Olympic Race Walker Shaul Ladany Survived Bergen-Belsen and the Munich Massacre

Mon, 03/25/2024 - 11:20am

Shaul Ladany, an 88-year-old world-record holding speed-walker, has defied death multiple times. As a small child, he survived the German occupation of Budapest and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Then, representing Israel in the 1972 Munich Olympics, he narrowly escaped the massacre that took the lives of 11 Israeli athletes.

On March 25, Shaul will talk about his survival and his athletic career with students and supporters gathered to honor the USC Shoah Foundation on its 30th anniversary. USC President Dr. Carol Folt will award the University Medallion to the 52,000 Holocaust survivors who recorded testimony for the Visual History Archive. Only three prior University Medallions have been given in the history of USC.

At the event, Shaul Ladany, who recorded his testimony with the USC Shoah Foundation for the first time in 2023, will speak on a panel with a student athlete and with Dr. Robert J. Williams, USC Shoah Foundation Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair.

Shaul was born on April 2, 1936, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia) to a middle-class family. His father worked as a chemical engineer and patent attorney, and his mother studied law. He had one sister and his grandparents also lived with them in a spacious villa. Before age five, Shaul spoke three languages: Hungarian with his parents, German with the nanny, and Serbian with the outside world.

Just four days after Shaul's fifth birthday, on April 6, 1941, the Axis armies of Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria invaded Yugoslavia, which surrendered 11 days later.

In his testimony, Shaul recalls seeing large posters with antisemitic phrases.

Shaul's father made the decision to flee with the family to his hometown of Novi Sad, 70 miles north of Belgrade. However, soon after they arrived, Shaul's father was arrested. Once he was released, the family fled to Budapest, Hungary.

Shaul's parents rented an apartment in Budapest, and his father, who procured false documents, got a job with Hungary's largest pharmaceutical firm.

In early 1942, the family learned that Shaul’s aunt and uncle had been killed in a massacre in Novi Sad where, over three days, the Hungarian military killed 3,000 people, primarily Serbs and Jews.

"My mother started to cry, almost nonstop," Shaul recalled.

Shortly after, his parents legally adopted his orphaned cousin, Martha, who was then six months old.

In March 1944 Germany invaded Hungary and by May deportations of Jews from Hungary’s provinces began. In Budapest, the Ladanys were subject to persecution, but by June they were selected to be rescued on what became known as the Kasztner train.

Hungarian Jewish journalist and activist Rudolf Kasztner, who had founded the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee in 1942, negotiated a deal with Adolf Eichmann, the SS official in charge of deporting European Jewry, to pay for the rescue of 1,700 Hungarian Jews.

Shaul and his family were aboard the train arranged by Kasztner when it left Budapest on June 30, 1944. But despite a promise that the train would travel directly to Switzerland, the passengers were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Shaul was 8 years old.

"It is not a luxury camp," Shaul explained ironically in his testimony, detailing the scarcity of food, mandatory daily roll call, electrified and barbed wire fences, and the triple-tier bunk beds crammed into the barracks.

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Shaul Ladany on experiencing starvation in Bergen-Belsen

Shaul Ladany was 8 years old when he was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He recalls suffering from starvation and seeing a tomato plant growing just out of reach.

After six months in the camp, Shaul and his family, along with the other Jews included on Kasztner’s train, were sent from Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland.

(In Israel in the 1950s, Rudolf Kasztner, then a government minister, was accused of collaborating with the Nazis, failing to warn Hungarian Jews of imminent deportations to Auschwitz, and favoring his own family and friends for rescue. After years of bitter controversy, he was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1957).

When the war ended, the family learned that Shaul’s grandparents and other family members had been murdered in Auschwitz. The Ladanys returned to Belgrade to search for relatives and reclaim their property.

Shaul remembers arriving at his old villa with his parents, with his father knocking on the door and saying to the resident, "I'm the owner; I've returned."

They renovated the property but eventually decided to immigrate to Israel when Shaul was 12, seeking the permanent refuge of a Jewish homeland.

Shaul completed his high school education in Tel Aviv and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces.

During his military training, Shaul was required to complete four-day marches, where he discovered his gift for endurance. Although these marches were not competitions, the soldiers tried to outdo each other. Ladany began to walk and train by himself until he consistently finished first. The Israeli press dubbed him the "King of the Marches." He then started to enter race-walking competitions.

Shaul met his wife, Shoshanna, a Kristallnacht survivor, during a charity walk in 1959. He eventually earned degrees from Technion and Hebrew University, and a PhD in Business Administration from Columbia University. Shaul and Shoshanna had a daughter, Danit.

Shaul competed in his first Olympic Games during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. During the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Shaul was asleep in a team apartment when a roommate woke him with terrifying information – the murdered body of one of their teammates had been tossed out of a neighboring apartment, according to a profile on ESPN sports. Shaul and his friend escaped through the rear of the building, taking the risk of crossing open land and successfully escaping the terrorists.

They later learned that eight members of the Palestinian group Black September had entered the Olympic village around 4:30 a.m., hopping over a fence armed with AK-47s and hand grenades, and eventually made their way into the apartments where the Israeli athletes were staying.

Two athletes were killed while resisting and nine were taken hostage and later killed. Shaul was one of five Israelis athletes in the building who survived the attack.

During his career as a distance speedwalker, Shaul won 28 national titles in Israel. In 1972, he set a world record time of 7:23:50 in the 50-mile walk – a record that still stands today.

In addition to a dozen scholarly books on business administration, he published several versions of his autobiography, “King of the Road: From Bergen-Belsen to the Olympic Games.”

In 2022, Shaul returned to Germany to attend ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen (delayed two years due to Covid lockdowns) and the 50th anniversary of the Munich Massacre.

Despite the hardships of his early life, Shaul considers himself lucky.

"You did not need one single lucky event to survive," Shaul told ESPN sports, which wrote about his trip back to Germany. "You needed a series of lucky events. Fortunately for me I had them."

Laya Albert
Laya Albert, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, is a journalism student at USC's Annenberg School and an active contributor to Annenberg Media. She is the Celina Biniaz Student Intern at the USC Shoah Foundation.