Family of slain Israeli athletes reflect with Jews of Atlanta

ATLANTA (JTA) — Israeli Olympic marksman Guy Starik sat in the gathering dusk, reflecting on the newly unveiled memorial to 11 of his countrymen murdered at another Olympics 24 years ago.

"I came to have a look at it alone," he said Sunday, teary-eyed.

Starik was 7 years old when Palestinian terrorists murdered Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 games in Munich. Yet the stone sculpture with its eternal flame burning below five Olympic rings touched something deep inside him.

"In Israel, there are always those 11 athletes," he said. In Israel, any mention of the Olympics includes a reference to the massacre.

"No one will ever forget it," he said.

Minutes earlier, some 600 Atlanta Jews, members of the international media and Olympic and government officials gathered outside the entrance to the Atlanta Jewish Federation's Selig Center for the private dedication of the 3-foot sculpture.

As fate would have it, the ceremony became not only a tribute to the slain Israelis, but also to victims of more recent Olympic terrorism.

Two nights earlier, two bystanders died when a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park. Two Israeli citizens were among more than 100 injured.

The commemoration also provided a forum for families of the Munich victims and other Jews to call for public recognition of the 1972 massacre. And it gave some Palestinians a chance to express their condolences to the Israelis in a moving show of goodwill.

Tragic similarities abounded. Atlanta Federation President Steve Selig told the crowd that the Atlanta bombing occurred at about the same point in the Olympics as the Munich massacre — the start of the second week of competition.

"It is being said that Friday's act of violence and terror has destroyed the innocence of the Olympic Games — but the 14 children of the Munich 11 are here tonight to tell us that the innocence was lost long ago," he said as a strong breeze cooled the summer air.

Rabbi Arnold Goodman of Atlanta's Ahavath Achim Synagogue said the difference between the Munich and Atlanta bombings was that the Palestinian gunmen in Munich had a specific target.

"By contrast, the victims in Centennial Park just happened to be at the wrong place," Goodman said.

But both acts of terrorism blurred the games' spirit of dreams, brotherhood and peace, he added.

Sharing his prayers of mourning was Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

"I'm here to say Kaddish with you," Campbell said, asking those present to hold onto their memories and work toward peace.

"The goals of terrorists may vary, but the actions always result in the loss of human lives," he said. "The world must learn from the past while reaching for the future."

Among those who can never forget the past are the children of the Munich victims. Oshrat Romano, daughter of slain weightlifter Joseph Romano, said she choked back tears at the opening ceremonies in Atlanta.

"Feelings of sadness, anger and a longing for my father mingled with the pride of seeing our athletes and the sight of the Israeli flag in the stadium," Romano said, her voice breaking.

Then, speaking directly to the slain Israelis, she vowed to continue the campaign of remembrance at future Olympics. The families of the slain Olympians have appealed to the International Olympic Committee for a moment of silence at the games.

"We promise you that we will never let the world forget that you came to the Olympics full of hopes and dreams, but you returned in a coffin," she said.

The ceremony ended as Romano and the other relatives tried to light 11 memorial candles. The wind blew the flames out, so they were rekindled later inside the Selig Center, where the federation sponsored a reception for the Israeli delegation.

Standing near the memorial during the reception, a few relatives of the Munich victims said Sunday's ceremony and the memorial sculpture were an encouraging demonstration of support and compassion by the Atlanta Jewish community.

It was the largest tribute organized by Jews during an Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games, when 5,000 people attended a memorial for the slain Israelis, said Ankie Spitzer-Rechess, widow of fencing coach Andre Spitzer, who was killed in the 1972 attack.