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Walking to survive: The story of Shaul Ladany

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Editor's note: Interviews with Shaul Ladany and Danit Ladany-Sharifi were conducted primarily in Hebrew. Quotes have been translated.


On April 2, just months after bypass surgery, Professor Shaul Ladany celebrated his 80th birthday by walking 80 kilometers (approximately 50 miles). One kilometer for each year of his life, one step to remember each trial and one step to relish in every victory.  “There’s a saying,” he says. “Apparently it is ingrained in my essence. The saying is…” He pauses and switches from Hebrew to English so as to relay the kicker in its native form and give it the full one-two punch, “Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win.”


It’s fitting that Ladany would be renowned in the sport of race walking, a sport whose athletes’ greatest attribute is their perseverance. A Holocaust survivor who fled his home in Belgrade, the then capital of Yugoslavia and now capital of Serbia, at the age of five, Ladany represented Israel in two Olympic Games – 1968 in Mexico City and 1972 in Munich. Yes, that Munich. He has won multiple Israeli race walking titles, won a gold medal at the World Championships and he holds the world record in the 50-mile walk. To top it all off, Ladany is a published scholar and professor of industrial engineering.


“We fled the house at a run,” he writes in his memoir, “King of the Road: From Bergen-Belsen to the Olympic Games.”  “Five women and two children led by my sixty-five-year-old grandfather.” Within an instant his whole world changed. The house that Ladany’s father had built was bombed by the German air force. “We went to some village to the south of Belgrade,” he explains over the phone from his home in Israel. Although his adult companions carried him for much of the journey, the 20 kilometers traveled was Ladany’s first real distance walk.  He was five years old.



The family would eventually make their way to Budapest where Ladany’s father became active in the local Zionist movement. Mr. Ladany’s involvement in the movement ensured a place for the family on what is known as “The Katzsner Train”. Dr. Rudolf Katzsner, a leader in the Hungarian Zionist community, negotiated a deal with the Nazis, promising to supply the Germans with trucks in exchange for the salvaging of several lives. The selected persons were loaded on a train that was supposed to take them through a neutral country and eventually lead them to Palestine. The passengers never made it. The train was diverted to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.


 After six months of imprisonment behind the barbed wire fences, Ladany and his family were released in December of 1944. The controversial Katzsner deal had finally come to fruition. Funds had been transferred to the Germans and those on the transport were spared. The family was settled in Switzerland and Shaul went off to a boarding school in Heiden with other Jewish children. It was here that he first willingly went on a long walk.


A group of students, including Ladany, were taken to have their eye-sight checked in a nearby city. When it came time to return to school the children were offered the option to make their way back to Heiden on foot. Ladany raised his hand, eager to go on the approximately 20 mile walk back to school. “I enjoyed it, but at the end it was hard,” he recalls, “I was very proud of myself that I did it.”


That sense of pride is a sentiment that would fuel him again and again throughout his walking career. It would propel him to the finish line during a four day march staged by the Israeli army as a fun event for citizens. “On the fourth day [of the march] I was almost not able to walk. I probably should have stopped,” he explains. “I did not give up. No matter how much I was hurting, no matter how much I was cramping, I finished.”



That pride would surface again upon landing in Munich in 1972. Ladany was the only male track and field athlete on the Israeli Olympic team and the only Holocaust survivor, a fact that the German media did not shy away from. According to Ladany, German media outlets emphasized his survivor status with splashy headlines referring to his time in Bergen-Belsen like, “Shaul Ladany Walks on Familiar Ground.” It was not the first time that Ladany had returned to Germany since his imprisonment and he had learned to get along with the younger generation of natives, but, he notes, he was always left with a sense of hesitation when dealing with older Germans. “I would check a person’s age and see if he could have been fighting for the Nazis,” he admits, “but I was proud to be with the Israeli delegation, especially to show the Germans, here – you tried to extinguish us, destroy us, but we are here and we can compete and stand with all the other nations. I was filled with pride.”


Traveling to the ’72 Games in Munich was not only contentious for Ladany and his teammates because of the historical implications, but also because of heightened security concerns. “When I came to Munich, there were already terrorist acts targeting Israelis, specifically on planes and in airports,” he says with a chillingly matter-of-fact tone to his voice. In May of 1972 gunmen had opened fire in Israel’s Lod International Airport, now known as Ben-Gurion Airport, killing 26 people.  “So I knew that for every Israeli, especially ones in a delegation, there was a certain risk of danger. I was okay with it.”







"They're all gone."





On September 3, 1972 Shaul Ladany competed in the 50km walk, finishing in 19th place with a time of 4 hours, 24 minutes and 38.6 seconds.  Two days later, on September 5, 1972, Ladany awoke to a very real nightmare. Masked terrorists had penetrated the building where the Israeli delegation was staying, and thus began the reign of  “Black September”.  Eight terrorists associated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization entered the Olympic Village and for more than 20 hours held Israeli coaches and athletes hostage. Ladany and several others managed to flee, trying to alert as much of the delegation as possible as they briskly walked out of the building and across the lawn straight to West German authorities. ABC was broadcasting live when  anchor Jim McKay famously said, “They’re all gone,” his voice solemnly alerting the world that six Israeli coaches, five Israeli athletes and one West German police officer were all dead.



Shaul Ladany is a survivor. He credits his desire not to give up, the desire to simply finish a race as his motivation, but he is not simply someone who survives. Instead, he excels. As his daughter Danit puts it, “He enjoys life.”







"For a righteous man falleth seven times, and riseth up again, but the wicked stumble under adversity."



Proverbs 24:16




The 50km walk is the longest distance in Olympic competition, but it was never Ladany’s strongest distance. His body and his mind were better suited for longer treks. Upon returning to Israel after the Olympics, Ladany received a call from an Orthodox Jewish man named Hirsch Galitzky who lived in Lugano, Switzerland. Galitzky, who was active in the local athletic association, explained that he believed Ladany had a good chance to win the 100km walk at the World Championships that November. Ladany had competed in the World Championships several times before and while he had managed to come close was never able to actually capture the gold.


The Sports Federation of Israel was not too keen on Ladany traveling to Switzerland for the event and tried to prevent him from doing so. But without any threat of legal recourse, Ladany went against their wishes and found himself in Lugano. Nonetheless, there were still security precautions that had to be taken. Galitzky arranged everything, paying for Ladany’s travel and hiring a personal security guard to keep the Israeli athlete safe. As for Ladany, he rose to the occasion, finishing in first place with a time of 9:38:56.4 seconds. Finally, he returned to Israel with a gold medal.


Growing up with a father like Ladany was not easy for only-child Danit, “He wasn’t an easy father,” she says over the phone. “He was very strict, not forgiving.” As a child, Danit, who now lives in Modi’in, Israel with her own children, was embarrassed by her father’s passion. “Race walking wasn’t a very popular sport,” she recalls, but as she grew older, the flushed cheeks of embarrassment evolved into grinning pride.


Danit says that her father has become a bit more emotional in the last few years, but the two have not always had an easy time expressing the love that they have for one another. When Ladany completed his 80 kilometer walk at the age of 80, his daughter decided to break down the emotional barrier that stood between them. “I was so proud. I wanted everyone to know,” she shares as her voice begins to crack with emotion. She wrote down how proud she was of her father and published it on Facebook; then she called him.  “I read it to him over the phone,” she explains. “It was the first time I said these things to him.” For the first time in her life, Shaul Ladany’s daughter told her father how proud she is of all that he has done.


The Nazis could not stop him. Terrorists could not stop him. The Sports Federation of Israel could not stop him. “He has such will power,” gushes Danit. “I don’t know anyone with such will power. He doesn’t give up.” It should not come as a surprise, given his track record, that despite officially being retired and not collecting a salary, Ladany still goes to his office at Ben-Gurion University nearly every day. He still helps students, still conducts and publishes research, and he still walks.







"Winner's don't quit. Quitters don't win."





If the cliché is true then Shaul Ladany epitomizes what it means to be a winner. At the age of 80, Shaul Ladany is still very much so living life. Ladany has worked on several studies that utilize mathematical models to find the optimal way to compete in sports, but he has yet to tackle race walking. “There are not enough factors and the right [mathematical] models don’t exist,” he explains. But the man who never gives up holds true to form, adding, “But I’m not done thinking.” 


 



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