When Boxing Meant Life or Death
Salamo Arouch is possibly the greatest story in the history of boxing. The boxer was only one of 47,000 Jews taken from their home in Greece and sent to a German death camp in Poland. Held prisoner for just over a year and a half, it is estimated the middleweight competed in 200 hundred fights while imprisoned in occupied Poland.
Arouch was born in Thessaloniki, Greece into a Sephardic Jewish family in 1923. He worked, much like many of his family members, on the local docks, handling freight shipments. His interest in boxing came to his father’s attention as the young man entered his teenage years. Muscular and quick, the 5'6" and 135lbs boxer developed a strong reputation and recorded 24 knockouts by the age of 16. He later won the Greek Middleweight Boxing Championship and the All-Balkans Middleweight Championship.
In 1943, Arouch and his family were rounded up by conquering German soldiers and transported by boxcar to Germany’s Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp located in modern day Poland. Arouch was tagged as prisoner 136954.
For Arouch the horrors started immediately upon reaching Auschwitz with his mother and three sisters being sent to gas chambers by camp officials. On that same day, a camp commander reviewed the newly arriving prisoners and asked if any boxers were among the new inmates. When Arouch stepped forward, he felt, "exhausted and very scared". The SS Commander slowly drew a circle in the dirt and motioned for Arouch to step into the ring. A pair of gloves were handed to the new inmate and a fight with another prisoner named Chaim was quickly organized. Within minutes, the fight ended with Chaim being knocked out.
It didn’t take long for Arouch to understand his boxing skills were a necessary part of survival within the camp. The stakes were life or death each time the prisoners entered the ring to engage one another in loosely organized, underground boxing matches. These human cockfights were staged as a recreational diversion for the camp’s SS officers - comparable to gladiator styled Roman events. In this scenario, men like Arouch might succeed in staying alive. However, their victories were hollow, with their defeated opponents being dispatched to certain death. The choices were just impossibly difficult with each contest determining who would live and who would die. The natural survival instincts nearly eliminated all openings for human compassion. Arouch described the situation by saying, "If I didn't win, I didn't survive."
The bouts took place inside a warehouse similar to the scenes of underground fights commonplace in today's Hollywood movies. The room would be filled with camp guards yelling, drinking, and placing bets on the skills necessary for both boxers living for another day. At different times, the matches would be part of larger programs with a variety of entertainment, including singers, juggling, comedians, or other acts for the entertainment of German officers. The insanely nightmarish contests had an extremely basic set of rules: "We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching. They wouldn't leave until they saw blood," he recalled. Arouch held a slight advantage over many opponents because of a light duties job as an office clerk and being fed more often with better food. The benefits were a sliding negative when the requirement is a fight to the death 2-3 times per week. Continually, Arouch managed to win each battle with some being more decisive and others ending with thinner margins. As a further example of the health conditions, two of his fights were stopped and declared draws because of his suffering from dysentery. It might be better to view each inmate living in a horrific place, but only by differing degrees.
Although he did everything in his power to stay alive, his father and brother died while imprisoned in the camp. His father died from natural causes, or as natural as being worked and starved to death would allow. His brother's shooting death resulted from his refusing to extract gold teeth from the remains of his fellow prisoners. With all the emotional damage around him, the boxer did what was needed for survival and continued to fight.
In 1945, Arouch was transferred to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. The hard labor at the new camp was welcomed when compared to the previous camp’s life or death battles. He would remain at this camp until the liberation by the Allied Forces just a few months later. Arouch then embarked on a search of camps to find other members of his family or neighbors. During this search, he met Marta Yechiel, a camp inmate who came from his hometown area and their marriage would last 64 years. After the war, the couple emigrated to the Palestine territory, where Arouch eventually began service in the Israeli defense forces.
In Arouch’s life story, Triumph of the Spirit, starring Willem Dafoe in 1989, he served as an advisor to the film. It was the first major movie to be filmed on location at the Polish death camp. And considering the filming location was at Auschwitz itself, it was not a pleasant experience for the camp survivor. 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."
In 1994, Arouch suffered a debilitating stroke which left him physically limited. Arouch remained in his long-time home of Tel Aviv until passing away on April 26, 2009, following a year of failing health.