THE TRAIN PLATFORM in Celle, Germany, is bustling. It's a sea of duffel and roller bags, parents tending to small children beneath a beaming late-summer Sunday sun. Soon, the high-speed train will arrive and, however and wherever the weekend was spent, it's time to return home.
The train will stop first in Hanover, roughly 25 miles away. It will wind hundreds of miles south through Bavaria and the Alps, five and a half hours, to its destination in Munich. Point A to a distant Point B, simple as that.
But for one passenger in particular, it's more than a simple train ride. For Shaul Ladany, it encompasses the story of his entire 86 years of life -- a life so vagarious it defies logic. On this day in northern Germany, there's perfect symmetry for Ladany.
Eighty years ago, much of his personality was forged 11 miles north of Celle in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, whose infamy outlives the vast majority of those who suffered there. In Munich, Ladany's story is bookended by another notorious crime, perpetrated decades later, at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
On that platform, Ladany might just be another elderly man stepping away from a crowd. They have no idea he has endured the worst that humanity has to offer while maintaining grace. They haven't a clue how often he has eluded death.
They can't even begin to know just how much Ladany has survived.
SHAUL LADANY WAS a special athlete. For Ladany, an Olympian racewalker, the longer the distance, the better. He set records in the 1960s and '70s. The classic 47-miler from London to Brighton? He won it three years in a row. In 1966, Ladany broke the 88-year-old United States record for 50 miles. In 1972, he broke the world record: 7 hours, 23 minutes and 50 seconds (it still stands) and won the world championship in the 100-kilometer (62 miles) event.
It wasn't until he served in the Israeli army in his early 20s that Ladany discovered his gift for endurance -- and, by extension, his almost limitless capacity for pain -- during long marches. Back then, in the early days of the state of Israel, in the mid-to-late 1950s, army marches were covered on radio and followed closely by the public. They were as much cross-country races as they were training exercises.
"The Israeli press called me the king of the marches because I was so fast," Ladany says now, still full of pride.
He honed his skills by walking incessantly, even compulsively, more than 20 miles a day. A generation of Israelis grew accustomed to the sight of Ladany furiously pacing the country's roads -- arms pumping furiously, one foot always in contact with the ground.
In the mid-1960s, he moved to Manhattan to study business administration at Columbia. It was also where he'd become acquainted with world-class racewalking talent who'd elevate his game. For Ladany, the training was not so much a means to an end as the end itself.
He'd while away hours in the city's parks, on its streets, clearing his head and pondering his dissertation. Eventually, he'd graduate with a PhD and go on to a long and distinguished career as a professor in Israel. His work mattered to him, but what he needed was walking.
He still does.
WITH SHAUL LADANY, the question of luck always arises. Is he lucky to still be here? Or unlucky to have been forced to endure so much?
He prefers to think of himself as lucky.
"You did not need one single lucky event to survive," Ladany says. "You needed a series of lucky events. Fortunately for me I had them."
He was 5 years old the first time he needed luck to survive. It was April 6, 1941, and he was in the basement laundry room of his family's home in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, when a German bomb tore through the house. It exploded, but in another part of the basement, killing several neighbors who had sought shelter.
Eighty-one years later, Shaul remembers the scene vividly: "The house was shaking. My mother fell on me to protect me. The steel door of the laundry room was knocked out of its hinges, fell on my grandmother. But nothing really happened to her."
It was the day the war came for Yugoslavia -- and the Ladany family. It was 19 months after Germany invaded Poland, touching off the war in Europe, and 10 months after the fall of France and the British army's escape at Dunkirk. Now, because they resisted fascism and a regime allied with Hitler, the Yugoslavs were targeted. The savage bombing of Belgrade was termed Operation Retribution by the Germans.
For Shaul's family, there was even more to be feared: the Ladanys are Jewish.
Almost immediately, German invaders started rounding up Jews, demanding they identify themselves. The Ladanys faced the first of several life-or-death decisions: Remain in Yugoslavia? Or escape, to Hungary?
Hungary was a German ally but ironically a safer place. Why would Jews escape into the arms of an enemy, an ally of the Third Reich? Hungary was safer because it was enemy territory. German bombs didn't fall on Hungarian cities, German troops didn't terrorize Hungarian streets. The Ladanys also had roots in Hungary; Shaul's parents and grandparents were born and raised in the Austro-Hungarian empire. They were culturally Hungarian and spoke the language.
They'd flee Yugoslavia, over the Danube River, and find a way out.
For two months, the Ladanys stayed in the city then known as Ujvidek (now Novi Sad, Serbia). But Shaul's mother's family was from Ujvidek, increasing the likelihood they might be identified. They left, seeking anonymity in Budapest in late 1941.
"At the end of January '42, my mother started to cry," Shaul says, "and cry and cry, for days. After some time, they brought to us two children, one of my age and the 6-month-old."
Shaul's mother was crying because her sisters, who'd stayed behind in Ujvidek, had been murdered. They were among roughly 3,000 massacred by Hungarian soldiers in a three-day rampage, targeting predominantly Serbs and Jews. The children brought to the Ladanys were Shaul's first cousins, hidden when their parents were taken away and orphaned by the bloodshed. Martha, the 6-month-old, would be raised by the Ladanys as his sister; the other, Evi, was placed with relatives in Hungary.
Life for the Ladanys in Budapest was mostly bearable. Shaul's father, a chemical engineer and patent attorney, found work, and Shaul went to school. But fear always lingered; Shaul's father could be pressed into compulsory labor service in the Hungarian military and sent to the Eastern Front. Twice he was taken to an assembly area to be sent away -- but his employer, a pharmaceutical company, intervened.
"He was demanded as necessary for the war effort of Hungary," Ladany says. "So they released him. Again: luck after luck."
"Hungary was not good to the Jews," says ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism and a scholar of the Holocaust. "Jews were put in labor camps, mistreated, stripped of their possessions."
In 1944, with the Axis powers losing on all fronts, Germany occupied Hungary to prevent its surrender -- spelling doom for hundreds of thousands of Jews. Their fates were sealed when Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, arrived in Budapest that March.
"SS officers came to our apartment," Ladany says. "They said, 'You have two days to get to the ghetto.'"
In just a few weeks, roughly 425,000 Jews were crowded into trains and sent to Auschwitz, the German extermination camp in occupied Poland. Of the 755,000 Jews estimated to have been in Hungary at the time of the German occupation, just over 250,000 would be alive when the war in Europe ended 14 months later.
Shaul's maternal grandparents were among the dead.
But, in the early summer of 1944, Shaul and his immediate family found themselves, again, on the move.
THE WARTIME ACTIVITIES of Israel Kastner are far too complicated and controversial to do them justice here. What matters with respect to Shaul Ladany's life is that Kastner, a Jewish lawyer and journalist, negotiated with Nazi officials to spare some of Hungary's Jews from the gas chambers at Auschwitz, trading their lives for gold, diamonds and cash. These Jews -- about 1,700 in total -- were able to leave Hungary by train to freedom. The Ladanys were among them. Shaul says now his family was chosen because of his father's history of Zionist activism.
On June 30, the Kastner train left Budapest. Most aboard thought freedom meant a neutral country like Portugal, or perhaps Palestine. But after nine days, the train stopped near Celle at a camp called Bergen-Belsen, where they'd remain while Kastner finalized his deal with the Germans.
During the war, 50,000 people were killed at Bergen-Belsen, not in gas chambers, but through German neglect and cruelty. This is where Anne Frank died, succumbing to typhus. When the camp was liberated in April 1945, the conditions were so vile, so inhumane, and disease was so rampant, that British liberators burned most of it to the ground. A large portion of those 50,000 deaths happened in the last few months of the war, including thousands in the days and weeks after the camp was liberated, too sick to be saved.
When the Kastner train arrived at Bergen-Belsen that July, the camp was not what it would become. The conditions were horrid, but there was a better chance of survival.
Even all these years later, Shaul -- just 8 years old at the time -- recalls constant hunger and cold, the endless Appelplatz, or daily roll call.
He also remembers, between barbed wire and electric fences, tomato plants starting to grow -- one bulb, in particular, of light green at first, blooming into deep red, thriving just out of reach.
"After being married, my father told my wife, 'Shaul loves tomatoes,'" Ladany recalls. "'Make sure he always has tomatoes.'"
Shaul's mother shared her meager rations to keep her children alive. At one point, Martha came down with scarlet fever. Even so, the Ladanys maintained hope they'd be set free.
On Dec. 4, 1944, the deal forged between Kastner and the Nazis was finalized. The Ladanys were among 1,400 -- 300 or so of the Kastner passengers had already been sent to Switzerland in August -- who boarded an actual passenger train and left Bergen-Belsen en route to Switzerland.
Somehow, they had survived.
"It's clear that it forged my character, my behavior for the rest of my life," Ladany says. "What you need in sports to succeed is pain, discomfort, difficult times and very difficult situations. I had it. It motivated me to not [allow] the possibility that others control my life."
AS HE HAS FOR DECADES, Shaul lives in a small house in Omer, Israel, a town at the northern edge of the Negev desert, an hour and change south of Tel Aviv without traffic. He has been a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev since the early 1970s. His wife of 58 years, Shoshanna, died in 2019. Their only child, their daughter, Danit, is a member of the Israeli national police force. So is her husband, with whom she has two daughters and a son, Shaul's grandchildren.
Shaul is not prone to public (or private, for that matter) displays of emotion. But when he talks about Shoshanna, his love is palpable. A biochemist with a PhD in endocrinology, she accepted his mania for racewalking. She liked to walk, too -- just not as frequently or frenetically.
The house they shared is a de facto museum, dedicated to two distinct subjects: Shaul's remarkable career in race walking -- there are perhaps thousands of trophies and ribbons on display -- and Shaul's collection of historical artifacts. He treasure hunts at flea markets wherever he goes, looking to add to his collection.
Unsurprisingly, he collects mostly from the era just before the birth of the state of Israel. Shaul and his family came to Israel in 1948, shortly after its creation. After the war, the Ladanys returned to Yugoslavia, but his parents were eager to leave.
"They were fed up with Europe," Ladany says now, sitting at a picnic table on the beach in Tel Aviv, about 60 miles south of Haifa, where he and his family came ashore in 1948 already burdened with a lifetime of suffering.
The Ladanys would start over like so many other survivors. Over the next quarter-century, Shaul would fight as a soldier in Israel's wars, in '56, '67 and '73. During the last two, he rushed home to Israel from the United States, where he was living, to join the fight. All the while, in every spare second, racewalking.
In 1968, Shaul qualified for the Mexico City Olympics. In the 50-kilometer walk, he finished 24th. He was 32 but not yet at his athletic peak. By the time the Munich games were approaching, four years later, he was stronger, faster and considered a medal contender.
The significance of returning to Germany as an Olympian, 28 years after walking out of Bergen-Belsen, was not lost on Shaul.
"I was proud going to Munich," Ladany says. "The Third Reich wanted to eliminate us and we are still here. We are able -- proudly -- to compete at the same level with the rest of the world. I was very happy even when one of the headlines in Munich was: Shaul Ladany is walking on familiar grounds."
Munich. The birthplace of the Nazi movement. The city where the seeds of the Holocaust had been planted was now where the Games of the Twentieth Olympiad were to take place. Why? Because the Germans -- the West Germans -- wanted to showcase a nation transformed, a country not committed to aggression, but instead the brotherhood of man. They were calling the Munich Games the Serene Olympics, the Cheerful Olympics, the Happy Olympics. This fortnight was intended to be the opposite of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which took place three years after Hitler came to power, and which the Third Reich turned into a pageant of German might.
At 36, Ladany was older than most of his teammates and had experienced things they hadn't.
"I was the only survivor on the team and, I believe, the only that spoke German," Ladany says.
The Israeli team, including Ladany, were compelled by the Israeli Olympic Committee to attend a special ceremony at Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, about 10 miles northwest of Munich. Ladany didn't want to go; the committee said he must.
"I stood at the gate of Dachau and didn't enter," Ladany recalls. "This was the first time I was somewhere near a concentration camp again. I didn't participate closely in the ceremony."
Meanwhile, the West Germans were so determined to present a cheery image to the world that security was sacrificed. They didn't want anything resembling 1936.
Shlomo Levy, an Israeli photojournalist, was working the Games for the organizing committee, as an interpreter attached to the Israeli team. He remembers the atmosphere in the early days of the games as purely joyful -- for everyone.
"Everybody could do what they want -- music and dancing -- and the first 10 days, it was really like this," Levy says. "We didn't [think] about security, that we have to be afraid [of] something. For what?"
The first several days of the Games included some spectacular performances, especially in the Olympic pool from the American Mark Spitz. Spitz had been a disappointment in Mexico City, winning only two gold medals, both in relay races. Four years later, he was hoping to win seven. Not only did he go 7-for-7: He set seven world records, in four individual races and three relays.
On Sept. 3, eight days after the Opening Ceremony, it was finally time for Ladany's race, the 50-kilometer walk, beginning and ending at the Olympic stadium. He would struggle.
"I planned to walk the first 5-10 kilometers at the pace of five minutes per kilometer," Ladany says. "Reaching five kilometers, I found myself among the leaders -- much better than my Israeli record for five kilometers."
Too fast, he thought. Reduce the speed.
Ladany ended up finishing 19th, in four hours, 24 minutes and 38 seconds.
"I was disappointed," he says.
But not crushed. The games would go on, Ladany thought, and he was going to enjoy himself. The day after his race, Ladany and most of the rest of the Israeli team attended an evening performance of "Fiddler on the Roof." Shmuel Rodensky, a legendary figure in Israeli theater, was starring in the production, playing Tevye, the role originated by Zero Mostel on Broadway. There is a photograph of Rodensky and the Olympians, all wearing team blazers, beaming.
"We did not know that this photograph, to many of us there ..." Ladany says. "This is the last photograph of their life."
Around midnight, Ladany says the Israelis got back to their apartments in the Olympic Village. Most of the team was staying in a two-story building at 31 Connollystrasse, the street named for the great American hammer thrower Harold Connolly. In Apartment 1, there were four Israeli coaches and two referees. Ladany was in Apartment 2 with two fencers, two target shooters and a swimmer, who wasn't competing but unofficially coaching. In Apartment 3, there were six wrestlers and weightlifters. In Apartment 4, there were team officials and medical personnel, and in Apartment 5 was Shmuel Lalkin, the head of the delegation. Levy, the photographer and interpreter, was in Apartment 6. The two women on the team were staying elsewhere in the village, and Israel's two Olympic sailors were hundreds of miles away in Kiel, near the Baltic Sea.
At 1 a.m., Ladany went to Apartment 1 to lend his alarm clock to the wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg, who had to get up early. Ladany stayed up until 3, clipping newspaper articles for his scrapbook.
WHAT DID BLACK SEPTEMBER, the militant Palestinian organization that carried out the Munich massacre, want? The plan was to take hostages -- Israeli Olympians -- and trade them for 234 prisoners in Israel, as well as the leftist terrorists Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, who were imprisoned in Germany. But there was also a propaganda objective to their mission.
They wanted to remind the world of the Palestinian cause, to focus attention on their grievances.
They entered the village around 4:30 a.m., hopping over a fence, armed with AK-47s and hand grenades, and quickly made their way to 31 Connollystrasse.
They entered Apartment 1 first, then went to Apartment 3. Why they skipped over Apartment 2, Ladany's apartment, no one knows. Almost immediately, they killed Weinberg and fatally wounded Yossef Romano, a weightlifter. Then they moved the athletes from Apartment 3 into Apartment 1 -- but one of them, the wrestler Gad Tsabary, escaped. The terrorists managed to take nine hostages, in addition to the men they had killed. The hostages were Andrei Spitzer, the fencing coach; Amitzur Shapira, the track coach; Kehat Schor, the shooting coach; Yossef Gutfreund, a wrestling referee; Yakov Springer, a weightlifting referee and fellow Holocaust survivor; the weightlifter David Mark Berger, originally from Cleveland; the weightlifter Ze'ev Friedman; and wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin.
In Apartment 2, Zelig Shtorch, one of the marksmen, was awakened by the commotion.
"I felt something heavy disturb my sleep and sat up in bed," Shtorch says. "Henry Hershkowitz [the other Israeli Olympic marksman] was standing by our window facing the street. He pulled the curtain, looked out and was quiet. I said, 'Is something wrong?' He said, 'Didn't you hear gunshots?'
Shtorch opened the door and walked around outside. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but then he saw a man who wasn't one of the coaches or referees at the door of Apartment 1, holding a gun and grenade. Shtorch saw blood outside the door to Apartment 3, too, so he went back into his apartment and awoke Ladany with a tap on the shoulder.
"He says, 'Arabs killed Mooney,' and disappears," Ladany says.
Ladany opened the door of their apartment and saw, a few feet away, a terrorist in heated conversation with four German security guards, who are pleading with them to allow wounded hostages to be treated.
"He answered no -- in what language I don't remember," says Ladany. "She wanted to convince him, saying, 'You should be humane.' He replied, 'Jews are not humane either.' Later on, I learned that man was Issa, [alias of Luttif Afif] the head of the terrorist group."
Ladany closed the door, walked to the bathroom and relieved himself. He was calm. The occupants of Apartment 2 decided it was time to leave. Four left, but Ladany and Shtorch -- clutching his competition rifle in his hands -- stayed. Ladany, meanwhile, walked out of the apartment and along the exterior wall of 31 Connollystrasse to Apartment 5, which housed the head of the delegation. He, too, was calm, Ladany remembers. Shmuel Lalkin was perched at his desk, making phone calls, alerting those who needed to know what was happening. They were only 30 feet from Apartment 1, where their teammates were being held hostage at gunpoint.
Eventually, Ladany and Lalkin left. So, too, did Shtorch, deciding against shooting at the terrorists.
"For 50 years," Shtortch says. "I've been thinking about how it could have gone down."
What would transpire over the next 18 hours has been told many times: in books, documentaries, scripted films. Reduced to its essence, the terrorists set several deadlines, insisting that if their demands were not met, they'd kill all the hostages. But the deadlines came and went without executions.
Throughout the day, German officials tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the release of the hostages. The Games continued, despite the murders of two men -- two Olympians, Weinberg and Romano -- right in the Olympic Village. Finally, late in the afternoon, the action was paused. Ladany spent most of the day in the headquarters of the Olympic Village, confident that a deal would be made, and his teammates, the nine still alive, would somehow be freed.
Early in the evening, a deal was struck. The Germans were going to provide a plane for the terrorists to fly with their hostages to Cairo, where the terrorists could negotiate further from a place of security. But first, everyone would be transported to the nearby airbase Furstenfeldbruck, where the plane to Cairo waited. They would fly to the airbase in two helicopters.
From his vantage point in the headquarters, Ladany saw his teammates boarding the helicopters.
"At that time, we did not know whether the Israelis were part of any rescue plan," Ladany says. "We knew the helicopters took the nine hostages with the terrorists and flew away. We hoped somehow they [would] be rescued, but we did not know what was planned."
The helicopters made the 20-mile trip and landed on the tarmac just ahead of 11 p.m. Soon, reports circulated that the Germans had rescued the hostages. In fact, the morning edition of the Jerusalem Post said just that.
"At midnight, I was able to get a line to my wife in Israel," Ladany says. "Around that time, a radio broadcast in Munich [reported] all the hostages were safe. We were so happy. We embraced each other and went to sleep."
The reports, of course, were erroneous. Not only had the hostages not been rescued, but they were all dead.
For 50 years, the details have been debated and disputed. There have been investigations, allegations, recriminations. German government officials had not intended to let the terrorists leave with hostages and had placed sharpshooters on the roof of the control tower at the airbase and another team of police officers on the airplane.
A firefight broke out. In the melee, terrorists killed the hostages and blew up one of the helicopters with a hand grenade. They also killed a German police officer. Five terrorists were killed, and three were captured alive.
Jim McKay of ABC Sports, who'd been anchoring the coverage from the Olympic Village, delivered the news to his American audience at 3:30 a.m. in Munich.
"When I was a kid, my father used to say say, 'Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized,'" McKay said. "Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They've now said that there were 11 hostages; two were killed in their rooms this mor -- yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone."
Ladany went to bed thinking his teammates had been rescued. But within a few hours, he and the other Israelis who survived would find out the truth.
"Some of them cried," Ladany remembers. "I never cry. I'm sorry."
It is not a point of pride for Shaul. When Shoshanna died, he didn't cry either. He still talks about how awful her passing was.
But Shaul thinks he lost the ability to cry in the Holocaust.
"I keep the sorrow to my inside."
AT THE MEMORIAL ceremony in the Olympic stadium roughly 12 hours after the tragedy at Furstenfeldbruck, Shmuel Lalkin addressed the crowd: "With deep shock, we sorrow over the barbarous attack by terrorists against our sportsmen who were murdered." He then read out the names of the members of his team who were killed. The assembled crowd stood in silence.
Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, said "we mourn our Israeli friends" and equated the attack with earlier political pressure from some Black African athletes to ban white supremacist Rhodesia from the competition. He then added, infamously, "the Games must go on."
After the ceremony, the Israelis survivors returned to their apartments at 31 Connollystrasse and prepared to head home. They'd fly to Israel accompanying 10 caskets holding their teammates and friends; Berger's casket was flown back to Ohio. The Israeli delegation had decided to send the whole team home in the wake of the massacre; no Israelis competed in the final days of the Games or took part in the closing ceremony.
It was not a controversial decision. But one Israeli objected.
Ladany says leaving was "the wrong decision."
"I argued that the Israeli flag, decorated [in black], should parade at the closing ceremony," he says.
To Ladany, leaving was surrendering, giving satisfaction to the terrorists. Even now, half a century later, his contempt for the decision has not softened.
"I never retreat," he says.
A few weeks after flying home to Israel following the 1972 Olympics, Ladany was in Lugano, Switzerland, about 250 miles from Munich. He competed in the 100-kilometer race walking world championship.
IT'S THE FOURTH of September 2022 and Shaul is at Bergen-Belsen with his granddaughter Raz. There is a ceremony commemorating the camp's liberation in 1945; it was supposed to have taken place for the 75th anniversary in 2020 but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Survivors and their families, as well as the families of those who were murdered here, reunite to say kaddish, the Hebrew prayer of mourning, said for those who were killed here. Shaul hopes it isn't his last visit to Bergen-Belsen. He wants to bring his grandson here, too, now that he has taken both of his granddaughters on separate trips.
He wants all of them to know what their family experienced here.
Coincidentally, the ceremony is taking place the day before the 50th anniversary of the Munich massacre, which is why he boards the train from Celle to Munich: to be present for the commemorations at the Olympic Village and Furstenfeldbruck.
On the train, Ladany peers out the window at the rolling countryside speeding by 90 mph, at this country that he endured, that thrust tragedy upon him more than once.
"I'm a logical person, not an emotional person," he says. "I'm trying to get there to memorialize the victims, [trying] to keep their memory hopefully forever."
Ladany estimates he has walked 450,000 miles, or on average 14 miles a day since April 2, 1936. He used to celebrate his birthday by walking his new age in kilometers. At 80, he reluctantly cut back at the urging of friends and family ... so now he walks half his years to celebrate. This spring, that amounted to 43 kilometers, or 27 miles -- a little more than a marathon.
Every so often, he'll take a day off, much to his mind and body's chagrin.
"If I don't walk one day, it's not so bad. The second day? I already feel unpleasant in my legs, the whole body," he says. "The body is used to walking. Along the route I walk, people know me and sometimes walk with me. I like to know every point where I am and where I can stop if I have to."
"What can I do?" he chuckles. "I love to walk."
At Furstenfeldbruck the day after our train ride, the presidents of Israel and Germany speak. Ankie Spitzer, the widow of Andre Spitzer, the fencing coach killed here precisely 50 years earlier, to the day, speaks, too. Shaul is wearing the same Israeli Olympic team blazer he wore in 1972. It still fits.
Shtorch is here, too, on the tarmac. Ladany, as always, is walking faster than just about anyone else.
For all these decades, Shaul's every step has been a twin act of devotion and defiance.
With each footfall, his message is clear: You couldn't kill all of us. I'm still here.