July 23, 2012
Where are the Munich elegies?
This year, Tisha b’Av marks not only the destruction of both Temples, but with the opening ceremony of the London Olympics just a night earlier, the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre.
On this day of mourning and fasting, which begins at sundown on Saturday, how can we remember the tragedy of the 1972 Summer Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered?
The International Olympic Committee has rejected a call for a moment of silence at the opening ceremony in memory of those killed, announcing instead a tribute in Munich and holding a ceremony on Monday at the Olympic Village with remarks by the IOC’s chief, Jacques Rogge.
Even in 1972, I was already having trouble remembering.
Returning to UCLA my sophomore year, just weeks after the tragedy, I remember being pushed by more serious minds into working on an issue of the school’s Jewish student newspaper, Ha’Am, which at its center had a spread titled “Post Olympic Outpour.” At first I resisted, thinking “Why do I need to go through the pain all over again?”
Now, 40 years later, I wonder how many of us are still resisting that pain.
Traditionally on Tisha b’Av, we remember our tragedies by sitting on low seats or the floor, lowering the lights and chanting in a mournful trope the book of Eicha (Lamentations). In many communities, elegies called kinot are chanted as well that commemorate such tragic events as the public burning of the Torah in Paris, the massacre of German Jews during the first Crusades, the Ten Martyrs (which you may recall from the Yom Kippur Martyrology service), the York massacre and, more recently, the Holocaust.
In 2012, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, writing in Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union, described the emotional impact of the kinot.
“All the kinot, regardless of who the author may be, express strong feelings of loss, grief and despair,” he wrote. “On Tishah B’Av day, the reader must come away from a reading of the poems with similar feelings.”
Weinreb went on to say that after studying the kinot texts over a course of months, he found himself “spiritually exhausted by the process,” holding on to “those few phrases of hope with which almost all the kinot conclude.”
It is from the intent of the kinot that I think we can find an inspiration for a different form of Munich elegy.
A formal kinah commemorating the Munich 11 has yet to enter the liturgy—if someone has written one please email me—but other forms, though not formal kinot, can help us process our feelings of loss and despair. For example, the personal tragic stories told through films can touch us, moving us toward memory.
In England on Tisha b’Av, the New London Synagogue about 10 miles from the Olympic Village will be showing the Academy Award-winning documentary “One Day in September.” Released in 1999, it’s a film that, while making points about the Palestinian terrorists and botched German police work, mourns the victims by recounting the story of Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer and his wife, Ankie.
Another film that like an elegy re-enacts the tragedy, Spielberg’s 2005 “Munich”—it also has a fictionalized account of Israel’s response—will be shown at Temple Concord in Syracuse, N.Y.
The audience for these two films, sitting in a darkened setting, drawn together to listen and watch the story being retold, will be reminded of a different Jewish theme internalized when we hear the kinot chanted—we do not remember and mourn alone.
For most of us, writing a kinah would be a challenge, but adding a line to a petition asking for a moment of silence presented by Ankie Spitzer might be a way to get in the spirit of it. When I read the comments on the petition site, they seemed to form a kind of people’s elegy of prayer, memory and anger:
“I was there, I felt it, I cried for it, I still pray for all them,” Johanna Bronsztein wrote.
“We must never forget and forever respect,” Brenda Rezak wrote.
Jeri Roth adds, “If these people had been any other nationality, we wouldn’t have to ask for a moment of silence.”
Yet for many of us, home on Sunday, watching the Summer Olympics’ events on TV— archery, fencing, weightlifting—in our own darkened rooms, it’s all too easy to forget.
With so much Olympic pageantry and competition, with the promise of gold, silver and bronze to divert me, I will need my own kinah to pull me back to a zone of “Never forget”—a simple list to remember what happened 40 summers ago. Sometime that day, resistance gone, I will try to touch again the loss I felt in 1972.
I will read the names:
Will this simple act also allow me to dream that a tragedy like this will not be repeated? That is my hope.
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.