It is hard to fathom what this man must have felt doing the sport he loved, whilst he was imprisoned in Auschwitz.Every match he boxed was literally a match to the death for either him or his opponent.
Salamo Arouch (January 1, 1923 – April 26, 2009) was a Jewish Greek boxer, the Middleweight Champion of Greece (1938) and the All-Balkans Middleweight Champion (1939), who survived the Holocaust by boxing (over 200 bouts) for the entertainment of Nazi officers in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. His story was portrayed in the 1989 film Triumph of the Spirit.
Salamo Arouch was a particularly tough Jewish boxer who needed every ounce of his toughness to stay alive during two years in Auschwitz concentration camp, where hundreds of thousands were put to death.
His fists kept him alive. As a boxer, he was forced to fight for the entertainment of the German officers who ran the notorious camp. The stakes were high: those who won their fights lived to fight again while those who lost were generally consigned to the gas chambers. Arouch’s entire family perished at the hands of the Nazis, but he made it through the war by beating around 200 opponents in the ring. He was to live on for another half a century, starting a new family and a new life in Israel.
Salamo Arouch was born in 1923,in Thessaloniki, Greece, one of two sons in a family that also included three daughters.His father was a stevedore who nurtured his son’s interest in boxing, teaching him when he was a child. Arouch said that when he was 14, he fought and won his first boxing match.Arouch began his boxing career at age 14 in 1937 in Maccabi Thessaloniki. A year later he won the Greek Middleweight Boxing Championship, and in 1939, he won the All-Balkans Middleweight Championship. After compiling an undefeated record of 24 wins (24 knockouts),Arouch joined the Greek Army. While in the military he raised his boxing record to 27 wins (27 knockouts).
In 1943, Arouch and his family was interned in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.In Auschwitz, where Arouch was tagged prisoner 136954, he said the commander sought boxers among the newly interned and, once assured of Arouch’s abilities, set him to twice- or thrice-weekly boxing matches against other prisoners.
According to Arouch, he was undefeated at Auschwitz, though two matches he was forced to fight while recovering from dysentery ended in draws.Lodged with the other fighters forced to participate in these matches and paid in extra food or lighter work, Salamo fought 208 matches at his estimation,knowing that prisoners who lost would be sent to the gas chamber or shot.Fights generally lasted until one fighter went down or the Nazis got tired of watching.Arouch claimed he weighed about 135 pounds and often fought much larger men. Once, he finished off a 250-pound opponent in only 18 seconds.
The bouts were like cock fights, he said, staged in a warehouse with camp guards yelling, drinking and placing bets on the life-or-death contests. Sometimes there would be juggling and other amusements for the additional entertainment of German officers. The nightmarish, merciless contests had simple but brutal rules: “We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching. They wouldn’t leave until they saw blood,” he recalled.
Although he managed to stay alive, his father and brother died in the camp, the latter shot when he refused to extract gold teeth from corpses. But the boxer fought on, aware that each contest could be his last.
His toughest opponent was a German-Jewish boxer called Klaus Silber, who had an undefeated pre-war amateur boxing record (44-0) and who had never lost any of his 100-plus fights at the camp. His fight with Arouch was so fierce that at one point, both men fell out of the ring. Silber went on to stun Arouch and then to knock him down. But Arouch recovered to knock Silber out. After the fight, Silber was never seen alive again
Though Arouch survived the war, being released from Auschwitz on January 17, 1945, his parents and siblings did not.During a search for family at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April, 1945, he met Marta Yechiel, a 17-year-old survivor from his own hometown.With Yechiel, he immigrated to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv, where he managed a shipping firm. Arouch and Yechiel wed in November 1945 and raised a family of four.
Arouch’s undefeated boxing record (1937-1955) ended on June 8, 1955, when he was knocked out in 4 rounds by Italy’s Amleto Falcinelli in Tel Aviv.
Arouch was a consultant on the 1989 dramatic reenactment of his early life,accompanying filmmakers several times on an emotional return to the concentration camp. The film takes some artistic liberties with the biographical details of his life, including the renaming of his wife and placing her in his story prior to internment.
After the movie came out, another Jewish boxer from Salonika, Jacques “Jacko” Razon sued Arouch and the filmmakers for more than $20 million claiming that they had stolen his story and that Arouch had exaggerated his exploits. The case was later settled for $30 thousand.
When the movie was released in 1989, Mr. Arouch gave a series of interviews in which he described how he approached his life-or-death battles at Auschwitz.
“I felt terrible, I trembled,” he said. “But a boxer had to be without compassion. If I didn’t win, I didn’t survive.”
He died on April 26 2009 age 86.