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ESPN documentary focuses on Holocaust and Munich Olympics survivor Shaul Ladany

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JTA — Frank Saraceno has worked for ESPN since 1994 and produced hour-long documentaries about some of the biggest sports stars for the cable channel’s Emmy Award-winning series “E:60.”

But he thinks working on the Tuesday night episode may have been his most powerful experience with the show since its inception in 2007.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with the story I presented coming to fruition than I am with Shaul Ladany,” Saraceno told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And it’s because of him. It’s because of him. »

Ladany, now 86, is a repeat survivor – first of a Nazi bombing of his family’s home as a child, then of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, then of the attack terrorist from the 1972 Munich Olympics. His “E:60” episode, “The Survivor,” aired on September 20 and is tied to the recent 50th anniversary in Olympics history.

Although the attack that left 11 Israeli athletes and coaches dead was chronicled in the 1999 documentary ‘One Day in September’, narrated by Michael Douglas, and in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film ‘Munich’ in 2005, Saraceno wanted to make sure the story continues to be told to younger generations.

“The challenge for me was finding a unique way to tell the story,” Saraceno said. ” I have had an idea. And I said, okay, let me see if there’s somebody, hopefully, with us from the Israeli team, and maybe I’ll take it from there. And that’s really what I did. I just looked up all the names.

Israeli Olympic walker Shaul Ladany poses for a photo after an interview with The Associated Press at the former Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in Bergen, Germany, September 3, 2022. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

He came across Ladany – a walker who was one of the few Israeli athletes to make it out of the Munich Olympic Village alive as the attack turned into a nearly 24-hour hostage situation.

“I presented it as telling the story of Munich through the eyes of an incredible human being,” Saraceno said.

The film is narrated and reported by ESPN Jewish veteran Jeremy Schaap, who has won 11 Emmys and covered eight Olympic Games. He is also the author of “Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics”.

“Being there, talking to someone who has seen it with their own eyes, who can communicate that story, to me was also personally meaningful, and meaningful, because I’m Jewish,” Schaap told AFP. ‘Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“When Frank brought [Ladany’s] story to my attention, connect us, I said, this is a rare opportunity to tell a story like this,” he added.

Shaul Ladany (seated, left) and Jeremy Schaap (seated, right) in Tel Aviv. (Frank Saraceno/via JTA)

It is also a story unlike any he has ever told. For one thing, Schaap said it was the longest interview he ever conducted: around eight hours.

“The same way he has this remarkable physical stamina as a walker, he also has it mentally as an interviewer,” Schaap said.

Schaap spent time with Ladany at home in Omer, Israel, Tel Aviv and Germany – including taking a five-and-a-half-hour train from Bergen-Belsen to Munich, where Ladany attended the German government ceremony marking 50 years since the attack.

Israeli Olympic walker Shaul Ladany holds his 1972 Olympic running shoes for a portrait in Omer, Israel, July 12, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Although timed for this anniversary, “The Survivor” focuses on the survivor himself. It tells the story of Ladany’s family, their journey through the Holocaust, to Israel, and then back to Europe in 1972 for the Olympics. Drawing heavily on archival footage and clips from the news and from Ladany’s personal life and athletic career, the episode seamlessly weaves the story, taking the viewer back in time.

Born in Belgrade in 1936, Ladany survived a series of close calls throughout the Holocaust. First, when he was five years old, German forces bombed his family’s home. Then, after the Ladany’s fled to Hungary, they were captured by the Nazis in 1944 and sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where an estimated 50,000 Jews were killed in the war, including Anne Frank.

Ladany was finally saved thanks to the Kastner train, a series of cattle cars that temporarily brought more than 1,600 Jews to Bergen-Belsen and then to Switzerland after a series of contentious negotiations with Adolf Eichman. After the war ended, his family emigrated to Israel, where his sports career took off. In 1963 he won an Israeli national running title – the first of his 28 – and in the following years broke the American record for the 50 mile run. Ladany also competed in the 1968 Olympics and several Maccabiah Games.

Holocaust survivor Shaul Paul Ladany talks to FC Chelsea youth players in Nuremberg, Germany, July 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Why running?

“You need a certain type of mental attitude: a willingness to take punishment, to have discomfort and pain, to carry on and on,” Ladany said in a 2012 CNN documentary about the massacre. “I’m not a psychologist, but was I stubborn so I signed up for race walking? Or did I get into running and become stubborn? It’s the same in all long distance events. Quitters don’t win and winners don’t quit.

Then, decades after fleeing the continent, Ladany returned to Germany as an Olympian, representing Israel. On September 3, 1972, Ladany finished 19th in the 50 kilometer walk. Less than 48 hours later, a group of armed Palestinian terrorists entered the Olympic Village quarters of several of his teammates, eventually taking those in several rooms hostage. Ladany’s room was somehow spared and he escaped.

Israeli Olympic walker Shaul Ladany, second right, talks to his sister Martha Flatto-Zemanek, right, granddaughter Raz Sharifi, second left, and nephew Assaf Flatto in front of a miniature model of the former concentration camp Nazi from Bergen-Belsen inside the former camp in Bergen, Germany, September 3, 2022. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

“You didn’t need a lucky event to survive,” Ladany says in the ESPN documentary. “To survive, you needed a series of lucky events. Luckily for me, I had them.

Despite everything Ladany has been through, Schaap said, he doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. In the film, Ladany shares that he is practically unable to cry.

“Maybe that’s how you survive, isn’t it?” Schaap said. “Maybe the way to survive emotionally, through the things he’s been through, is to internalize things, not externalize them, and that’s certainly what he’s saying when he talks about not to be able to cry. There is a stoicism, but not a cynicism.

Saraceno assembled an Israeli crew to film in the field — partly for Ladany’s convenience. At the same time, he began sifting through countless hours of news coverage from the 1972 Games – transcribing ABC News television broadcasts, filing and recording archival footage of competitions, ceremonies Opening and Closing and Ladany’s Personal Archives.

Israeli Olympic walker Shaul Ladany poses for a photo at the entrance to the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp in Bergen, Germany, September 3, 2022. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

“I’m a historian, I’m a sports historian, so I eat this stuff, I love it,” Saraceno said. “I love getting my hands dirty, so to speak, I love doing all that heavy work.”

The film also features interviews with Israeli photojournalist Shlomo Levy and Olympian Zelig Shtorch, who both competed in the 1972 Games, as well as Deborah Lipstadt, a famous Holocaust historian and current US envoy for the anti-Semitism.

In the decades following the massacre, Ladany became a grandfather and professor of engineering at Ben-Gurion University. These days, he’s still walking – but no longer in competition.

As Schaap says in the film, every step Ladany has taken since childhood has been “an act of defiance”.

“Despite the efforts of so many to eliminate him, to exterminate his people, to attack his team, he is still here,” Schaap said. “I think the message is that it’s not just about surviving – the title of this one is ‘The Survivor’ – but it’s about how he reacted to those horrible things, living fully his life.”