SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST CAMPS BY BOXING (1940 – 1945)
By Len Abram
As much as Holocaust stories horrify, they also inspire. Decades of research detail the murderers and their methods, from the industries that produced the poison gas or exploited slave labor, to the rail systems across Europe, with thousands of employees, that transported millions to final destinations.
Luck plays its part in survival stories. But when their fate is in their hands, in some cases literally, the survivors outwit and outlast the system determined to take their lives.
The survivors are the other side of the tragic equation. Their stories inspire hope that courage and faith can overcome evil on a scale still hard to imagine. Luck plays its part in survival stories. But when their fate is in their hands, in some cases literally, the survivors outwit and outlast the system determined to take their lives.
In 1980, the film “Playing for Time,” was based upon Fania Fenelon’s memoir, in which an orchestra at Auschwitz helped Fenelon survive the Holocaust. A Jew in the French resistance, Fenelon was arrested in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the work camp in the Auschwitz complex.
Maria Mandl was the SS commander of the women’s camp, where Fenelon was imprisoned. Along with her brutality, Mandl was fanatical about her love of music. Fenelon couldn’t understand murderers appreciating the beauty of music. Mandl was complicit in the deaths of 500,000 women. Fenelon watched Joseph Kramer, commandant of Auschwitz, rush to attend her concerts, after he had killed 24,000 Jews that day. (Kramer was tried, convicted and hanged in 1945, as was Mandl, in 1947.)
As one of the cellists in the orchestra said, “As long as they wanted an orchestra, they couldn’t put us in the gas chamber.” Fenelon too survived, barely. Shipped to Bergen-Belsen in Germany as the Russian army approached Auschwitz. Fenelon was dying when the Allies arrived. She recovered to continue her career.
As with the musicians, boxers also provided the SS officers and guards with distractions from their grisly tasks — and later a war not going well. Boxers fought in the extermination and slave labor camps, trying to survive by boxing for time.
At Auschwitz and at other camps, selection for life or death was based upon a person’s usefulness.
At Auschwitz and at other camps, selection for life or death was based upon a person’s usefulness. The SS was looking for physicians or barbers or even forgers, among other skills. Anyone strong or young was chosen for forced labor.
Boxers were also on the SS list to entertain SS officers and guards. In Europe and America, boxing was as popular as soccer and football are today. American boxers and baseball players were the most highly paid athletes. A championship fight in the 1930s, says boxing historian Mike Silver, drew as much public attention as a Presidential election. The German Max Schmeling beat leading heavyweight contender Joe Louis. Hitler touted Schmeling’s Aryan superiority, until African-American Joe Louis defeated Schmeling in the rematch.
Dutch boxer Leen Sanders (40 wins, 6 KOs, 19 losses, 16 draws) fought, as a middleweight and welterweight across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. As a Jew, he wore the Star of David on his trunks. When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Sanders and his entire family went into hiding. They were betrayed and arrested. In January 1943, the family was shipped to Auschwitz. Sanders’ two children were gassed immediately; Sanders’ wife was murdered in late April. Seven of his siblings, including his brother Bram, and his parents, were also killed. Sanders was performing slave labor in the camp, when he was recognized by a member of the SS, who had seen him boxing in 1936.
Sanders was offered a chance to box and train the guards in boxing. This must have been the critical point for all the boxers who cooperated: to live and fight the evil in their own way or likely die, along with all the others. The Nazis expected no witnesses to their crimes. Fenelon’s memoir was titled as delaying the time, not the liberation she finally experienced. Sanders used his boxing position to help other inmates to survive with food and clothing. As an inmate recalled, Sanders “held his hand over me.” Sanders survived the war by boxing to return to the Netherlands, remarried, and won two more bouts before retiring.
Contemporary fiction is mindful of the connection between boxing and the Holocaust. Szczepan Twardoch’s 2020 novel “The King of Warsaw,” mentions Teddy aka Tadeusz Pietrzykowski (Wins 334, Losses 14, Draws 2), Warsaw city champion, and another fighter who boxed to survive.
As a member of the Polish resistance, Pietrzykowski was imprisoned in a camp for political prisoners named Auschwitz. In 1940, Pietrzykowski was prisoner number 77. Less than a year later when it became a killing center, Harry Haft, another boxer from Poland, was prisoner 144738.
Pietrzykowski reported intelligence back to the underground and performed acts of sabotage. The commandant at the time was Rudolph Höss, who trained his dog to bite Jewish prisoners and killed one. Pietrzykowski found a way to kill the dog, which the inmates and he, always short on rations, cooked and ate.
The Polish saboteur wasn’t done with Höss, who rode his horse around the camp. Pietrzykowski sabotaged Höss’s saddle, so that the horse threw the commandant. It was assumed to be accident when Höss suffered a broken leg. In 1946, when Höss was on trial, Pietrzykowski testified and watched Höss hanged.
Pietrzykowski didn’t start boxing right away – in the beginning he was assigned to work in a carpenter’s shop. Being fit helped all the former boxers survive the hard labor. His first boxing opponent was Walter Dünning – a German prisoner – who, before the war, was a middleweight vice-champion of Germany.
They fought in their work gloves. Most of the boxing at the camps was done with bare fists.
In March, 1941, Dünning’s fellow inmates suggested, if he liked abusing others, maybe he should try fighting Pietrzykowski. Dünning was 154 pounds. Bantamweights like Pietrzykowski fight between 115 and 118 pounds. Against Dunning, on camp rations and hard labor, Pietrzykowski weighed 88 pounds. They fought in their work gloves. Most of the boxing at the camps was done with bare fists. Dünning stopped the fight when he realized that he was losing, and Pietrzykowski got a loaf of bread and a bar of margarine as a prize. He shared his win with the other inmates.
Boxing became part of Pietrzykowski’s resistance to the occupation. Since he wasn’t Jewish, Pietrzykowski fought Jews and Gentiles, whereas Jewish boxers fought other Jewish boxers, with exceptions. A Jew winning a match against the Master Race would be intolerable. Boxing became popular with the inmates as well as the SS. Pietrzykowski’s victories over German opponents or collaborators boosted morale among his fellow slave laborers.
Pietrzykowski fought around 40 times in Auschwitz and another 20 in Neuengamme, another camp in Germany. He fought Leen Sanders, the Dutch champion, twice. Sanders was his true equal in skill. Pietrzykowski won the second match. Pietrzykowski adjusted his boxing style according to his opponent, some of whom, like Sanders, were professional boxers. By his own account, his bouts against two German professional boxers were vicious, but he won both.
Pietrzykowski’s style was to outwit the opponent, to slip punches and dance away, elusive rather than a toe-to-toe beating of the opponent into submission. He had fans among the SS – and certainly his fellow inmates – who called him “the White Fog.” Pietrzykowski changed his style, however, when the opponent was a Jew. He would try for a draw. The SS might condemn a loser to gassing or shooting – especially if they lost money gambling.
In a remarkable bout for even those surreal times, Pietrzykowski interrupted a prisoner beating another prisoner. With the permission of the SS, he challenged the bully to a bout. The man whom he saved from a beating was a Polish priest, who later gained fame for taking the place of a man condemned to death. In the Catholic Church, the priest is known as Saint Maximilian Kolbe. After liberation, Pietrzykowski returned to join in the rebuilding of Poland. He fought 15 times after the war, winning most of those, and then retired to teach boxing.
Messaoud Hai Victor “Young” Perez was another boxer, who fought to extend his chances for survival – but this time to no avail. A Tunisian Jewish boxer, Perez became the World Flyweight Champion in 1931 and 1932, fighting under his ring name “Young Perez” (Wins 92, KOs 29, Losses 31, Draws 15). Perez was a hero to the Tunisian Jewish community, his life celebrated by that community for decades after his death.
In 1931, he beat an American opponent in Paris to become World Flyweight Champion. Boxing made him rich by his humble background and famous too – thousands of fans, a Peugeot convertible, and dating a movie star. By 1938, with over 160 fights, lately more losses than wins, Perez retired. He was living in Paris when the war started, and meant to return home in Tunis, but got delayed. By then, France had surrendered and the Vichy government cooperated with the Nazis in its war against the Jews.
Perez refused to register as a Jew with the Vichy regime. He posed as a Spaniard and supported himself with odd jobs, including assisting in boxing matches. While he was trying to escape again, he was betrayed and arrested. In September 1943, he was interned in the Drancy camp. There, his fame as champion boxer followed him, and he performed boxing demonstrations for inmates and guards. In October, he was moved to Auschwitz, to a subcamp about six miles from the main camp, a four-day trip in a cattle car with no food or water.
Perez was at Monowitz, the camp where I.G. Farben had a factory producing artificial rubber. Inmates Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were also there – although it’s unlikely they met. The commandant was an avid boxing fan and Young was his favorite. Boxers were forced to participate in bouts twice a week, in which Nazi officers placed bets. Boxers got a day off to train and an extra bowl of soup for winning. The loser – if an inmate — was executed. Perez fought against taller and heavier German personnel, since no regard was paid to weight class restrictions.
Perez lost his boxing privileges in 1944 for breaking a camp rule. His work after that was digging earthworks against aerial bombardment. In January 1945, with Russian troops closing on Auschwitz, Perez was on the infamous forced march to Germany, where thousands died. Harry Haft and his brother survived that march. Perez was shot and killed on January 20 or 22. Some said that he was killed while getting bread for other inmates on the trek
Salamo Arouch (before the war, Wins 27, KOs 27, Losses 0; during the war, estimated Wins 208, KOs 206, Losses 0, Draws 2; after the war, Wins 4, Losses 1, Draws 0) was a Greek middleweight champion with 27 wins (all knockouts). Rounded up by the Nazis in May 1943, his family and he were wedged into a cattle car at Thessalonica, Greece, and transported to Auschwitz. His family members either were gassed immediately or died later – his brother was shot for refusing to remove gold teeth from the dead.
After the first selection, Arouch, as inmate 136954, was standing nearly naked in a line of other prisoners, when a German officer arrived. He asked if any of the prisoners were boxers or wrestlers. At 5’6” and 135 pounds, Arouch didn’t convince the officer that he was a boxer. The officer put together an impromptu boxing match right there, drawing a circle in the dirt where Arouch would face his first opponent, another prisoner. Arouch knocked that man out in three rounds.
For two years, Arouch was boxing two or more times a week as entertainment for the German military. Special privileges, an indoor job and extra rations, helped him survive, while around him, was death. Of the 47,000 Jews from his home town taken by the Nazis, only 2,000 survived the war. Arouch was a 135 pounds in his prime, but on camp rations he lost weight. Still, the SS put him in the ring against much larger men. He said he once knocked out a 250-pound opponent in 18 seconds. Arouch’s fancy footwork and style earned him the title of “the Ballet Dancer.”
His opponents were other Jewish inmates or Gypsies, occasionally Nazi guards. The outcomes of the bouts were often deadly for the Jews or Gypsies. “The loser would be badly weakened,” Arouch said. “And the Nazis shot the weak.” The same would be true for Arouch, should he lose. His toughest opponent, he said in an interview, was a German-Jewish boxer named Klaus Silber, an undefeated amateur boxer. The fight was brutal, each man landing on the floor several times. Arouch recovered to knock out his opponent. He never saw Silber again.
Like Fenelon, he was shipped to Bergen-Belsen as the Russian army drew near. Although his family had been murdered and he was alone, he met a young woman from his home town, whom he eventually married. They moved to Israel, where he boxed until he retired from the sport in 1955. He summarized why he fought during the war: “What kept me alive was a burning determination to someday tell the world what I saw at Auschwitz.”
From around 1940 until liberation, Harry (Herschel) Haft (Wins 13, KOs 8, Losses 8) spent five years as a slave laborer and then a boxer in six different camps. Haft arrived in Auschwitz in 1943, sometime after Salamo Arouch, given Haft’s number as inmate 144738. At age sixteen, Haft had grown up in poverty and joined his brothers in smuggling to make a living. The physical demands placed on him at an early age trained him for hardship in the camps and in the ring. Skirting the law, if not breaking it, helped prepare him for finding ways around camp rules, there to weaken and eventually kill inmates.
At Auschwitz, Haft’s first job was as a Sonderkommando, disposing the dead from the gas chambers. The work drove some of the workers to suicide. Haft contemplated his death, when an opportunity to mine coal presented itself at a subcamp at Auschwitz. Haft was strong and handled the hard and dangerous labor. The SS guards at the camp entertained themselves with boxing.
They picked the fighters from among the inmates, and bet on who would survive long enough for the next match. Haft’s physique as a teenager was more impressive to the guards than the skeletal appearance of his opponents, and he was a favored contender. At Jaworzno, the subcamp near Auschwitz, pouring rain turned a field into mud, which became the ring and Haft’s first bout. Another Jewish prisoner was Haft’s opponent, facing each other with bare-knuckled fists. Haft fought hard. He knew what happened to losers. That intensity was his style in the ring, even when he boxed professionally in America. The SS guards called Haft “the Jew Animal.”
An SS officer saw Haft’s skill in the ring. Disillusioned with the war, the officer became Haft’s advocate. He got Haft the boxing bouts to keep him alive for three-and-half years. When Haft complained that his wins meant his opponent would likely be gassed or shot, the officer assured Haft that they would die anyway, now or later. Haft fought 75 times in the camps, often with bare knuckles, against many larger and more powerful opponents.
When the Russians were closing in to the camp, Haft and one of his brothers, all that was left from his family of eight, joined thousands of other inmates, including Young Perez, on the forced march into Germany. Haft escaped death once again – and had to kill to survive. American GIs adopted the young Haft, who weighed 106 pounds, when his fighting weight was around 175. Under Army auspices, Haft recovered his health, boxed and became a local champion. When Haft found his way to New Jersey, his only skills were boxing and surviving.
Haft became a professional light heavyweight and heavyweight boxer. It was a short career, two years and 21 fights. The most important fight of Haft’s career was against Rocky Marciano, soon to be heavyweight champion. Haft contended that gangsters threatened to kill him if he won. He never boxed again. He married, and raised a family in Brooklyn. His story is in a memoir authored by his son, and soon to be released movie called “The Survivor.”
Sanders, Pietrzykowski, Perez, Arouch, and Haft – except for Perez, killed while leaving the camps — survived the war because of their boxing. By boxing for time, they outlasted and outlived their Nazi tormentors. Books and movies have been written and filmed about each, witnesses to one of the great human tragedies. Boxing is about skill, the training and the dedication. It is also about the courage to lift fists, face the foe and never give up.