The outlines of the story are, now, depressingly familiar: people with specific political goals aren’t patient enough, or smart enough, to achieve them by peaceful means. And so they seek to effect change by injuring, maiming, and murdering people who have nothing to do with the terrorists’ objectives.
In 1972, though, it seemed more shocking than it does now — especially because it took place at the Olympics, a place where optimism, cooperation, peace and joy should be paramount. The Olympic Charter even says the goal of the Games is “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
But in Munich, at the Olympic Games, Palestinian terrorists entered the athletes’ village and took eleven members of the Israeli Olympic delegation hostage.
All eleven hostages were killed.
If you want the details of the attack, the botched rescue, the subsequent finger-pointing, and the aftermath, look elsewhere; there are plenty of places you can find them–movies, documentaries, books.
The focus here is on the eleven Israelis who were murdered — all of them good, smart, strong and heroic, the best Israel had to offer.
Ten of those men were from Israel.
Weightlifter David Berger, though, was a dual American-Israeli citizen, and he was from suburban Cleveland, Ohio.
David Berger was a staggeringly talented and nice guy, the proverbial “gentle giant.” In the months & years after his death, he was universally and consistently described by all who knew him as kind, quiet, shy, and smart. He was an honors student at Tulane, and earned a combination law degree/MBA from Columbia University. Just after his graduation from Columbia, he won a gold medal at the 1969 Maccabiah Games. He fell in love with Israel and moved there, continuing his athletic training, and becoming one of the first people in Israel to teach sports to disabled persons.
His ultimate dream was to participate in the Olympics.
He didn’t medal, but he didn’t really expect to.
To the frustration of his parents back home in Cleveland, his portion of the event wasn’t even televised.
But David Berger was satisfied; he’d achieved his goal.
After his death, Berger’s body was returned to the United States. He’s buried in Mayfield Cemetery, in Cleveland Heights.
A few years later, a group of families close to David’s parents, Dr. Benjamin and Dorothy Berger, commissioned a sculpture in David’s memory, and the memory of the ten other murdered team members. U.S. Senator Howard Metzenbaum, also a close friend of Dr. Benjamin Berger, worked with the appropriate agencies to establish a site for a national memorial.
The David Berger National Memorial is the nation’s smallest national park, and the only U.S. memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes killed in Munich.
On Labor Day, I went to sketch the memorial sculpture in situ, and as I drew, I tried to think of ways to describe the sculpture’s effect on the viewer:
How the sculpture, by Cleveland artist David E. Davis, appears deceptively simple. How it features the five Olympic rings, all broken in half, to symbolize the disruption of the 1972 games. How the rings rest on a base divided into 11 segments, representing the 11 Olympians who died. How it’s made from a steel alloy designed to rust over time, but still stand strong.
How, when seen from its eastern side, the half-circles of steel resemble a multitude of mouths, gaping in horror.
And how, on its western side, the memorial conveys its ultimate message: a series of half-circles suggesting, almost as in stop-motion photography, a fallen athlete who propels himself back up. The Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland, present home of the David Berger National Memorial, describes “an upward motion in the broken rings to suggest the peaceful intent of the Olympics, a search for understanding, and hope for the future.”
Yes. That’s all there.
But as I sat there pondering, and sketching, a minivan with out-of-state license plates drove by a couple of times, then pulled over to the curb near the park. Two young boys, wearing matching Spiderman shirts, bounded out, followed by their tired -looking mother. Dad, and Grandma, stayed in the car, at first. I had the sense that this was an impromptu stop, made on the way back to the interstate, as the family was on their way home from a long weekend.
As they approached the sculpture, the boys seemed to understand that they shouldn’t engage in all-out horseplay in front of the memorial, and that they should be quiet. But they were restless & bristling with barely-contained energy as their mother stood behind them, explaining why small rocks had been placed on the sculpture, and outlining, briefly, why this memorial existed.
“It is wrong to hurt people because they believe in a different religion than you do,” she concluded.
The two boys stood still. “Didn’t people understand that?” the older boy asked her.
“Well, we’re supposed to understand, but there are people even today who …” she trailed off.
After looking around for a few minutes more, they got back in the minivan and drove away.
There are people, and teams, and nations, even today who refuse to participate in sporting events if Israel is taking part. There are athletes who refuse to shake hands with their Israeli counterparts in international competitions. There are teams who refuse to share buses with Israeli athletes — even if they’re headed to the Olympic opening ceremony, ostensibly a celebration of international cooperation.
There are people in the United States, in 2017, who march in the night with torches, chanting anti-Semitic slogans.
There’s one more subject that consistently comes up in any discussion of David Berger, and his surviving family: peace.
Two days after David’s death, his father Benjamin told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he didn’t blame Germany for his son’s death; he didn’t hate Palestinians, either. In fact, he was upset that several Arab-American business leaders in the Cleveland area had received threatening phone calls after the Munich massacre.
In 2002, Berger’s brother Fred told Sports Illustrated, “If [David] were in Israel today, he’d only want peace for everybody.”
Modern works of public sculpture can be aesthetically inaccessible to the average person, which is why public works of art are so often the subject of ridicule.* (Okay: sometimes public works of art are the subject of ridicule because they’re just bad, though that’s not the case here.)
So the mother who brought her sons to see the David Berger National Memorial probably didn’t realize that the sculpture’s rising broken rings were specifically meant “to suggest the peaceful intent of the Olympics, a search for understanding, and hope for the future.”
But she knew it was a good idea that the sculpture exists, and that it would be a good idea to tell her children about David Berger, to show them this tangible reminder of the circumstances of his death, and to explain what a tragedy it was that the world was denied the opportunity to benefit from his potential.
And to begin to explain to her sons how they can help prevent hate and bloodshed.
There’s our hope for the future, right there.
*This topic will come up again in a future entry in “A History of Cleveland, Ohio in 50 Objects” — the one about Isamu Noguchi’s Justice Center sculpture Portal.)