Search

The American Cleveland-born and-bred, David Berger followed his Olympic dream to Israel, and death in Munich

Aug. 26, 2002
Aug. 26, 2002

Table of Contents
Aug. 26, 2002

The American Cleveland-born and-bred, David Berger followed his Olympic dream to Israel, and death in Munich

Nearly 20 hours after Israeli athletes were attacked at the
Olympic Village in Munich, ABC television relayed the good news
to U.S. viewers: Though details were sketchy, a German official
said, the nine hostages taken to the Furstenfeldbruck airport had
been rescued unharmed. As minutes passed agonizingly, Ben and
Dorothy Berger, watching from their home in Shaker Heights, Ohio,
knew the reports were erroneous. If the hostages had been
released, their son, David, a 28-year-old dual citizen and a
member of the Israeli weightlifting team, would have called to
say he was O.K. An hour later ABC's Jim McKay looked at the
camera and thought of the Berger family. "I knew I'd be the one
to tell them if their son was alive or dead," McKay says. As
definitive reports arrived, he spoke the words, "They're all
gone."

This is an article from the Aug. 26, 2002 issue Original Layout

Though neither his parents nor his younger siblings, Fred and
Barbara, were athletes, David Berger dreamed of making the U.S.
Olympic team soon after he began competitive lifting at age 12.
"He was compulsive about only weightlifting," recalls Ben, who
at 85 is still a practicing internist. "Nothing else." David
trained at the only lifting gym in Cleveland, marking meticulous
details of every lift in a diary with such words as "easy,"
"ugly" and "ouch." He traveled briefly with the U.S. national
team but, realizing his Olympic hopes in this country were slim,
emigrated to Israel in 1970, after receiving an undergraduate
degree from Tulane and an M.B.A. and a law degree from Columbia.
In Jerusalem he was among the first people to teach sports,
including weightlifting, to the disabled.

While their parents stayed home during the Games, Fred and
Barbara Berger traveled to Munich, where Barbara visited David
in the Olympic Village, using only a borrowed Israeli team
jacket as identification. On Sept. 4, two days after David
failed to place in his event, the three siblings went out for a
late-night snack. "When will we see you again?" Barbara asked.
David's joking response was ominous: "I'll be home for weddings
and funerals." Barbara and Fred went camping in Austria early
the next morning, not long after David had been one of the team
members who tried to resist the attackers. David later died in
the battle at the airport; an autopsy revealed that he had
succumbed to smoke inhalation while tied up in a burning
helicopter.

The Bergers instituted scholarships in David's name at Shaker
Heights High, Tulane and Columbia. A sculpture outside an Ohio
Jewish Community Center honors his life. Barbara, a landscaper,
named her son David. Still, the Bergers are bitter that the IOC
has made only a passing reference to the fallen athletes, at the
1996 Olympics. "They didn't need people to remember the
athletes, because they wanted everyone to forget the incident,"
Ben says. Years later, after Israeli agents assassinated one of
the attackers, Ben Berger took a phone call from someone who
didn't identify himself. "We got him," the voice said. It is
Fred Berger's belief that his brother would not have wanted
retaliation. "If he were in Israel today," says Fred, a social
worker in Provincetown, Mass., "he'd only want peace for
everybody." --Brian Cazeneuve

B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF BERGER FAMILY (BERGER) Berger had a law degree and an M.B.A., but weightlifting was his lifelong passion.