The images of Henry Hershkovitz marching with the Israeli flag at the opening ceremony of the Munich 1972 Summer Olympic Games are etched in the memory of every Israeli. That was the last time the Israeli delegation was seen as group before the event that changed Israeli and Olympic sports forever.
Hershkovitz, who died March 12 at the age of 95, was one of the survivors of the massacre that claimed the lives of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. His story, in a way, encapsulates that of many Israelis – encompassing aliyah, war, Zionism and family.
Hershkovitz was born in Romania in 1927 to a family of clockmakers. His daughter, Ronit Hershkovitz, tells Haaretz that her father used to join his grandfather, clockmaker to the king of Romania, when he went to the palace to wind the springs of the clocks there. A young Jew growing up as World War II broke out, Hershkovitz was placed in a labor camp by day, but concurrently developed a hobby: marksmanship. Thanks to that he was drafted upon reaching maturity as an officer in the Romanian army, where he was posted to the sharpshooters' unit.
Thanks to his involvement in Romania's Jewish community, he met his wife Sadie, a gymnast, who in time would become an international gymnastics judge, handing out scores to Olympian sensation Nadia Comaneci, among others.
In 1965 the couple immigrated to Israel “and immediately had good friends thanks to the sharpshooting,” daughter Ronit says. Two years after their arrival, the two went to Switzerland where Hershkovitz underwent training conducted by Swiss watchmaker Omega. Upon their return, he continued to work for the company for a short while, before opening a watch shop on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. He was still working their until this past December.
“All sorts of people who had bought old watches would bring them in to him for repairs,” she explains. “He had the patience to get parts, to find catalogs on the internet and order parts from China and from e-Bay. Even during the shiva someone called and asked 'Why isn’t the store open?'”
Beyond Hershkovitz’s connection to clocks and watches, marksmanship was the love of his life. He first represented Israel in the Asian Games held in Bangkok in 1966. A year later he won the gold medal in the Asian championship in 3-position shooting (as per the Olympic format) and a silver medal in 3-position shooting of a standard rifle.
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In 1968 he first represented Israel at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, and also held the flag in the opening ceremony. He finished 35th at 3-position shooting from 50 meters, and 41st at prone shooting from 50 meters. In 1970, at the Asian Games that were held once again in Bangkok, he won four medals: one gold (the team 50-meter event) and three silver (two team medals and one individual, in the 10-meter air rifle competition).
“Those involved in marksmanship are a real family,” says Nir Kristal, son of Hanan Kristal, a former marksman and a close friend of Hershkovitz. “This sport brings the athletes closer together, and since it’s a small specialty and less attractive to the media, warm relations develop between the shooters.”
Kristal adds that the older generation, including his father and Hershkovitz, “really saw as their mission the creation of an infrastructure for Olympic marksmanship in Israel. It’s a generation when people viewed themselves as ambassadors, and saw the great value in representing Israel.”
Ahead of the Munich Olympics, Hershkovitz was chosen to carry the flag at the opening ceremony. “When we had to decide who would carry the flag, it was an obvious choice,” recalls Uri Afek, former director general of the Israeli Olympic Committee, and also a member of the delegation at the 1972 Games. “He was a special and unique person, and there was a consensus.”
Hershkovitz managed to participate in the prone-shooting event, where he placed 23rd, and in 3-position shooting, where he came in 46th, before terrorists from the Black September terror organization broke into Apartment 1 of the Israeli delegation’s quarters, early on September 5th. Hershkovitz was in Apartment 2, which the terrorists skipped thanks to wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg who fought them off, forcing them to proceed to Apartment 3. The sharpshooter managed to escape through a window with speed-walker Shaul Ladany, fencers Dan Alon and Yehuda Weinstein, and fellow marksman Zelig Shtroch.
“It’s the type of thing you live with, but they weren’t topics of conversation at home,” Ronit Hershkovitz, says of the massacre of the 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. She mentions the film “The 11th Day,” produced by the History Channel to mark the 40th anniversary of the event, which spotlights the stories of the survivors.
“The main thing about the movie for my dad, and for all the survivors, I think, was that it marked the first time that they all met, and it was very moving for them,” she adds, “because at all the ceremonies they always invited the families of the victims – who of course are really are the important part of the story.
But after this film suddenly people told me: ‘We didn’t even know there were survivors at Munich.’ People didn’t really pay attention to them. Even when they came back to Israel (after the Olympic Games) pretty much nobody talked to them.”
In a joint interview with Olympic shooter Sergey Richter, as part of the film “Empty Handed” – produced by students including Hershkovitz's granddaughter at the Mosenson high school, in a suburb of Tel Aviv, in 2015 – Hershovitz recalled hearing a terrorist in the next room.
“I heard from under the window a terrorist loading a bullet in an automatic rifle,” he recalled. “There was a sort of flack-flack noise, and then I got up.” He remembered peeking out the window, and “suddenly the terrorist appears out of Apartment 1.” When he heard the shooting, in what would later turn out to be the shots that hit weightlifter Yossef Romano, Hershkovitz told his roommates that they must escape. They succeeded to do so through an open garden on the ground floor of the building at the Olympic village.
Despite having suffered the horrors of the 1972 Games, “Dad kept going,” Hershkovitz says, noting that he was a “quiet, modest and optimistic person.” Two years later he carried the Israeli flag at the Asian Games in Tehran as well. “Not everyone gets to carry the flag twice,” Afek adds, also recalling the “quiet and modest man, who knew how to slip jokes into a conversation in a pleasant way.”
Hershkovitz’s daughter agrees that her father “had a joke for every occasion”: “My dad wasn’t one to walk around bragging,” she says of his athletic career. “If you knew about it, you knew about it. People coming into the shop and seeing the photos of him with [Prime Minister] Golda Meir and asking, would get a story. But he didn’t tell everyone he met that he was in Munich.”
The trauma of 1972 continued to accompany Hershkovitz, the clockmaker and Olympic sharpshooter, for the rest of his life. And then, at 95, his clock stopped as well.