A History of Cleveland OH in 50 Objects

A History of Cleveland, Ohio in 50 Objects #4: The David Berger National Memorial

The David Berger National Memorial, Beachwood, Ohio

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.)





A History of Cleveland OH in 50 Objects, Comics

A History of Cleveland, Ohio in 50 Objects #3: The window of Charles Dickens’s stateroom aboard the steamship Constitution, 1842

What the headline might have looked like

In late 1841, after the international success of novels such as The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and after a deluge of fan mail from American admirers, Charles Dickens decided to visit America.

Dickens wanted to tour major American cities and give readings & lectures, but he also wanted to make observations and take notes about America and American life, which he hoped to turn into a book.

Dickens, accompanied by his wife and his wife’s maid, arrived in Boston in January, 1842. He liked Boston, and Bostonians reciprocated.

But the trip went downhill from there. During his appearances, Dickens began to encourage the adoption of an international copyright law; American publishers had been pirating his works for years, without paying Dickens a dime.

Additionally, Dickens was irritated by the number of unauthorized Dickens-related souvenirs of his tour. In New York, Tiffany’s sold copies of his bust, and a barber even attempted to sell the hair clippings left over from Dickens’s haircut.

The American press was vociferously appalled at what they viewed as the sheer crassness and avarice Dickens displayed by having the gall to demand payment for his work and image.

As Dickens headed west, his irritation only increased. Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock observed in his 1934 Dickens biography that American Notes, the book which resulted from Dickens’s experiences on the tour, sounded like the “work of a peevish cockney traveling without his breakfast.”

And it’s true.  In his letters to a friend back in England, as well as in American Notes, Dickens complains about his every experience of America: food, accommodations, the dullness of American conversation, the unattractiveness of American women, the vulgarity of American men (the amount of spitting he encountered in America particularly repulsed him).  At one point, he even complains about the quality of the ink he’s using to write his letters and notes.

(However, it’s important to note that not all of Dickens’s complaints are so petty: he devotes an entire chapter in American Notes to a passionate denunciation of slavery, based on his observations of slaves’ lives in Richmond, Virginia. He also lists vivid and horrific details of descriptions of fugitive slaves–that is, accounts of the permanent injuries and scars inflicted by slaveowners– he read in American newspapers.)

But most frustrating to Dickens was the reality that wherever Dickens went, fans mobbed him.  




leave him alone.

Not for one minute.

For all these reasons, he was already surly when he arrived in Sandusky, Ohio, and became surlier still when, by chance, he picked up a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and read an insulting, jingoistic editorial gleefully advocating war with England over some recent minor disputes, and furthermore boasting that America would certainly triumph in such a war.

Not realizing the editorial had been reprinted from a Washington, DC newspaper, Dickens took an instant dislike to Cleveland. But he was also curious to see the town that –he believed — could produce such a belligerent editorial.

On its way across Lake Erie from Sandusky to Buffalo, the steamship Constitution, with Dickens on board, stopped in Cleveland around midnight on April 25, 1842.

The Cleveland Herald reported that a few hours later, Dickens, accompanied by his traveling secretary, took a short stroll around Cleveland, then returned to the ship, where a crowd had gathered.

Dickens described what happened next in a letter to a friend:

“The people poured on board, in crowds, by six on Monday morning, to see me; and a party of ‘gentlemen’ actually planted themselves before our little cabin, and stared in at the door and windows while I was washing, and Kate lay in bed. I was so incensed at this…that when the mayor came on board to present himself to me, according to custom, I refused to see him, and bade Mr. Q—- [Dickens’s traveling secretary] tell him why and wherefore. His honour took it very coolly, and retired to the top of the wharf, with a big stick and a whittling knife, with which he worked so lustily (staring at the closed door of our cabin all the time) that long before the boat left the big stick was no bigger than a cribbage peg!”

Dickens had had enough.

He did not emerge to greet or engage with the crowd of his admirers.

He refused to meet the mayor of Cleveland,  Dr. Joshua Mills.

At nine o’clock that same morning, the Constitution left Cleveland and steamed on to Buffalo, New York.

In American Notes, Cleveland earns a single paragraph, consisting of three sentences. Dickens does admit that he “found it a pretty town,” but spends the rest of the paragraph describing the offending editorial which appeared in the Plain Dealer. (In an early example of faith in the old adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” when American Notes was published in the fall of 1842, the Plain Dealer crowed that, thanks to Dickens’s criticism, their newspaper was now being talked about by some of the most important men in England.)

Dickens’s 1842 trip soured him on America, although that wasn’t entirely Cleveland’s fault.

Nonetheless, Dickens returned to the United States in 1867, because, frankly, he needed the money. (After all, at that point, he had nine children to support, not to mention an estranged wife and a mistress.)

But this time, he found America, and Americans, much more welcoming and considerate, and his previous feelings of irritation and indignation softened.

Even before this, however, he had included Cleveland on the itinerary of his lecture and reading tour. Not just a pause between cities this time — an actual appearance.

Unfortunately, ill health forced Dickens to cancel the western leg of his tour to return to England, where he died two years later.

There is something about this story that to me just ineffably says “Cleveland”:

The enthusiasm.

The over-enthusiasm.

The expectations that never quite come to fruition.

The plans which don’t quite work.

The love of learning and reading, exemplified by everything from the magnificent Cleveland Public Library and Cuyahoga County Public Library systems to Case Western Reserve University’s “Living Room Learning” program (now called “Off-Campus Studies”) to the city’s legendary independent bookstores & booksellers.

The waiting.

The faith and hope it takes to keep waiting.

If he could visit Cleveland now, Charles Dickens might well be proud of us.


Adrian, Arthur A. “Dickens in Cleveland, Ohio,” The Dickensian: A Magazine for Dickens Lovers, edited by Leslie C. Staples, London: The Dickens Fellowship, 1948 (Volume 44), pp. 48-50.

Allingham, Philip V. “Dickens’s 1842 Reading Tour: Launching the Copyright Question in Tempestuous Seas,” victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva75.html

BBC News, “When Charles Dickens fell out with America,” bbc.com/news/magazine-1701779

Dickens, Charles, American Notes for General Circulation, e-text: gutenberg.org/files/675/675-h/675-h.htm

The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, “Charles Dickens’s Visit to Cleveland,” ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=CDVTC

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens, London: Cecil Palmer, 1872-74, online via The Dickens Fellowship: Japan Branch: lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html

Perdue, David, “Dickens in America,” David Perdue’s Charles Dickens page: charlesdickenspage.com/america.html

Shaw, Archer H. “Charles Dickens Comes to Town,” Chapter IV, The Plain Dealer: One Hundred Years in Cleveland, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942, pp. 43-50. https://archive.org/details/plaindealeronehu009353mbp

A History of Cleveland OH in 50 Objects

A History of Cleveland, OH in 50 Objects, #2 of a series: The Plum

Map borrowed from the Internet & altered/purpled by me; plum drawing also by me.

Q:  What’s the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic?
A: Cleveland has a better orchestra.
–popular joke, ca. late 1970s

The latter half of the 20th century wasn’t kind to the city of Cleveland. You know the litany:  river catches on fire, mayor’s hair catches on fire, default, “The Mistake by the Lake.” Cleveland became a national punchline.

How to combat that?  Well, why not some old-fashioned civic boosterism? In 1981, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the city’s (then) daily newspaper asked its advertising agency to come up with a slogan to attract out-of-state businesses, and/or their money, to northeast Ohio.

The agency came up with … “New York May Be The Big Apple, But Cleveland’s A Plum.”

At least that’s how I — and I think a lot of other Clevelanders — remember it.

I was in high school at the time, and my friends and I sneered at our new civic motto with the intellectual snobbery practiced by precocious teenagers of every era.  But for years I thought we’d had a legitimate point on this topic.  Huh? Why bring up some other city in your own city’s motto? Particularly a legendarily cosmopolitan city which could only make Cleveland look bad in comparison?

Turns out that the “New York May Be The Big Apple, But Cleveland’s A Plum” slogan was originally meant to be posted only at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, to attract the attention of business moguls and convince them that Cleveland was … er … ripe for their advertising dollars.

That made a little more sense.

Except that the Plain Dealer, claiming that the population couldn’t get enough of The Plum, then slapped the motto (sometimes shortened to “Cleveland’s A Plum,” sometimes in its entirety) on every possible marketing novelty — buttons, mugs, tote bags, bumper stickers, you name it. The city celebrated “Plum Week,” culminating in the mayor throwing out the first pitch at an Indians game … using a plum in place of a baseball.

Yes, we understood that “plum” is a term for, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “any desirable thing, a coveted prize; the pick of a collection of things; one of the best things in a book, piece of music, etc.; (also) a choice job or appointment.”  

Even without the New York comparison, the metaphor seemed forced. Cleveland has never had any connection to plums. The suburbs just south of Cleveland used to be known as the “Greenhouse Capital of America.” But Cleveland’s agricultural industry was dying off by the late 1970s, and at any rate, wasn’t famous for its plum-growing capabilities. Ohio was once among the nation’s leading growers of tomatoes. So boasting “Cleveland: Wow! What a Tomato!” might have made sense at one point.  Maybe.*

So, for the most part, Clevelanders regarded the new slogan with polite bafflement. And over the years, like so many other Cleveland oddities, that bafflement has evolved for Clevelanders Of A Certain Age into a kind of perverse, nostalgic pride:  yeah, we’re an odd city that once had an odd civic slogan, what’s it to ya? 

So we came full circle — the motto meant to banish the punchline became the punchline. 

But it’s our punchline.

*Incidentally, in case you were wondering, California leads the nation in plum-growing, followed by Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Michigan. 

Addendum: You can get newly-minted “New York May Be the Big Apple, But Cleveland’s a Plum” merchandise at Big Fun, Cleveland’s own fabulous emporium of all things pop culture, and truly one of the great aspects of living here.

I was once at the Big Fun on the West Side when a teenage girl picked up a NYMBTBABCAP mug and read the motto out loud.

She made an explosive, derisive sound and asked her friend, “What does that even mean?” 

Oh, honey, you had to be there. 

Agriculture,” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (online), a joint project of Case Western Reserve University and the Western Reserve Historical Society.

How the Plum grew and grew and grew!” letter to the editor, William J. Stern, President, Nelson Stern Advertising, Pepper Pike, Ohio, to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 21, 1981, p. 5AA.

No Plums Allowed,” Cleveland Magazine, August 2004

Nothing Rotten about the Big Plum,” Time (subscription only), June 15, 1981.

Plum Profile,” Hayley Boriss, Henrich Brunke and Marcia Kreith, Agricultural Issues Center, University of California; revised March 2012 by Greg McKee, North Dakota State University. The Agricultural Marketing Research Center (http://www.agmrc.org/).

The Week (May 25-31),” Herm Weiskopf, Sports Illustrated, June 8, 1981.

This is not directly related to this entry, but there are fascinating photographs and other materials related to the history of the greenhouse industry in Cleveland at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland Memory Project  — which, come to think of it, is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Cleveland and its environs.  You may be there a while.

30 Days of Comics, A History of Cleveland OH in 50 Objects, Moses Cleaveland

A History of Cleveland, Ohio in 50 Objects, #1 of a Series: The Letter ‘A’

A couple of months ago, the New York Times ran a feature entitled  “A History of New York in 50 Objects,” a selection they hoped “could embody the narrative of New York.” They were inspired by the BBC’s “History of the World in 100 Objects,” and I in turn have been inspired by them.

Probably any city or civilization could inspire such a list, but Cleveland … well, it’s so goofy and so sober and so cultured and so vulgar in turns that I can’t imagine the list ever ending.

But the beginning?  The beginning is easier.

To be updated whenever I feel like it.  Another part of the “30 Days of Comics” effort.  Now I’m only two behind.