Last week as I was sitting on the couch I happened upon a program on ESPN Classic remembering the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and the tragedy that took place there on that day in September. The program was interspersed with footage of the news reports from ABC as the events transpired, the look of utter shock and devastation as Peter Jennings and Jim McKay attempted to make sense of events that could not possibly be happening.
The tragedy in Munich took place four years before I was born and in all honesty I cannot recall learning too much about it. As it is, I still know very little about the kidnapping, the senseless murders or the politics of the monsters involved. And yet, these Munich events are a part of my history, just like the pogroms in Russia, the Holocaust in Europe, and the Spanish Inquisition.
But as I was watching the footage, I was struck by a wave of nausea as a realization dawned on me: I was there.
It was the summer of 1998, I had just completed my first year of law school and for the summer I had enrolled in the semester abroad program through my school. Six weeks in London “studying” followed by a two week backpacking jaunt through Europe with two of my closest friends. From London, our first stop was Munich.
I had been to Europe a few times previously but never to Germany. The closest I came to Germany was a bus trip from Holland to Italy which required passage through Germany. I think I slept through most of it and never even got off the bus. So this trip to Munich was the first real trip to Germany and needless to say I was not looking forward to it.
In planning our two-week trip, my friends and I figured that Munich was as good a place as any to start. It was centrally located and provided short enough train rides to destinations in Italy. We opted to make it our initial stop but to spend as little time as necessary there. Al I want to do there was see the concentration camp, so we decided to fly to Munich in the morning, visit Dachau, spend the night and leave early the next morning by train.
The concentration camp was a moving experience, although one that was somewhat tempered by a realization that significant “whitewashing” had been done to minimize the horrific nature of the camp. Structures were removed, trees and flowers planted and many of the more terrifying accoutrements were conveniently missing or “destroyed.” Nevertheless, the magnitude of a place like that cannot be ignored. What made Dachau so much more powerful was its close proximity to Munich proper. The city was only a short bus ride away and all around the camp were neighborhoods with modern homes and cars, kids on bikes and family-life taking place. It seemed so divergent from the horrors of the tragedies that took place there on a daily basis.
After our visit to the camp, it was clear we needed a rescue from the sadness and gloom of the camp. So into the center of town we went, with its cobblestone streets and glockenspiel in the Marienplatz. Yet again, an anachronism compared with the concentration camp mere miles away. A city founded centuries before so close in proximity to a modern instrument of death and torture.
After a nice dinner of traditional German fare (I believe we had pizza), we explored the area a little further and somehow or other we ended up at the Olympic Park. It was later in the evening but not yet fully dark yet, the sun going down later in the day during the summer. The air was calm and the temperature perfect; there was a peacefulness to the area. It felt like a college campus on a summer evening. A few scattered people around, mostly young, a freedom to explore a campus of buildings and arenas and grassy areas. Like when you go to sleep-away camp and you wake up early in the morning to take a jog around the grounds. Everything was calm and peaceful and… safe. As we walked around the park, it never occurred to me that such horrifying events had happened so close by. In fact, I doubt that it even registered at the time that the murders in 1972 took place possibly right where I was standing.
As I watched the replay of the news coverage this past week, I immediately got weak in the knees and felt a growing pit in the bottom of my stomach. Whereas I was expecting to feel uncomfortable about being in Dachau, there was a comfort to the areas of the Marienplatz and the Olympic Park. Those areas were separated from the atrocities of the Holocaust by time, the architecture of the areas so obviously different from the camp that it was easy to forget how close to the tragedies we actually were.
But looking back on it now, I am struck by how naïve I really was. At the time, it had been only 25 years since the Olympic Games. Not quite ancient history, that is for sure. But it was truly unsettling to come to the awareness that an act of terrorism took place right where I was and I didn’t even know it.
And me, a history major!
I guess there is no real point to this week’s post, other than to share with you an event that didn’t actually have a dramatic impact on my life until 14 years afterwards. But now, whenever I think of that summer and the European vacation of 1998, I will think of standing in the Olympic Park, utterly and completely clueless as to the world around me.