David Mark Berger would have been 68 years old this year.
Instead, the Shaker Heights native was killed at age 28 during a terrorist attack 40 years ago at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. Berger was part of the Munich 11, a group of athletes on the Israeli National Olympic Team who were killed by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.
To Clevelanders, Berger was and is more than just one of the Munich 11. He was a son, a brother, a congregant of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, a Shaker Heights High School alum and a weightlifter.
“Weightlifting to (David), that was his No. 1 priority,” said Dr. Ben Berger, David’s father and a former Shaker Heights resident, as he reflected on his family’s time in Cleveland 40 years after the Munich tragedy.
Berger and his wife Dorothy, who died in October 2010, raised children David, Fred and Barbara on Fairmount Boulevard. Now 95, Berger lives in Portland, Maine, in the same complex as daughter Barbara, 62, while son Fred, 65, settled in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“We used to do everything together,” Berger said about himself and David. “We’d go on trips together, always.”
David made aliyah after the 1969 Maccabiah Games and was a dual citizen of Israel and the United States.
“(David) used to keep a log of every weight (he lifted) from the time he was 14 to the time he competed in the Olympics,” Berger said. “He was a very intelligent young man. I always used to kid him. I used to say, ‘You may not be the best weightlifter in the world, but you’re certainly the smartest.’”
David was a National Merit Scholar Finalist and after graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, earned two degrees from Columbia University in New York City – a master’s in business administration and a doctorate of law.
Berger, who practiced medicine in Cleveland for 63 years, was 55 when David went to the Olympics. When the abduction happened on September 5, 1972, Berger didn’t receive news until breakfast the next morning.
“I was on my way to the office, and I called up the papers,” he said, explaining that he telephoned the daily newspapers in Cleveland. “They weren’t aware of that information, and I couldn’t get any further information at that time. Later on it all came through on the TV.”
Berger said his family always clung to the hope that David would be free.
“We never expected that he was going to die in Germany,” Berger said. “Reuters (news service) issued a bulletin that everything was fine and the hostages were all free. It was an error. I knew if he was fine, he’d call home, and he never called home. We watched, he was captured, and then in the subtitles across the screen, about 11 our time, it said all the hostages are dead.”
David’s siblings Fred and Barbara were camping in Austria when the attack happened. The morning after, Barbara heard a radio broadcast in English, announcing that 11 members of the Israeli national team had been killed, but no names were mentioned.
After a three-hour drive to the U.S. embassy in Salzburg, Barbara, then 22, and Fred, then 25, were filled in and journeyed back to Cleveland to bury their brother.
They arrived in New York late and missed their flight back to Cleveland. President Richard Nixon called Ben Berger, asking if there was anything he could do to help. Nixon sent a plane to pick up Berger’s children and bring them home.
Forty years later, Barbara reflected on the harsh reality of the whole situation.
“You’re just kind of numb,” she said. “Personally, I think it sort of drives the point home that anything can happen. Whether or not the odds are a million to one, it doesn’t matter. The odds of my brother being killed at the Olympics, I can’t even imagine what those odds are.”
Barbara remembers David for his sense of humor.
“He was 6 years older than me, and he was always ‘picking on me,’” she said. “I wasn’t fat, but he would accuse me of being fat. I’d say something like, ‘God, David, you yell at the littlest thing!’ He’d say, ‘You’re hardly the littlest thing.’ … He had a great sense of humor.”
Berger remembers David for his ideals.
“David would’ve been for world peace,” Berger said. “That’s what he always lived for. What he’d be now … he’d be one of those people that wouldn’t be pessimistic about the whole idea that some day we can live in peace with other people.”