Shaul Ladany: Still king of the road

He is one of the great survivors – enduring the horrors of the Holocaust before narrowly escaping the 1972 Munich massacre. The 75-year-old race walker shares his remarkable story

Shaul Ladany gives an ironic little laugh. "I am fine, but I am slowing down," he says. "Last Friday I walked the marathon portion of the Israeli Ironman Triathlon and eight days before that I walked the Tiberias Marathon, so that's a sign that I'm still moving."

Ladany – a renowned, much published engineering professor at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva in the south of Israel – is moving towards his 76th birthday. He will celebrate it on 30 April with a 76km walk. As an international race walker, the professor competed in two Olympic Games and won the world 100km title. He has held the world 50-mile record since 1972.

Every day he has reason to give thanks that he is still moving, still walking. Especially today, International Holocaust Day and the six-months-to-go date to the 2012 Olympics.

Ladany – a studious, bespectacled figure – happens to be a survivor of not one but two of the most hellish horrors of the 20th century. As an eight-year-old, in 1944, he was interned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He was one of the few of Yugoslavia's 70,000 Jews to outlive the Holocaust.

As a 36-year-old, in 1972, Ladany was a member of the Israeli team attacked by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. He was one of six male athletes who managed to escape from the Black September group.

"Look," he says, pondering how it feels with the passage of time to have survived both the Holocaust and what became known as the Munich Massacre, "these things are reminded to me by others. I am not the only Holocaust survivor, though from year to year there are less and less that are still alive.

"To be a Holocaust survivor one piece of luck did not suffice. You needed a series of luck because there were so many, many cases when you might have been killed. Only the people that had many lucky events survived.

"I was in the house where we were hiding in Belgrade in April, 1941, as the Germans attacked. A bomb hit our house and several persons in adjacent basements were killed. I remember the tremendous noise. The steel door was knocked out of its hinges and my grandmother fell on me to protect me. But we were not killed.

"Now that was the first luck. Two weeks later, my father, who had been on active reserve duty with the Yugoslav army, managed to get back to Belgrade and find us. Then the whole family decided to escape from Belgrade to Hungary, to cross the border.

"If the Germans had caught us, as Jews we would have been killed on the spot. We had tremendous luck then that we were not caught. And so on and so on."

The Ladanys spent the next three years on the run, in constant peril. At one point Shaul was left for safekeeping at a monastery in Budapest, before being transported with his parents and two sisters to Bergen-Belsen.

"I remember every day I spent there," he reflects. "I remember standing for hours in the rain and cold for roll calls. The German soldiers kept making errors in adding up the numbers alive and dead. I remember the barbed wire and the watch towers and the hunger. It made a tremendous impact on me."

After six months, the Ladanys managed to escape to Switzerland as part of an exchange deal struck between the Nazis and the Zionist movement. They were fortunate. The average survival rate in Bergen-Belsen was nine months. An estimated 100,000 Jews died there, among them Anne Frank.

Ladany's maternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, his grandfather pushing a note out of the train transporting them to Poland which read: "We are being taken to our death. 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."

The surviving Ladanys settled in Israel in 1948. Shaul studied mechanical engineering and also served in the Israeli Army, fighting in the Six-Day War in 1967. He was told by countless coaches and officials that he was too small to make it as an athlete but in 1968, at the age of 32, he qualified for the Israeli team for the Mexico Olympics. He finished 24th in the 50km walk.

Ladany 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 crosses 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 squad. The party returned to their accommodation in the Olympic Village, five apartment blocks at 31 Connellystrasse, at around midnight.

Ladany went for something to eat in the village restaurant, then 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 complex. "My initial reaction was that they were joking," he 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 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 terrorists and nine surviving hostages were holed up in block one. In his pyjamas, Ladany went to survey the scene in block three. There was blood on the stairwell, Moshe Weinberg's blood. Ladany and five other athletes made their escape, crossing the terrace lawn behind the building to safety.

In the terrible 24 hours that followed, the nine hostages were all killed in the ill-fated German police operation to ambush the terrorists at Furstenfeldbruck airfield. With Weinberg and Romano, that made a toll of 11 Israeli dead.

"The impact did not hit me at the time, when we were in Munich," Ladany says. "It was when we arrived back in Israel. At the airport in Lod there was 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. One headline proclaimed, "Ladany could not escape his fate in Germany for a second time".

"After Munich, at first I thought it was sheer luck that I survived," he says. "I was staying with the fencers and the shooters in apartment number two and we were sandwiched right in between the two apartments that were attacked. I thought it was sheer chance, unexplainable, why we were saved. Then, many months later, it struck me that it was luck of a different kind.

"The terrorists had a person working in the planning offices of the Olympic Village and he knew everything about life in the village. That was the first Olympic Games where the organisers provided a computerised information service with biographic and accommodation details about every athlete. Anybody could discover that in apartment two, besides me, a race walker, and two fencers, there were two shooters – two marksmen.

"It struck me that the terrorists would know there were two marksmen who had arms with them and who were excellent at shooting. If I had been housed with some of the others I might have been attacked. That was the luck for me."

Forty years on from the Munich Massacre, Ladany lives contentedly in Be'er Sheva with his wife of 51 years, Shosh. They have a daughter, three grandchildren and two dogs.

"I won't be in London for the Olympics," he says. "I have some walking competitions at the same time. I will have the best view you can get of the Games – watching on television.

"I know that the British Government and police will have strict security measures, and I hope they are not publicised in advance, because that would be giving tools to any terrorists.

"For the British people, for the athletes, and for the whole world, I hope that nothing like Munich will happen in London in 2012."

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