By HILLEL KUTTLER, NY TIMES—
Our family trip to Cleveland for Monday night’s Indians game would ordinarily prompt a historical detour, perhaps to the site of League Park, where the Bill Wambsganss-era Indians played. Instead, I can stomach only a David Berger tour now.
“Do you know the name David Berger?” I said to my teenage sons.
“No idea,” they responded.
Berger, 28, competed as a weight lifter for Israel’s Olympic team in 1972 but returned from Munich to his native Cleveland in a coffin. He was one of 11 members of the Israeli team abducted and killed by Palestinian terrorists who invaded their dormitory. The International Olympic Committee’s refusal to memorialize the Munich tragedy at the London Games demonstrated an inability to see the trees for the forest.
By visiting Berger’s grave, his high school and a National Park Service memorial in his name, I hope to gain greater insight into this lone tree: Berger earned M.B.A. and law degrees at Columbia, then moved to Israel and competed on the world stage. Our car trip from Baltimore serves to temporarily extract Berger from the “Munich 11” basket and see him — and help my sons see him — not as a symbol but as one person. It’s an educational opportunity, fortunately during the London Games.
Speaking last week with people who knew Berger or were inspired by him gave me some understanding, and they represent the power individuals can exert to perpetuate his legacy.
Growing up in Williamsport, Pa., Zaq Harrison watched on television as his boyhood idol, the swimmer Mark Spitz, won a seventh gold medal, then a record for one Olympics. The Israelis were abducted the next day, propelling Harrison on a continuing reassessment of heroism.
A finance professional from Baltimore, he recently began summer camp discussions about the Munich Olympians and the ethical issues athletes face. Harrison, 48, informs children that the Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and the weight lifter Yosef Romano gamely fought the 1972 terrorists. He displays single white placards, each bearing a Munich name, inviting the teenage campers to recite them. He always reserves Berger, a world-class Jewish athlete, for last. Harrison said he admired Berger because he “figuratively lifted all of us on his shoulders” into a German arena a generation after the Holocaust.
“I’ve gotten 2,000 kids to say the names out loud,” Harrison said. “It’s a different learning experience.”
Jed Margolis attended Berger’s rival school, Cleveland Heights High School.
“David’s was a name we all knew and looked up to,” said Margolis, 61, the executive director of the United States branch of the international Maccabi movement, which promotes Jewish pride through sports. “He was the ultimate student-athlete, someone who developed himself physically and developed his mind.”
The regional Jewish Community Center youth tournament Margolis plans to attend next Sunday in New York’s Rockland County will commemorate the Munich massacre, as Maccabi and J.C.C. tournaments in recent decades have done.
“It’s a very dramatic experience because none of these kids was born” in 1972, Margolis said.
Don Readance, the athletic director at Shaker Heights High School in suburban Cleveland, passes the David Berger Award affixed to a corridor wall on the way to the school’s David Berger Fitness Room.
Readance assesses colleagues’ recommendations for the award, given annually to the top student-athlete in the senior class. When he is finished, Readance said, he feels drained but satisfied that he has selected the most worthy nominee.
“It’s an important part of the school and of keeping his legacy going,” Readance, 49, said of Shaker Heights, where Berger competed in wrestling and golf, served on the student council and worked on the newspaper. “It’s a way for us to educate kids about the historical significance” of the incident.
Camps, sports movements and schools unite diverse young people around commonalities. Students and athletes might prefer familiarity but can benefit from embracing new people, too.
My younger son, Gil, recently enjoyed a monthlong tour of Israel with other teenagers, most of them strangers. Ten days in, he telephoned. A usually happy-go-lucky 15-year-old, he had not located a comfort zone; a week later, he had found it. Gil’s brother, Yossi, nearing 17, will face similar challenges in college next year.
Tolerance and receptiveness to others open multiple doors throughout life. Berger knocked on Israel’s athletic door and entered. United by sports, he and his Israeli teammates no doubt enriched one another and those they met in Munich.
One of my paramount values is fostering human connectivity. In recent days, my syndicated column about people seeking long-lost relatives and friends helped to reunite a 1962 Jerusalem elementary school class with an American boy who attended first grade there, and Israeli paratroopers with an American-born soldier who had served with their unit until 1972. One person at a time, people embrace — but every embrace takes two.
Seven years’ experience reporting on the Middle East conflict left me with precious little naïveté about the region’s diplomatic fissures and scant hopes for resolutions. Sports offer far greater cause for optimism there and worldwide.
Athletes who withdraw from events in which they would compete against Israelis — as an Iranian judoka did at the 2004 Athens Games and an Iranian swimmer did, citing illness, at the 2008 Beijing Games — undermine the Olympic ideal.
More promising were the Italian Olympians who last Sunday held a moment of silence for the Munich dead. Individuals — people and gestures — do make a difference.
“We were taught that the Olympics brought people together of different races and religions,” Readance said. “I thought, Why would somebody do that?” he added, referring to the Munich bloodshed, which he watched unfold on television 40 years ago.
Presenting the David Berger Award each spring offers Readance a meaningful counterweight, he said — a “teachable moment” and “an opportunity for us to enlighten” young people.
His words offer me hope.
Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor in Baltimore, is a former Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post.