Shaul Ladany: The long walk through horrors of 20th century

He survived the Holocaust and then escaped the Munich Massacre. Today, at the age of 72, he is an athletics phenomenon. Simon Turnbull talks to... Shaul Ladany

It is only towards the end of our lengthy conversation that Shaul Ladany happens to mention he has been in hospital today having a cancerous growth removed from his skin. He alludes to the fact merely in passing, when asked when his next race-walking competition might be. "I have a 5km race at the end of the week," he says. "Whether I will be able to go I don't know, because today I had a growth removed from my leg, a cancerous growth. At the moment, where they cut it out it does not hurt, but we shall see."

At 72, Ladany is a noted professor of engineering based at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, near the home he shares at Be'er Sheba in the south of Israel with his wife, Shosh, and their two dogs. Twice an Olympian, a former winner of the world 100km title and holder of the 50-mile world record since 1972 (7hr 23min 50sec), even at his advanced age he remains a race-walking phenomenon. Two years ago, he became the first 70-year-old to walk 100 miles inside 24 hours, completing a race in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 21hr 45min 34sec.

Given the extraordinary course of his life, it would be fair to call him the great survivor – the ultimate survivor even. Ladany laughs at the suggestion. "I don't know about that," he says, speaking with a distinctive East European accent. "What I can say is that in my life there has never been a dull moment."

That would be one way of putting it. Another would be to state the fact that the bespectacled, studious figure of the septuagenarian professor and race walker has survived not one but two of the great global horrors of the past 100 years. As an eight-year-old, back in 1944, he was interned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He was one of the few of Yugoslavia's 70,000 Jews to survive the Holocaust. As a 36-year-old, in 1972, he was a member of the Israeli team who were attacked by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. He was one of six male athletes who managed to escape from the Black September group.

Thirty-six years on from the tragic events that became known as the Munich Massacre, considering what he had endured as a child on German soil, Ladany's reflections on the darkest hour in sporting history have a particularly poignant ring to them.

Born in Belgrade in 1936, he was five when the Luftwaffe bombed the Ladany home in the Yugoslav capital and spent the next three years on the run with his family in fear of their lives. At one point he was left for safe- keeping at a monastery in Budapest before being transported with his parents and two sisters to Bergen-Belsen. After six months in the concentration camp in north-west Germany, the Ladanys were allowed to escape to Switzerland as part of an exchange deal between the Nazis and the Zionist movement.

They were fortunate. Ladany's maternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, his grandfather pushing a note out of the train transporting them to Poland. "We are being taken to our death," it read. "If you find this letter please perform an act of humanity and convey it to my family so they will know what happened to me."

"I may say that I am lucky," Ladany says, after more than 50 years as a Holocaust survivor, "but I don't feel any special joy. For most of the war years I was not really aware of the danger. As a young child, you do not really grasp how terrible things are. That was so for me, I would say, until I was put into the monastery. There, at the age of eight, I knew that my life would be in danger if I said that I am a Jew.

"I was in Bergen-Belsen for six months and I remember every day of it. I mainly remember standing for hours for the roll calls, when the German soldiers made arithmetic errors in adding up the numbers alive and the dead. They counted us again and again – for hours and hours, in rain and cold. I remember the barbed-wire fences and the watchtowers and the hunger. Obviously, it all made a tremendous impact on me. Whether it forged my character in one way or another... it's possible."

More like probable. When it came to forging his way in sport, alongside his burgeoning academic career, Ladany ignored the many coaches and officials who dismissed him as too small and too unlikely a contender for any degree of success. He also ignored his early failures to finish marathon runs and long-distance walks in Israel, where his family settled in 1948. He kept pushing harder in training and in 1968, at the age of 32, he made the Israeli team for the Olympic Games in Mexico. He finished 24th in the 50km walk.

The race-walking professor was 36 when he travelled to the Munich Olympics with the Israeli team in 1972. On 3 September, the eighth day of the Games, he competed in the 50km walk, finishing 19th in 4hr 24min. His beaming face as he crossed the line can be seen in a montage of calm-before-the-storm action in the Oscar-winning documentary film One Day in September, in between clips of Olga Korbut and Mark Spitz.

The following evening, Ladany attended a theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof with the rest of the Israeli team. At midnight the party returned to their accommodation in the Olympic Village, five apartment blocks at 31 Connollystrasse. Ladany dropped off an alarm clock for the wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg, in Apartment Block One. It was 3am when he finally got to sleep in his own room in Block Two. He was woken two hours later and told that Arab terrorists had attacked the Israeli team quarters. "My initial reaction was that they were joking," Ladany confesses, "but it was not something that anybody would joke about."

It was indeed deadly serious. The first apartment block, housing the team coaches, had been stormed by the eight terrorists. They had also taken hostage the wrestlers and weightlifters from Block Three. Weinberg and Yossef Romano, one of the weightlifters, had been killed. The six athletes in Block Two managed to escape unharmed.

Ladany, a veteran of the Six Day War in 1967, made his way to Block Five to check on Shmuel Lalkin, the Israeli team manager, before calmly crossing the terrace lawn behind the building to safety. "I am not a hysteric person," Ladany says, reflecting on his coolness under pressure. "I am usually calm. I don't believe it's a matter of training, but I have been in the military and you accept that there are periods of danger and you cannot do anything else. Maybe I was not fully aware of the danger at that time."

In the terrible 24 hours that followed, the nine hostages who survived the initial attack – after the terrorists had exploited a near-total lack of security at the Olympic Village – all died in the ill-fated German police operation to ambush the terrorists at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield. With Weinberg and Romano, that made a toll of 11 Israeli dead.

"The impact did not hit me at that time, when we were still in Munich," Ladany says. "It was when we arrived back in Israel. At the airport in Lod we were received by a huge crowd – maybe 20,000 people – and each one of us, the survivors, stood by one of the coffins on the runway. Some friends came up to me and tried to kiss me and hug me as if I was almost a ghost that came back alive. It was then that I really grasped what had happened, and the emotion hit me."

In several television, radio and newspaper reports, Ladany had been listed among the dead. He later saw one headline which lamented: "Ladany could not escape his fate in Germany for a second time".

"I have an American friend who was at a walking competition in Denmark at the time and it was reported there that I was dead. They lit candles and held a minute's silence in my honour. He sent me the photographs."

Happily, in his case at least, Ladany lived to tell the tale, and to enjoy a rich, fulfilling life. He has been married to Shosh for 48 years now, has a daughter and three grandchildren, and spends much of his time walking the walk – practising for eight hours at a stretch on a 30-metreindoor circuit he has mapped out in his house to avoid the cancerous intensity of the Negev Desert sun. He also pens scientific papers, and the autobiography he wrote 11 years ago in Hebrew (one of nine languages he speaks), King of the Road, has recentlybeen translated into English and is available from Gefen Publishing of Jerusalem ( israelbooks.com).

Reflecting on the tragedy of Munich, Ladany confesses to feeling aggrieved about the armed German police officers who decided to abandon their posts inside the Boeing 727 waiting on the runway at Fürstenfeldbruck, dooming the ambush and the hostages. "That, I am seriously, seriously angry about," he says. "The German government investigated the matter and did not release that information. It only became known 10 or 20 years later."

For all that, for all the terrible loss of lives in Munich in 1972, Professor Ladany, the great race-walker and great survivor, remains a passionate believer in the Olympic Games as a force for good. "Despite what happened in Munich, I had experience there and in Mexico of barriers being broken down between people of different countries," he says. "I am a great believer – a great believer – that the Olympics is a platform for friendship, for mixing. It is almost a utopian situation.

"Of course every Olympic Games since 1972 has had fear, and in 1996 there was the bomb in Atlanta. I hope that Great Britain will use all of the possible security measures to prevent anything happening in the next Olympic Games. I hope nothing will happen then, or in any future Olympic Games. The world, I think, has learned the lesson."

Life and times

Name: Shaul Ladany.

Born: 2 April 1936, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

War years: Was hidden in a Budapest monastery in 1944. Survived six months in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Academic: Emeritus professor of industrial engineering at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheba, Israel. Has taken out eight US patents (for designs ranging from a humidity-sensitive thermostat to a compact extension cord). Has written 13 scientific books.

Military: While studying for a doctorate in New York in 1967, was one of six Israelis who returned from foreign countries to fight in the Six Day War. Also fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Race walking: Competed in the 50km walk at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics. In 1972, set a 50-mile world record of 7hr 23min 50sec in New Jersey which still stands today. Won the 100km world title in 1973. Won the London to Brighton race in 1970, 1971 and 1973. In May 2006, set a 100-mile world record in the over-70 age group.

Simon Turnbull

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