Survivor of Holocaust, Munich attack heads back to Germany

BERGEN-BELSEN, Germany — They call him the ultimate survivor: Shaul Ladany survived a Nazi concentration camp and escaped the massacre of 11 other Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Decades later, the 86-year-old is back in Germany to visit the two places where he narrowly escaped death.

On Saturday, Ladany, who was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1936, took family members to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany to show them the place where he was imprisoned by the Nazis as an eight-year-old boy.

After that, the sprightly eighty-year-old will take part in a joint German-Israeli celebration on Monday in Munich to mark the 50th anniversary of the attack by Palestinian terrorists on the Olympians.

Ladany, who competed as a runner at the Munich Games, briskly led his granddaughter, younger sister and their three children in lime-green sneakers and a beige sun hat through the Bergen-Belsen memorial site. He pointed to a lot now covered with blueberry and heather bushes and tall birch and pine trees where Barracks No. 10 used to stand.

He was held there with his parents and two sisters for about six months in 1944 before they were allowed to leave the country under an agreement negotiated by Hungarian and Swiss Jewish foundations that ransomed the Nazis to free more than 1,600 Jews deported from Hungary.

“It’s not pleasant to remember the time here,” Ladany said in an interview with The Associated Press at the former concentration camp. But it was important to him to come back and tell relatives about the horrors he suffered during the Holocaust that killed 6 million European Jews. It is a pilgrimage that he has made several times with other family members.

“I always bring one of my relatives here to teach them what happened,” Ladany said.

Although he was a small boy at the time, Ladany still remembers the constant hunger and the seemingly endless roll calls in the cold wind in front of the barracks when the guards counted the camp inmates.

The Ladanys fled Belgrade in 1941 after their home was bombed by the German Luftwaffe. They fled to Budapest, Hungary, but were eventually captured by the Nazis and sent to Bergen-Belsen, where 52,000 mostly Jewish prisoners died in the concentration camp and more than 19,000 POWs, mostly from the Soviet Union, died in the adjacent POW camp.

After being liberated in exchange, Ladany and his family traveled to Switzerland, eventually moving to Israel in 1948. Raised there, he became a professor of industrial engineering and management and an accomplished racer – he still holds the 50-mile world record, set in 1972.

When he arrived in Munich for the Olympics at 36, he said he tried to estimate the age of every German he met and “if, in my opinion, he would have been in the age group in terms of age, in which he could have taken part in the atrocities of the Third Reich, I prevented any contact.”

This time, however, it wasn’t the Germans who threatened his life.

Early in the morning of September 5, members of the Palestinian Black September group broke into the Olympic Village, killing two athletes from the Israeli delegation and taking nine others hostage, demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel and two left-wing extremists in West German prisons.

Ladany narrowly escaped again. A terrified roommate woke him up to say a fellow athlete was dead, and he quickly put on his sneakers and ran to the door of their apartment.

Just outside, he saw an Olympic official imploring a man in a tracksuit and hat, later identified as the leader of the attackers, to be “human” and let Red Cross officers into an adjacent apartment. The man, Ladany recalled, replied, “The Jews are not human either.”

Ladany turned, threw some clothes over his pajamas, and joined other teammates on the run. Not everyone was so lucky; All nine hostages and one policeman were killed in a failed rescue attempt by German forces.

Ladany said that while the Olympics were purely a “sports gathering of joy and competition” before the attack, no such event is held today without tight security.

“Since then,” he said, “the world has changed.”

West Germany has been criticized not only for botching the rescue, but also for withholding historical files on the tragic events for decades and not offering enough compensation to the victims’ families. Relatives of the 11 athletes killed threatened to boycott the anniversary Monday, but finally agreed to a total of $28 million in compensation last week.

Ladany plans to wear his original 1972 Israeli team jacket when he attends the memorial, and he looks forward to showing the world that he and Israel have persevered.

“Those who tried to kill me are no longer alive,” he said. “We’re still here. Not just as individuals, but as a country.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Survivor of Holocaust, Munich attack heads back to Germany

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