Remembering the Living Dead: 40 Years Since the Munich Murder

by Nathan Roi

Yakov Shpringer at the 1972 Olympics

On one of Israel’s sultry summer nights, shortly before my fifteen birthday, my parents went to the home of Yanek and Ruzsa Shpringer to wish bon voyage to Yanek (Ya’akov) on his way to participate in the Olympic Games in Munich.

The meeting took place in the home of one of the Second World War orphan children, including my father Yuzek, who were educated in an orphanage in Warsaw. Their teacher, Yanek Shpringer, had arrived at the meeting with his wife Ruzsa, who was also a war orphan, in order to part with the children he had taught. The audience were younger than him by nine years or more. They would have followed him through fire and water; they looked up to him and loved him and their souls were bound together. He was a loved and respected educator.

My father was an admirer of Yanek and it seems to me that the admiration was mutual. Yanek loved and admired my father who was an accomplished sportsman, especially in table tennis and chess (which he used playing blind with his back to the opponents because he had a photographical mind).

Both Yuzek, my father, and Yaakov Shpringer were brands plucked from the fire.

My father’s father was a cobbler from Yaroslav, a town in the Galicia in Poland with five children. When the Second World War broke out my father was nine years old. Yaakov Shpringer, then 18, had been born in Kalisch and moved to the Soviet Union as did my father. I don’t know when they met because in our childhood our parents would not talk about the Holocaust. I believe they met somewhere in the Soviet Union between Gorky and Warsaw before returning to Poland or in Warsaw. There were many versions of this meetings.

After the return to Poland, my father completed his matriculation and began to study in the School of Diplomacy of Warsaw University and Yaakov Shpringer qualified as an international weightlifting judge. Because of the proficiency he displayed he was appointed head of the heavy athletics division of the Polish Ministry of Sport.

Shpringer represented Poland in two Olympics – in 1952 and 1956. My father was at the time completing his studies and had been promised a position in the Polish Foreign Ministry. The two of them were Polish Jews embarking on a fragile path of advancement in the Communist country. They both shared a determination to succeed after their years of a struggle for survival during the war.

*

In a Limmud FSU conference for Russian speakers that took place in St. Petersburg over a year ago, I met Ben Helfgott for the first time. He had been a British champion weight lifter and had presented Britain in two Olympic Games.

Our conversation was absorbing. First it took place in Polish, my mother language, and then in English when I was at a loss for the right words. I was very moved.

I asked Helfgott, “Did you know Yaakov Shpringer?

He looked at me: “Of course! We met the evening before the murder together with about ten other Israeli athletes. In the morning I found out that he had been hijacked and later killed. This was not the first time we had met. We had met at previous Olympics because he was highly respected in Polish communist sporting circles and in the world wide weight lifters. After he immigrated to Israel, we met again in several subsequent Olympics.”

*

During the days of the shiva after the murder or maybe a little later, the Yaakov Shpringer orphans (his students in the orphanage in Poland) gathered together in his home in Bat Yam. My father took me along to hear about Yanek because a book about the murdered sportsmen was planned. The journalist Yeshayahu Porat from Ma’ariv took part as he wished to collect evidence of Yanek’s first steps in Poland. We sat together in the living room and listened to stories about Shpringer’s appreciation of the children who had meanwhile become adults and immigrated to Israel and had attempted to build up a new life from the wreckage of the Holocaust.

The dreadful story of the Munich murders in the land that had witnessed the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews had once again impacted upon the Jewish family.

My father quietly remarked, “Yanek was so proud to be representing Israel in Munich where, 36 years earlier, the Germans had tried to disbar the Jews from the Olympic Games. That period, too, is over.” My mother said that the persecution of the Jews would never cease.

As a boy of fifteen years old, I understood that there was a need to remember the struggle for life by the children and youth who strived to succeed after the Holocaust.

*

In a Limmud FSU meeting in Moscow not long after St. Petersburg, I remembered my conversations with Ben Helfgott. Ben had told me that he had met many young Jews during the Olympics in the 1950s. “I met Jews who had kept their Jewish identity secret. But they knew and I knew they were Jews.”

And again, I recalled my conversation with Ben Helfgott concerning Yaakov Shpringer.

One of the participants in Limmud FSU in Moscow was Alex Gedalkin, deputy mayor of the town of Nazareth Illit. He sat with Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, and tried to persuade him to hold a Limmud FSU event in his town.

During the extensive conversation, Chesler said that it might be a good idea to hold a Limmud FSU event shortly after the London Olympics that would be devoted to the theme of Jewish sport.

And then my fevered brain remembered the conversation with Ben Helfgott, and I said, “Next September will mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich killing. Perhaps it would be fitting to hold a memorial event and dedicate some sort of memorial.”

Alex Gedalkin replied immediately, “I will be happy to pick up the gauntlet and work for the creation of a memorial during a Limmud FSU event in the town.” Chaim Chesler, who was leading the discussion replied,” Let us hold a Limmud FSU in Nazareth Illit. I will talk to my friends at the Israel Olympic committee and you should speak to Shimon Gafsou, the mayor of Nazareth Illit.”

A month elapsed and the idea began to take form. Slowly the dream began to materialize.

Limmud FSU being what it is, the sky is no limit. Chesler said, “If we were able to bring to Limmud FSU in Beersheba the first man to walk in space, the Russian cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov and the Jewish-American astronaut Dr. Garret Reisman together with the cosmonaut Mikhail Kornyenko who flew together on the Russian Soyuz space mission, there should be no problem in combining the memory of the dead with the heritage of generations of Jewish sportsmen and women who rose up from the ashes of the Second World War to participate in the Olympics.”

*

A section of the memorial to the slain athletes dedicated August 29, 2012 in Nazareth Illit; photo courtesy Roman Yanushevsky.

Ben Helfgott, who is a vice chairman of the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany, is one of a very few examples of a Holocaust survivor to participate in the Olympic Games.

Yanek Shpringer was a Jewish Israeli example. But he was murdered. Only a few remember him. Ben Helfgott remembers him. His children, Alex and Dina, remember him. His wife remembers him. The orphans he taught remember him. Young Arab athletes in the “Cherner” Center in Jaffa whom he coached before his death may remember him. But the world Jewish community does not remember him neither his ten fellow athletes. The dead have to be awakened to bring their story to the world.

Chesler announced that the project was underway: the Nazareth Illit municipality had taken the decision to dedicate, together with the Israel Olympic Committee, a memorial to the slain athletes and Limmud FSU would mount a festival to be known as Limmud FSU Olympics. The chairpersons of the festival would be Alex Averbukch, thrice European pole vault champion, and Esther Roth-Shachamorov, the celebrated Israeli hurdler and survivor of the Munich massacre.

*

I sat with my children and told them what was going to take place.

(l-r) Mayor Shimon Gafsou, V. Mayor Alex Gedalkin, Ben Helfgott, Chaim Chesler, Ankie Spritzer; photo courtesy Roman Yanushevsky

At the beginning of the festival, when Mayor Gafsou presented a commemorative medal to Ben Helfgott, the Holocaust survivor from Buchenwald, who was born and grew up in Piotrkow in Poland, I stood at one side and wiped away a tear.

It seems that Limmud has brought to pass the dream of my late father, his orphans friends, to memorialise the father who adopted him.

In a conversation with my dead father, moments before I fall asleep (as I do often when I have a problem ), I told him about the memorial to the Munich dead.

No voice answers me but I feel that an aura of satisfaction reaches me from the outer heavens. And I fell asleep.

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