Salamo Arouch: Boxer who stayed alive in Auschwitz by fighting 200 exhibition bouts for Nazi officers
Saturday 23 May 2009
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.
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