Dan Alon never wanted to be a public speaker. It was a moral obligation — and one of modern history’s ignominious events — that led him to the podium last week in Pleasanton.
One day — Sept. 5, 1972 — changed the Israeli fencing champion’s life forever.
Alon, born and still living in Tel Aviv, doesn’t know if it was “fate or God” that spared his life and four other Israeli athletes when 11 comrades were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
For 34 years, Alon remained reticent, refusing interviews and declining to speak about the horrific tragedy that left 17 dead, including five Israeli athletes, six Israeli coaches, one West German police officer and five members of the Black September terrorist organization.
Alon felt it was time to tell his story following the release of the Steven Spielberg film “Munich” in 2005, which he said didn’t mention the survivors.
The Munich attack “is a piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten,” Alon said backstage before his March 27 talk at the Amador Theater in Pleasanton. “Wherever I go, I meet people, mostly youngsters, and they don’t have any idea what really happened.”
Speaking in the Bay Area for the first time, Alon drew a crowd of 250 people to Chabad of the Tri-Valley’s sixth annual Evening of Jewish Culture, sponsored in part by a grant from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. Alon was on a short speaking tour, also giving talks in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Rockford, Ill., and Washington, D.C.
The “apathy and silence” on the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre in 2012 inspired Chabad Rabbi Raleigh Resnick to schedule “Munich ’72: A Survivor Tells His Story.”
“We say, ‘Remember this event. Remember those who have perished and those who have survived,’” Resnick said. Alon’s speech, he added, allowed the audience “to touch a piece of history in a real and tangible way.”
Speaking a day before his 69th birthday, Alon said he’s probably done his talk at 100 events, each one an emotional roller coaster.
“A lot of paranoias,” he said. “To recover from something like this is difficult. It has taken many years. When I come to certain points, I feel bad.”
Sometimes the audience cries, he added, “and I’m crying with them. It happens to me a lot.”
Onstage last week, Alon was flanked by huge black-and-white photographs of the victims, making for a dramatic setting. Wearing black-framed glasses, a light blue shirt and a black sport coat, the 5-foot-6 former athlete and coach spoke somberly about his experiences.
“The survivors are the only ones who really know the story,” Alon said.
Alon said that before the 1972 Summer Games, the Israeli delegation was treated to a screening of “Fiddler on the Roof.” After the movie, the Israelis posed for photographs.
“Those pictures were the last pictures of the team all together,” Alon said.
Two weeks into the Olympics, Palestinian terrorists in ski masks killed two Israelis and took nine others hostage at the Olympic Village. Alon and four colleagues, after awakening at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of gunfire and shouting, managed to escape down stairs and over a fence.
“I jumped over a fence, stopped on the grass, turned around [and] a terrorist was looking at me. For three seconds, he aimed his gun at me,” Alon said. “But he didn’t shoot.”
After negotiations broke down, the terrorists took the nine hostages to the Munich airport, where West German police had planned an ambush. The rescue attempt was botched, however, and eventually, all nine hostages and five of the eight terrorists were killed.
“I saw my friends coming by on the bus, tied up to one another,” Alon recalled. “I was very pessimistic. I was shouting at them in Hebrew. I saw them for the last time. I was crying and shouting ‘Shalom!’
“We had to go back and collect all our luggage, and the luggage of the 11 athletes [and coaches] who died. There was a lot of blood, footsteps of blood. Again, Jewish blood on German soil.”
Alon also talked about returning to Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion Airport), where thousands of Israelis met the Olympic team contingent as the survivors stood by the coffins on the runway.
“Everyone was standing up, quiet. Only weeping, no noise at all,” Alon remembered. “A very difficult moment.”
Tali Udler, an Israeli living in the Bay Area, accompanied her husband and three children (ages 11 through 17) to Alon’s talk last week.
“I wanted my kids to hear it and I wanted to meet him, hear him. It was fascinating,” Udler said.
Livermore Mayor John Marchand greeted the audience and Shoshana Eliahu, a charter member of the now-closed Contra Costa JCC, read a poem she wrote immediately after the tragedy in 1972.
“These are very painful stories, but you must never stop telling these stories,” Marchand said.