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
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music

Animal welfare charities have urged the boy band to cut the scenes

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
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

Business Focused Business Analyst - Finance and Procurement System Implementation

£350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reading are...

Note Taker - Scribe

£10 per hour: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienced note taker...

DT Teacher - Resistant Materials

£4800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: A full time...

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker