Salamo Arouch, 86

Obituary: Salamo Arouch, Boxer Fought for His Life at Auschwitz

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

Salamo Arouch, a Greek-born Jewish boxer who survived the Auschwitz death camp in World War II by fighting other prisoners in bloody bouts for the amusement of his Nazi captors and whose harrowing life story was portrayed in the 1989 film "Triumph of the Spirit," died April 26 in Israel. He was 86.

The cause and place of death were not reported, but his family said his health had deteriorated after a stroke.

Mr. Arouch had been a young boxing sensation in his home town of Salonika, Greece, before he was seized by Nazi forces in 1943 and shipped in a boxcar to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. On his arrival, a prison number -- 136954 -- was tattooed on his arm. When German authorities asked whether any of the new inmates were boxers, Mr. Arouch stepped forward and was immediately enlisted to fight another prisoner in a ring drawn in the dirt by a Nazi officer.

Soon, Mr. Arouch was boxing two or more times a week as entertainment for German military officials at Auschwitz.

"We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching," he told People magazine in 1990. "They wouldn't leave until they saw blood."

Mr. Arouch weighed about 135 pounds and was often put in the ring against much larger men. He said he once dispatched a 250-pound opponent in 18 seconds. His opponents were usually other Jewish inmates or Gypsies, and occasionally Nazi guards.

"The loser would be badly weakened," Mr. Arouch said. "And the Nazis shot the weak."

German officers gambled on Mr. Arouch's fights, and his boxing ability won him special concessions -- extra food and an office job -- even as his fellow prisoners were beaten and killed before his eyes.

"Prisoners worked from 4 a.m. until nightfall," he said. "To each other, we never said, 'Goodnight.' Only 'Sleep. For many, it was better to be dead than to endure another day of suffering."

Through it all, Mr. Arouch kept fighting, knowing that a single defeat would result in almost certain death.

Mr. Arouch's toughest opponent, he recalled, was a German-Jewish boxer named Klaus Silber, who had been an undefeated amateur boxer. They sent each other sprawling out of the ring before Mr. Arouch recovered and knocked out his opponent. He never saw Silber again.

During his nearly two years at Auschwitz, Mr. Arouch calculated, he defeated 208 opponents, with two draws.

One of Mr. Arouch's few opponents to survive the war was a onetime Polish Olympian who fought him in a blood-soaked bare-knuckle fight in the middle of the night. They had a tearful reunion almost 50 years later, when Mr. Arouch returned to Poland as a technical adviser to Robert M. Young, the director of "Triumph of the Spirit," which was the first feature film to be shot on location at Auschwitz.

A tautly muscled Willem Dafoe played Mr. Arouch in the movie, which received mixed reviews but was praised for the stark authenticity of its death camp scenes.

After watching the film, Mr. Arouch said simply, "It happened just that way."

Salamon Arouch (he dropped the final "n" in his first name) was born in 1923 into a Sephardic Jewish family in Salonika and worked with his father and brother as a stevedore. He won his first boxing match at 14 and became known as the "Ballet Dancer" for his quick footwork.

After Greece was overrun by Germany in 1941, Mr. Arouch and 47,000 other Jewish residents of Salonika were sent to prison camps. Only 2,000 survived the war.

All the women and children in Mr. Arouch's family were killed in Auschwitz's gas chambers, and his father was executed after he grew too weak to work. When his brother refused to pull gold teeth from the mouths of other Jewish prisoners, he was shot dead.

At the end of the war, while searching for relatives in liberated concentration camps, Mr. Arouch met 17-year-old Marta Yechiel, who was from his home town. They moved to the British mandate of Palestine, were married in November 1945 and eventually had four children and 12 grandchildren.

Mr. Arouch, who became known as Shlomo, fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and later opened a successful international shipping and moving business in Tel Aviv.

After "Triumph of the Spirit" came out, another Jewish boxer from Salonika, Jacques "Jacko" Razon sued Mr. Arouch and the filmmakers for more than $20 million, claiming that they had stolen his personal story and that Mr. Arouch had exaggerated his boxing exploits. In 1995, the film company paid Razon $30,000, and the case was dismissed.

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."

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