Salamo Arouch: Boxer who stayed alive in Auschwitz by fighting 200 exhibition bouts for Nazi officers

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.

In the camp his physical and mental endurance, his fists and his fortitude, saw him through. These fights to the death, staged as a recreational diversion for guards, was on a par with the barbarities of gladiatorial Rome. Men like Arouch might succeed in staying alive, but in doing so their defeated opponents would be burnt or shot. It was a stark choice, a contest to decide who was to live and who was to die which eliminated all human compassion. Arouch said simply: "If I didn't win, I didn't survive."

He was born in Thessaloniki in Greece into a Sephardic Jewish family in 1923 and worked, like many family members, as a stevedore. Interested in boxing from an early age, he was coached by his father and won his first contest at the age of 14. Strong and stocky at 5ft 6in and 135lb, he had by 1939 scored 24 knock-outs. It is said he was known as "the ballet dancer" because of his nimble footwork. While the facts of his career are difficult to verify, he is said to have been middleweight champion of Greece before he was called up for military service and became a member of the army boxing team.

The war was disastrous for the Arouch family, since after occupying Greece the Nazis rounded up and exterminated almost all of Thessaloniki's jewish population: only around 2,000 out of 47,000 would survive. For Arouch the horror started on reaching Auschwitz, as his mother and three sisters were immediately sent to the gas chambers. On that day a camp commandant arrived in a car and asked whether there were any boxers among the new inmates. When Arouch stepped forward – "exhausted, very scared" – a circle was drawn in the dirt. He was given gloves and ordered to fight another Jewish prisoner, named Chaim, and within minutes had knocked him out. Soon afterwards he followed up by knocking out a six-foot tall Czech.

From then on Arouch was given light duties and more food than the normal near-starvation diet as he became one of the boxing regulars. For the next two years he would fight two or three times a week, later claiming that his record was one of winning 200 and losing none. He drew twice, he said, at times when he suffered from dysentery. Most of those he defeated realised, as he knocked them down, that his skill meant they would soon be despatched to their doom.

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.

In 1945 he was transferred to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, surviving until it was liberated by allied forces. He then embarked on a search of camps in an effort to find members of his family: he found none. But he did meet Marta Yechiel, a camp inmate who came from his home district: their marriage lasted 64 years. Together they emigrated to Palestine, where he went on to serve in the Israeli defence forces.

He made a brief foray back into boxing, winning three bouts but losing a fourth – the only contest, he maintained, in which he had ever been beaten. He retired from pugilism to concentrate on building up a shipping and removals business, which was a success.

Four decades after the war he returned to Auschwitz to act as consultant on the 1989 film Triumph of the Spirit, with a script which was loosely based on his experiences in the camp. Described by one critic as unflinching, the grimness of the film's content was heightened by the fact that it was actually filmed in Auschwitz itself, picturing its ovens, gas chambers and crematorium chimney.

Arouch found returning to the place where his mother, father, sisters and brother had died an upsetting ordeal. He said: "It was a terrible experience. In my mind I saw my parents and began weeping. I cried and cried and could not sleep."

He said in later life: "What kept me alive was a burning determination to someday tell the world what I saw at Auschwitz. 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."

In 1994 he suffered a stroke which left him in ill-health. He is survived by his wife and four adult children.

Salamo Arouch, boxer and businessman: born Thessaloniki, Greece 1923; married 1945 Marta Yechiel (four children); died 26 April 2009.

Suggested Topics
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments