service for the 11 dead Israelis, for it came from the same Beethoven symphony we were struggling to play in our high school orchestra. Even in that, the Munich Games seemed to speak to me.
So I felt a little shiver 10 years ago, when I took a call from Craig Neff, SI's Olympic editor, with an assignment to revisit the Munich tragedy for the magazine. Craig supplied all the news-peg rigging with which good editors equip writers: We're exactly 30 years on; the Palestinian mastermind of the attack, Abu Daoud, had recently published a memoir; the looming 2004 Olympics in Athens appeared to suffer from a security deficit, the perils of which the 1972 Games served as an abiding reminder.
But all I needed to hear was "Munich." I'd lived that tick-tock, hanging with millions of others on McKay's every word -- first the shock of the hostage taking, then the false hope of a successful rescue, then the horrifying and irretrievable finality of the fireball at an airfield on the outskirts of the city.
I set out to learn all I could. Time had receded like a wave, leaving details exposed on the shoals of history. A few paragraphs in an old news clip caused me to blink and shake my head, for they seemed to convey something almost impossible to fathom. As I re-read them, I wondered if a couple of years of college German, rusting now, were playing tricks on me.
There was a man, this short item seemed to say, who like Peter Power prepared crisis scenarios in advance of the Munich Olympics. He had predicted the attacks with haunting accuracy. Yet the organizers had refused to listen to him.
Could this possibly be true?
I knew someone who could properly translate the clip for me, someone fluent in German.
My father had grown up in Munich.
Now 81, he was suffering from the cancer that would eventually get him. But he took a particular interest in my assignment, confirming the gist of this story and carefully translating many more, from the
I was off. I consulted the book
And I traveled to my dad's hometown.
Two months after Craig's phone call I turned in
This is how it began:
Soon after touching down in Munich I arranged to meet Norbert, the German photographer assigned to the story, at a
There were three Georg Siebers in the Munich phone book. Norbert dialed the first, who answered right away. No, he said, he wasn't the psychologist Georg Sieber. But he got calls for that Georg Sieber all the time and cheerfully supplied the correct number.
We dialed again. Dr. Georg Sieber himself picked up the phone and invited us to his home.
Sieber now worked as a consultant to insurance companies eager to pare back their risk. But he had never fully put behind him his time with the Munich police force and the events of 1972. Over the course of several hours he laid out his story with matter-of-factness and clarity of detail. It was as if, I remember thinking, he had been waiting 30 years for someone to show up at his doorstep.
My father spent his adolescence in Nymphenburg. He lived on the Schlossrondel, the lane that traces a gracious arc in front of the palace where Bavaria's kings used to spend their summers, steps from the site of the 1972 Olympic dressage competition. He moved there with his sister in the early 1930s, soon after their parents divorced and their mother remarried, to an obstetrician and amateur violinist whom my father came to adore.
That stepfather, whose patients had included the wives of several Nazi officers, was dead by the time the war broke out. My aunt once described for me the sight of my grandmother as the air-raid sirens moaned, descending the stairs into the basement in elegant clothes, candle in hand, her head surmounted by her late husband's World War I helmet, "as if she'd walked out of a Delacroix painting."
Meanwhile my father had been issued the uniform of the Hitler Youth, like everyone at his school. Eighteen when the Nazis invaded Poland, he was quickly drafted into the
He would owe his survival of the war to many happenstances, including a moment in 1943 when he spotted a notice in the barracks that offered soldiers a chance to return to Munich to study chemistry. He had wanted to become an architect, but a change in career plans would be a small price to pay for a ticket back from the Russian front. Thus he wasn't in the line of fire when Stalin launched his offensive in the east. But by late 1944, he had been recalled from the ETH, Munich's institute of technology, and sent to the western front. This time he wouldn't play a support role behind the lines. Now Hitler was throwing every available body against the Allied assault.
The rise of the Nazis sent my dad's half-Jewish father and Catholic stepmother on the lam. Kurt Wolff had been an avant-garde book publisher, Kafka's first, and a patron of "decadent" painters like Chagall, Kandinsky and Klee. In 1933, he and his wife, Helen, fled Munich on a tip, just in front of the Gestapo. They made it to Tuscany, then Nice and ultimately through Lisbon to New York, where they arrived, virtually penniless, in 1941. With the help of refugee resettlement agencies they found an apartment off Washington Square Park, out of which they began to publish under an imprint called Pantheon Books.
It's a family mystery how my father and aunt back in Munich didn't wind up in a Nazi camp. They were certainly Jewish enough to qualify. I got the best explanation from my aunt, shortly before her death in 1994: She and my father had a Jewish grandmother named Marx, but on their mother's side there had been another grandmother, also named Marx, who was Christian. Someone -- perhaps that well-connected stepfather, the obstetrician -- had worked a piece of genealogical sleight of hand, obscuring the religion of one grandmother with the faith of the other.
After the war my father returned to Nymphenburg to live with his mother. He picked up day work making sketches of damaged buildings to help with their reconstruction. He improved his English by listening to a jazz show on Armed Forces Radio called
After finishing up with Georg Sieber, I swung by to see my father's nephew, my cousin Jon. Also a psychologist and a Nymphenburger, he lived only a few blocks away. I explained to him why I was in the neighborhood.
"I know Georg Sieber," Jon said. "He's a clever man. He served for years as president of the Bavarian Psychologists Association."
Jon, it turned out, had taken Sieber's place.
I've spent the past several months posted in London with my family, reporting on the forthcoming Olympics. During the recent soccer Euro, our kids -- a boy, 10, and a girl, 9 -- cheered for Germany. They wear their Schweinsteiger and Ozil jerseys, gifts from cousins back in Bavaria, around town without the slightest self-consciousness. But it has been impossible for my wife and me to take them to places like the Cabinet War Rooms and St. Paul's Cathedral without speaking of the Blitz, and when we speak of the Blitz it's impossible not to speak of the Nazis -- and to share with them some essentials of family history.
There was a time not long ago, we tell them, when the German government killed millions of Jewish people simply because they were Jews. A time when Germany would have had a place for a Schweinsteiger, but none for an Ozil. Our children had gotten to know and love their grandfather before he died, in 2007, and we explain how he had spent the war. They fall silent for a spell.
"Couldn't Opa have been a spy?" my daughter finally asks.
I have no real answer, but take it as a good sign that she poses the question.
Over the years I've asked questions like it. They're the kinds that occur when you see the old men with the camp tattoos in the locker room at the Jewish Community Center, to which your family belongs, as most families in your town belong, and wonder what these men would think if they knew.
They occur when you hear the violin your wife now plays -- a gift to her from your father, who himself had inherited it from that obstetrician stepfather -- and consider the breathtaking marks Germany has made on the world, the beautiful music and almost inconceivable evil.
They occur when you find yourself in Normandy, stomach knotted from more than the Calvados, peering down from the cliffs above Omaha Beach at the waves crashing below; and then, with a glance over at the perfect lines of crosses in the U.S. military cemetery, feeling a knee-buckling gratitude for every Allied soldier who gave or risked his life -- so your father might be captured at the Battle of the Bulge; and survive an American P.O.W. camp near Le Mans; and eventually make it to New York, where he would meet a music student from Connecticut who a few years earlier had planted a victory garden, and a few years later would become your mother.
They occur before you launch into an exercise in calculation that ultimately turns in on itself: Is my father's service in the
If some sort of deficit of virtue has been handed down to me on my father's side, is it closed by the efforts of a woman on my mother's, a cousin who was awarded France's Legion of Honor for her support of the Resistance, and who led a crusade on behalf of the women of Ravensbrueck, on whom Nazi doctors had conducted gruesome experiments, ultimately bringing them to the U.S. for rehabilitation and securing reparations for them from the German government after the war?
Ah, but the forebears of Caroline Ferriday -- as in Ferriday, Louisiana --had been slaveowners. How many good works was cousin Caroline obliged to perform to square the moral accounts of her
And then the exercise ends. It has to end. If such balance sheets do exist, let every child be handed a blank one on the day she or he is born.
Sometimes there are things over which an individual has no control. Georg Sieber came to understand this. My father did too.
It's a lesson my daughter will learn someday. But I'm not eager for her to make that peace with the fates, to know that resignation, any sooner than she must.