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November 1, 2021 11:48 am

The Nazis Made Jewish Boxers Fight for Their Lives

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avatar by Alan Zeitlin


The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

During the Holocaust, some Jews had to fight for their right to live by boxing fellow Jews for Nazi amusement, where the loser would die, through starvation or being gassed. A riveting and harrowing new book, “Holocaust Fighters: Boxers, Resister and Avengers,” by Jeffrey Sussman is both inspiring and brutal.

Polish Jew Harry Haft once fought six times in one night. His wild story included a deal with an SS officer, who hoped that should Germany lose the war, Haft might testify that he was not a war criminal.

Haft, whose story was made into the movie “The Survivor,” with actor Ben Foster as Haft, not only survived, but came to America and as a pro boxer, got the chance to fight legend Rocky Marciano. One of the hardest things to stomach from the book is the chapter about Haft that relates the story of him waking up to see other prisoners kill someone and then eat that person’s flesh, then fall asleep with the victim’s blood still on their faces.

Another person that Sussman writes about is Jewish and Arab boxer Victor “Young” Perez, a Tunisian who became the world flyweight champion in 1931 and dated beautiful actresses, including one who dumped him when it was not good for her career to be with a Jew.

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Perez was arrested in Paris and sent to Auschwitz. Part of “Transport 60,” he was one of 31 to survive out of the original group of 1,000. He ironically survived a death march of 37 miles with no food or water, only to be shot while giving out bread to hungry people.

Sussman writes that while the Jewish boxers felt guilt, knowing that they ate better than others and that every fighter they beat would be dead soon, they had a survival instinct and knew they’d be killed if they didn’t agree to fight. (A draw would not result in death for either fighter).

Latvian Nathan Shapow actually killed an SS officer and eventually joined the Irgun and later moved to America. Greek Jew Salamo Arouch was the middleweight champion of Greece. A film based on his life, in which he was played by Willem Dafoe, is “Triumph of the Heart.” Arouch would move to Tel Aviv and would serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. Eerily, he was slated to fight a good friend of his in Auschwitz who was also a skilled boxer, but luckily, the Allied attack came in time, and he never had to fight his friend.

Sussman also writes about the successful efforts of “The Avengers,” a group that tracked down and killed Nazis after World War II, and the efforts of the Mossad, which did the same.

For all the astounding things Sussman writes about the Jewish boxers, it is equally hard to believe the actions of gentile boxer Max Schmeling, who famously beat, but also lost to, Joe Louis.

Schmeling was asked by Adolf Hitler to fire his Jewish manager in New York, Joe Jacobs. Schmeling refused. Amazingly, on the night of Kristallnacht, Sussman writes, Schmeling hid two Jews in his hotel and told the front desk he was not to be disturbed because he was ill, and later helped them get to America. Sussman writes that Joseph Goebbels wanted Schmeling to be killed, but did not get his way.

Sussman has shown in previous works that he is a master of writing books about boxing. This book will get into your mind and your soul, and may make you forget about the small stuff and have some admiration for people that were put into an unimaginable hell, and came out alive — though not all did.

Sussman will be doing Zoom talks on his book on November 6 at 1 p.m and November 9 at 7 p.m.

The author is a writer based in New York.

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