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Salem Witch Trials The Heroic Story of Irena Sendler
Salamo, the Jewish Boxer in Auschwit - Tales from History
568    Dibyendu Banerjee    19/06/2023

It is difficult to imagine today of stepping through the ropes of a boxing ring, knowing fully well that anything other than a victory would result in execution. Unfortunately, during his imprisonment in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp, Salamo Arouch, a Jewish boxer had to face that harsh reality every day, for the entertainment of Nazi officers. His life depended on his ability to reduce other boxers to a bloody pulp or to meet the fate of his more than 200 opponents, to be shot or despatched to the gas chambers.

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Salamo Arouch, before his captivity

Born in Thessaloniki in Greece on 1 January 1923, Salamo Arouch was one of two sons in a Sephardic Jew family that also included three daughters.

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His dockworker father nurtured his son's aptitude in boxing and taught him the first lessons when he was a child. At the age of 14, he fought and won his first amateur boxing match in 1937 in Maccabi Thessaloniki, a multi-sport club, historically representing the Jewish community centre of the city and also fought with the colours of Aris Thessaloniki, a major Greek multi-sport club in the city of Thessaloniki. After that, he won the Greek Middleweight Boxing Championship and also won the All-Balkans Middleweight Championship in 1939. Soon, he earned the nickname, the Ballet Dancer, for his beautiful footwork, along with a potential place in the Greek Olympic team and middleweight supremacy in the Balkans.

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Jewish children, with yellow stars sewn on their coats, arrived at Auschwitz

After compiling an undefeated record of 24 wins, with 24 knockouts, Salamo Arouch was drafted into the Greek Army ahead of World War II and won three boxing contests during his time in the Greek Army. However, the dream of his life was shattered, when Nazi Germany invaded Greece in 1943 and Arouch and his family, along with the 47,000 Jewish citizens of the city, were all arrested and transported by boxcar to be interned in Auschwitz concentration camp.

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After their arrival in the camp on 15 May 1943, his mother and three sisters were all directly sent to the gas chambers for extermination, while Salamo Arouch, together with his brother and father, was registered for work as slave labours. However, till then, Salamo, tagged prisoner 136954, was not aware of the horror that he would face in camp life.

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Nazi officers used to entertain themselves in the camp by arranging bi-weekly boxing contests among the prisoners and would bet on them for fun. The rule of the contest was simple, the winner would receive extra bread and soup, while the loser would be executed. Those life-and-death fights generally lasted until one fighter went down or the Nazis got tired of watching. Within a few days of their arrival, at one assembly of the prisoners, a German commandant wanted to know if any of the new prisoners were boxers.

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In response, the young Arouch raised his hand, but the commandant did not take the young man at his word. They drew a circle in the dirt and gave him gloves, before ordering him to fight against another Jewish boy on the spot. Although both were frightened and not in the proper physical condition to fight, in the course of the bout Salamo Arouch came out on top and knocked out his opponent within minutes. But that was not the end of it, as he hoped. Immediately after the bout, the Nazi guards brought another opponent, a six-foot-tall Czech man, whom he knocked out too.

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Four brick ovens were used to incinerate the dead bodies.

Satisfied by his performance, the Germans set him twice or thrice-weekly boxing matches against other prisoners and thus began his twice-weekly warehouse bouts, often preceded by Gypsy juggling and dancing dogs, while officers staked their bets. Often Arouch had to face prisoners who were bigger than him, but he kept his cool, knowing that he had to keep on winning for his life. In his estimation, he fought around 208 matches and was undefeated at Auschwitz, though two matches ended in draws, as he was forced to fight while recovering from dysentery. However, he was very close to his death, when he had to fight against a professional boxer, Klaus Silber, far heavier than him, who almost knocked him out. At the fag end of the bout, both of them tumbled from the ring before recovering, but Salamo Arouch was declared winner and Silber vanished forever. As a reward for his winning spree, Salamo was given light duties, clerical office job and kitchen duty and was fed extra and better food than the other fellow prisoners. But by that time, his father was gassed because he grew too weak to work and his brother was shot because he refused to remove gold teeth from the bodies of the gassed. In 1945, he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, a camp that killed some 50,000 people, where he worked there as a slave labour, until the British 11th Armoured Division liberated the camp on 15 April 1945.

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Women prisoners in their barracks, shortly after the camp was liberated

After liberation, Arouch visited other Nazi camps in search of his family. However, although he never found them anywhere, he met 17-year-old Marta Yechiel in the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp, the sole survivor of her family, from Salamo’s home town Salonika. They married in November 1945 and moved to Palestine to finally settle in the new state of Israel and raised a family of four. After serving the armed forces of his adopted country, he developed a shipping and moving business in Tel Aviv, later in his life. Much later, he suffered from a stroke in 1994, one from which he never fully recovered and died on 26 April 2009, at age 86.

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Interior of the Prison Barracks
Salem Witch Trials The Heroic Story of Irena Sendler
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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