March 3, 2024 -
These reflections were shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso during the during the Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, Shabbat Evening Service:
Remembering David Berger:
On one fateful day in 1972, Jim McKay, ABC’s Olympic broadcasting anchor, shared the impossible news just after 3 am in the morning:
I’ve just gotten the final word. When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.
The Munich Massacre, as it has come to be known, occurred during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich in southern West Germany. Members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. Eleven Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer were eventually killed.
This week marks the 50th year that we commemorate those slain members of the Israel delegation to the Olympics. One of the victims, David Berger, was raised at our synagogue…and eventually eulogized in our Mandel Sanctuary.
David Berger was smart. He excelled at Shaker Heights High School, and attended both Tulane University and Columbia University, where he received his M.B.A. and a law degree. He was passionate about wrestling, and made Aliya to Israel with hopes to make his new country’s 1972 Olympic team – and realized that goal!
David loved Israel, and when he moved to Jerusalem, he was one of the first to teach sports, specifically weightlifting, to the disabled. His intention was to open up a law office in Israel after completing his compulsory military service, but those dreams would soon be dashed. After David’s arrival in Munich, his siblings, Barbara and Fred, visited him there. The periodical, Sports Illustrated, published the following about the days leading up to the massacre:
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.”
When the Black September terrorists broke into the Olympic village, they took Berger and his roommates hostage. It is believed he was beaten in order to intimidate the other hostages. After tense negotiations, the terrorists and hostages, including Berger, were transferred to a German airbase where the terrorists hoped to be flown to Egypt.
In an effort to thwart that plan, German authorities engaged in a two-hour gunfight that resulted in the hostages being killed, including Berger.
When President Richard Nixon called David’s father, Ben, to ask him how he can assist in a tragic circumstance, Ben asked him to send his son’s body home so he could be given a proper funeral service and burial. Of the 11 slain Israeli Olympians, only David Berger was buried outside of the land of Israel. You can visit his grave and pay him tribute where his body was buried at Mayfield Cemetery.
The David Berger National Memorial is exhibited just a short way from here on the grounds of the Mandel Jewish Community Center. The Memorial is made of steel, and features the five Olympic rings broken in half, “symbolizing the interruption and the cancellation of the Munich games by the tragic events,” as the memorial site states. Those rings rest on eleven segments representing the eleven slain.
The majority of those broken rings are set in an upward fashion, suggesting “the peaceful intent of the Olympics, a search for understanding and hope for the future.”
That is all very beautiful, but for 49 years the leaders of the Olympic Games refused to honor the lives of those Israeli athletes and coaches, merely making a passing reference in 1996. It was only last year, at the Tokyo Olympics, that the Olympic Committee finally honored David and the rest of his delegation during the Opening Ceremony. Why did it take so long? Ben Berger, David’s dad, who did not live to see that Tokyo ceremony said, “They didn’t need people to remember the athletes, because they wanted everyone to forget the incident.”
Instead of honoring the humanity of the slain eleven, the Olympic Committees of the past punted on the issue time and again because of how it might look to the world to honor the memory of Israeli citizens.
The five Olympic rings were chosen to represent the five inhabited continents in the world: the Americas, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa. The rings are linked, designed to embody a unified world. As I look to the David Berger memorial, I think about those broken rings. They were designed to represent the temporary stoppage of the ’72 games, but I also view them as representative of the brokenness in how much of the world views the State of Israel – and penalizes those who support her.
Each year at Yom Kippur we lift up David Berger’s name during our beautiful Yizkor service. As we remember the loved ones who graced our lives, may the memories of each one of them be bound up with the lives of those who fell tragically on that day…including the short and meaningful life of David Mark Berger – May his memory be an enduring blessing.