The boxer who survived Auschwitz by winning hundreds of fights
While the horrors of the Holocaust for German and Eastern European Jews are frequently reflected on in history lessons and the media, it could be argued that the experience of Jews in Greece is all too often overlooked. Yet, the impact of this atrocious period of history on Greek Jews is undeniably immense. Before 1941, it was estimated that some 72,000 Jews resided in the country. As many as 60,000 of these perished in the Holocaust.
But despite the incomprehensible scale of death, there have also come some incredible tales of grit and fight for survival. Salamo Arouch’s story is one of them - and when I said fighting, I mean that literally. Born in Thessaloniki in 1923, into a Sephardic Jewish family, Arouch was a boxer who survived Auschwitz by winning some 200 boxing matches, in which he was pitted against fellow prisoners for the entertainment of their Nazi captors. As you might have already guessed from it being a death camp where over one million people were murdered, the matches were a fight-to-the-death situation.
Along with thousands of other Jews, Arouch was transported to Auschwitz with his family in 1943, following the Nazi invasion of Greece. Upon entering the camp, his mother and three sisters were immediately sent to the gas chambers. When told what had become of them, Arouch initially disbelieved it. Unfortunately, he was to learn soon enough how disposable a human life was to Nazi guards.
Soon after entering the camp, a commandant asked whether there were any boxers among the men: “I said I was a boxer. The commander did not believe me because of my height,” Arouch recounted in a 1989 interview with the New York Times. “But they bring the gloves and another Jewish prisoner named Chaim to fight me. He was among the commander's fighters.” Needless to say, Arouch won the fight.
Having been coached by his father - who would later be killed at Auschwitz - Arouch’s boxing career started at 14, when he won his first competition. By the time he was sent to the death camp in Poland, he had risen to prominence as a respected fighter. Details of his career are hard to verify and reports range from everything from a man who had won multiple competitions to a member of the Greek Olympic team.
Just 20 minutes after his initiation fight, he was pitted against a 6-foot tall Czech inmate, and won that match too: “I had to look up, so I hit him in the stomach and he fold like a camel.” After that, Arouch was required to fight two or three times a week for the next two years. He claims he never lost a match, but drew two while suffering from the effects of dysentery. The matches were “like cockfights”, held in a warehouse, while the Nazi guards bet on who would win or lose.
But in doing so, they were effectively betting on who would live and who would die, something that the inmates were all too aware of. “We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching,” Arouch, who passed away in 2009, told People magazine, explaining that their "audience" would not leave until they saw blood. “The loser would be badly weakened,” he said. “And the Nazis shot the weak.”
In return for his ability as a boxer - or more accurately, his ability to entertain the Nazis - he not only managed to escape the gas chambers, but was granted slightly more than the meagre rations usually dished out to prisoners, as well as slightly lighter duties. But the camp was still to have more than just a physical or mental cost for Arouch; both his father and brother had been killed by guards. When he tried to find his family after the war, there was no one left to find.His string of boxing bouts finally ended in January 1945 when, 10 days before the liberation of Auschwitz, he was transferred to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. Here he stayed, doing slave labour, until the camp was liberated on 15 April 1945 by the British Army.
Although protective of his unbeaten record, for Arouch the motivation to win fights wasn’t only pride, or even life itself: “What kept me alive was a burning determination to someday tell the world what I saw at Auschwitz,” he later stated. “I am sure I had moments when I wanted to die. But being here now to tell what happened makes me feel good about being alive.”
He got this chance when, in 1989, his story was turned into a film, Triumph of Spirit, which has been described by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of L.A’s Simon Wiesenthal Centre, as “the most authentic and moving film on the Holocaust I’ve ever seen”. During its production, Arouch acted as an on-location consultant. With much of the film shot at the camp itself, he was required to return for the first time. “It was a terrible experience,” he told People. “In my mind I saw my parents and began weeping. I cried and cried and could not sleep.”
Fortunately, part of his story does have a happier ending. In the aftermath of the camp’s liberation, he met Marta Yechiel, a fellow prisoner who hailed from the same Greek town. Each was the sole survivor of their families. They wed seven months later - a marriage that would last 64 years - and emigrated to Israel, where they went on to have four children and where Arouch built up an international shipping business.
By his own estimation, Arouch survived 208 fights during his time at Auschwitz. Somehow, his story manages to be harrowing, disturbing and hopeful, all at the same time. But as his daughter pointed out after the release of Triumph of Spirit, it’s also an important one: "It was not easy to tell his story, but it was important to him that people know what happened to him and others," she told the LA Times. "The day will come when there will be no one left to tell these stories."