»Help! We’re burning!«
Munich on February 13, 1970: An unknown person sneaked into the Jewish Community Center at no. 27, Reichenbachstrasse at around 8.45pm. He poured 20 liters of gasoline between the fourth to the ground floors, ignited it and left the canister behind. The residents were trapped in the inferno. Seven people lost their lives.
The Arson Attack
»It’s like it was then. Why do we have to be subjected to this again? I spent eight years in a concentration camp, you know. «
Hermann Weitz, from whom this despondent statement comes, was one of the survivors of the attack. He was 63 years old and lived on the second floor. For many, there was no escape from the upper stories.
It was Friday, February 13, 1970, and Munich was in a state of shock. On the Tuesday before, an Israeli had been killed during an attack by Palestinian terrorists on an El Al airplane at Munich Airport.
Two days later, minor skirmishes occurred with student representatives of the AstA—the General Students’ Committee—during a demonstration triggered by the attack at Munich Airport (then in Riem) which opposed increasing antizionism.
Friday, February 13, 1970. Around 8.45 pm, the perpetrator entered the ground floor of the Jewish Community Center with an ARAL oil canister. It contained 20 liters of gasoline.
Taking the elevator, the perpetrator went up to the fourth floor and wedged an object in the elevator doors to jam them. For the residents, there was no escape route.
The perpetrator poured the petroleum mix down the wooden staircase, over all stories, and ignited the fire on the ground floor. The canister, blackened with soot, was found a few hours later under the debris from the blaze.
The chimney-like stairwell and wooden staircase became a flaming inferno within just a few seconds. For the residents of the upper floors there was no means of escape any more. Seven people died in the flames. Those who were rescued suffered from shock and smoke poisoning and were taken to hospital.
»It was immediately obvious that the residents’ escape route down the stairs was not only cut off by smoke but also be fire.«
Operation report by the Chief Fire Fighter, Munich
The first person to die as a result of the arson attack was Max Blum who occupied a room on the fourth floor. Alerted by the smell of burning and cries for help, he opened a window and called for help himself. The lights in the building had already gone out as a result of the fire and the smoke had reduced visibility to zero. As Max Blum’s room overlooked the rear courtyard he could not see if the rescue services had already reached Reichenbachstrasse. He tried to save his own life by climbing out of the window. He did not survive the fall.
A few minutes before, Leopold Gimpel from the second floor had been in Max Blum’s room to return a book. His route back down the stairs was already cut off and he fled to the bathroom at the end of the corridor where his body was later found. His wife, who was waiting for him in the apartment they shared on the second floor, survivied.
Rosa Drucker and Georg Pfau lived on the top floor. They tried to escape together with the milliner Regina Becher, who also lived in an apartment under the roof, but were trapped by flames on the staircase. They did not even reach the floor below.
The watch of another resident who lost his life stopped at 8.57 pm. David Jakubowicz had lived on the fourth floor of the Community Center for six years. He had just packed a suitcase as he was about to emigrate to Israel to be with his sister. However, he wanted to wait until after Shabbat. His attempted escape down the stairs was also unsuccessful.
The librarian Siegfried Offenbacher had celebrated his 71st birthday just a few days before the arson attack. In 1934 he had been deported to Dachau concentration camp. He had emigrated to Israel but returned to his beloved native city of Munich after the war. Siegfried Offenbacher was hard of hearing and noticed too late that he had been trapped by the flaming inferno.
A number of residents, however, were actually rescued. Some survived by fleeing onto the roof beneath which their rooms were already being consumed by fire. At the last moment they were brought down a ladder to safety by the fire brigade.
Almost all those who were murdered were survivors of the Shoah. On February 13, 1970, they fell victim to antisemitic hatred.
The 60-member special commission of the Munich police investigated in all directions: residents, arsonists, Arab guest workers and students (especially Palestinians), the political spectrum from the far-right to the far-left.
In the end, the prime suspects were the so-called ‘Tupamaros Munich’ and the ‘Aktion Südfront’ groups which later included RAF terrorists and potential arsonists. Decisive evidence was, however, never found. The perpetrator has not been identified to this day.
Your help is needed.
Decisive evidence was, however, never found. The perpetrator has not been identified to this day.
50 years later: Those with inside knowledge, sympathisers and the perpetrators may still be alive. Break your silence!
member special commission
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