L.A.’s little-known plaque and grove of trees honor ‘Munich 11’

In the summer of 1984, when Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, then-Mayor Tom Bradley and the local organizers of the Olympic Games unveiled a large bronze plaque honoring the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. The Israeli Olympic delegation was present for the unveiling, as were Jewish community leaders, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, at the time an L.A. City Councilman, remembers the ceremony and what stands out most, he said in a recent interview, was that it took place at Los Angeles City Hall.

“It was a big ceremony, and I kept asking myself, ‘Why is it here?’ ” Yaroslavsky recalled. “Why isn’t it at the Coliseum?” he said, referring to the venue where the games were taking place.

“The International Olympic Committee [IOC] said no, we couldn’t do it there, at the games,” said Federal Appeals Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who served as secretary of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Instead, the plaque was hung temporarily at City Hall, then was reinstalled at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s Court of Honor after the games ended,  Reinhardt said. It continues to hang there today, alongside other commemorative plaques.

Reinhardt said he was surprised in 1984 when the IOC refused all requests to officially commemorate during the games here the 11 Israelis killed in 1972. No IOC officials attended the Los Angeles City Hall ceremony.

So when Reinhardt heard of the IOC’s refusal to commemorate the athletes with a moment of silence at the opening ceremonies of this year’s Olympic Games, set to begin in London on July 27, he said it “sounded just like the old days, all over again.”

This year’s push to commemorate the Israeli athletes has been more concerted and more public than ever before. More than 100,000 people signed an online petition asking the IOC to hold a minute of silence at the opening ceremonies to mark the 40th anniversary of the killings. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney both endorsed the call, and NBC sports anchor Bob Costas told The Hollywood Reporter that if the IOC does not observe a minute of silence, he will dedicate a minute of silence himself, on the air.

Nevertheless, IOC President Jacques Rogge refused the request, telling the Associated Press that “the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.”

Instead, Rogge said the IOC will honor the athletes elsewhere and at other times, including at a reception in London on Aug. 6, during the games, and again at a ceremony on Sept. 5, the actual date of the anniversary, at the military airfield in Germany where they were killed.

In addition, at a ceremony in London on July 23, Rogge held an impromptu moment of silence in what he called “the first time [that the slain athletes were memorialized] in an Olympic Village.”

That the IOC is participating in any remembrance of the Israeli athletes, who have come to be known as “The Munich 11,” could be seen as progress, given the IOC’s earlier refusals to participate in commemorations such as the 1984 Los Angeles one.

However, Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, widows of two of the Israeli athletes killed in Munich and the leaders of the campaign for the opening ceremony minute of silence, reportedly were outraged by Rogge’s action.

“This is not the right solution, to hold some ceremony in front of 30 or 40 people,” Spitzer told the Jerusalem Post on July 23. “We asked for a moment of silence at the opening ceremony, not for someone to mumble something in front of a few dozen people.”

The L.A. City Hall ceremony wasn’t the only way the Israeli athletes were remembered in Los Angeles in 1984, though. On June 24, about a month before those games began, a copse of 11 purple-leaf plum trees was planted at the top of a hill in Pan Pacific Park, in the heavily Jewish Fairfax District.

According to Laura Bauernfeind, principal forester for the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks, trees are often planted in city parks in memory or in honor of people. “What’s unique about the grove in Pan Pacific Park,” she said, “is that it has a plaque.”

“These trees stand as a memorial to the eleven athletes who were murdered during the XXth Olympiad,” reads the plaque, which was dedicated by the Los Angeles chapter of the Jewish National Fund (JNF).

Only nine trees stand on that hill today, and they appear to have been all but forgotten by the Jewish community. Little is known about the circumstances surrounding their planting; a representative from the JNF couldn’t uncover any records relating to the memorial grove, and Sanford Deutsch, who was president of the local JNF chapter when they were planted recently told The Journal in an interview that he didn’t remember the ceremony that took place almost 30 years ago.

These days, the grove looks a bit scruffy. The trees all appear to lean uphill at an acute angle, giving them a slightly cockeyed look. Two have no leaves at all, and five appear to have been replanted very recently. Of those, four are buttressed by wooden posts. 

Those posts ensure no lawnmower or young child will accidentally bump up against a tree (which could damage the underdeveloped roots), and are evidence of their care by the Department of Recreation and Parks. The department oversees between 850,000 and 1 million trees in the 16,000 acres of parkland in the city of Los Angeles.

“We think groves like this are important,” said Leon Boroditsky, whose official title with the department is “tree surgeon.” “And we want to maintain them to the best of our ability. But our staffing is really low.”

Budget constraints notwithstanding, Boroditsky, with help from volunteers from the nonprofit association TreePeople, oversaw the replanting of one of the trees in the grove just last April. Boroditsky said he plans to replant the two missing trees in the fall, when the weather is more conducive to growth.

“Being a tree in a park is a difficult life,” Boroditsky said, “Not as difficult as a street tree, but it definitely has its challenges, with kids and dogs and soccer players.”