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Weight Lifting: He was Jewish, I was Cajun. His death still inspires me

Warren Perrin,  Contributing, Acadiana Advocate, Dec. 29, 2019

A recent documentary on terrorism reminded me of my friend and competitor David Berger and how our lives intertwined.

When I was 13, I began weight training in my dad’s workshop. By 1965, having joined the weightlifting team at what was then known as the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, I had trained and won enough competitions to be accepted as part of the NCAA national collegiate weightlifting team.

Similarly, when he was 13, Berger began weight training in his family's basement in Cleveland. He, like me, decided to commit himself to Olympic weightlifting, a sport that requires intense discipline, physical strength and mental focus.

I became a member of three USL national NCAA weightlifting championship teams. This success gave me the confidence to become an attorney and an Acadian activist. Likewise, after graduating from Tulane, Berger obtained a law degree from Columbia. He was the ultimate student athlete.

Being on the undefeated USL team affected me in many positive ways, but one stands out: my unique friendship with Berger.

We first met at the New Orleans Athletic Club in 1964. He was older and very encouraging to me. I never defeated him in competition.

In 1965, he won the NCAA national weightlifting championship — setting three national records.

Berger was the first Jewish person I met — he spoke Hebrew. I was the first Cajun he met — I spoke French.

During meets, he and I talked about our different cultural backgrounds. Alike, our people were both victims of ethnic cleansing: the Acadians in 1755 and the Jewish people during WWII. Though the Holocaust remains a tragedy unparalleled in history, the Acadian Deportation was very traumatic to my ancestors — in both cases, one-third of our people perished.

Like Berger, I aspired to represent my country in the Olympics. He realized that dream; I didn’t.

He moved to Israel in 1970 with hopes of joining their Olympic team. In 1972, as I was beginning my law practice, he proudly represented Israel in the Olympics. Four days later, he was dead.

The Munich massacre, an act of terrorism that shocked the world, started when Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli team members hostage in a strike known as “Black September.” Berger, who valiantly resisted, was shot three times, beaten and killed by a terrorist grenade during a failed rescue attempt. The tragedy was later memorialized by Steven Spielberg’s film "Munich" in 2006. The London Times wrote: “They came with dreams and went home in coffins.”

On orders of President Richard Nixon, Berger’s body was flown back to Cleveland on a U.S. military plane.

The Tulane community was shocked; flags flew at half-staff the day after the massacre. In 2002, New Orleans rededicated Avenger Field in Audubon Park as David Berger Avenger Field.

In the intervening years, I’ve had a wonderful life. I just celebrated my 50th wedding anniversary with the love of my life, I’ve had children and grandchildren, and still continue to follow my passions.

Although he made it to the Olympics, Berger never got to experience the same joys that I did. But his dedication and spirit live on in my heart and continue to inspire me to this day to seek my goals.

— Perrin lives in Lafayette

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Athletic Network Footnote by Dr. Ed Dugas.

Click www.athleticnetwork.net  - Photo Gallery on left side of home page - Weight Lifting for the photo gallery of the Weight Lifting program at SLI/USL and the national champions it produced.

Click on the Ragin' Cajuns Reunions and Special Events Banner on the right side of the home page and view the photo galleries of those reunions in 2006 and 2016.