Salamo Arouch, Jewish boxer, dies at 86
Salamo Arouch, a Greek-born Jewish boxer who survived the Auschwitz death camp by fighting fellow prisoners in bloody exhibitions staged by their Nazi tormentors and who returned decades later as a consultant on a film about his captivity, has died. He was 86 and had lived most of his life in Israel.
Weakened by a stroke 15 years ago, he had been in declining health since late last year, according to his daughter, Dalia Ganon. She gave no precise cause of his death, which occurred April 26 at a geriatric hospital near Tel Aviv.
Arouch’s harrowing series of win-or-die bouts during the final two years of World War II was immortalized in 1989 in “Triumph of the Spirit,” the first major motion picture filmed on location at Auschwitz. The film, along with Arouch’s inspirational postwar speeches, became part of his legacy in Israel. It has been shown to hundreds of Israelis preparing for visits to the site of the infamous Nazi camp in Poland.
Arouch was a young middleweight boxing star in his native Salonika, Greece, when German forces seized him along with about 47,000 other Jews from the city in 1943 and sent them in boxcars to Auschwitz’s gas chambers and labor camps.
When a German officer asked whether any of the new inmates were boxers, Arouch was pushed from the line by acquaintances, he recalled in a 1990 interview with People magazine.
The officer asked whether he was ready to fight.
“I was very scared,” Arouch said. “I was exhausted from being up all night, but I said yes.”
The bouts were to amuse the officers and the rules were simple: “We fought until one went down or they were sick of watching. They wouldn’t leave until they saw blood.”
Defeat meant almost certain death. “The losers would be badly weakened,” he said. “And the Nazis shot the weak.”
Arouch, who weighed about 135 pounds in the camp, fought at least twice a week, often against much larger men. His deft footwork, which earned him the nickname the Ballet Dancer, helped him remain undefeated. By his count, he won 208 bouts in the camp and fought to two draws.
A slimmed-down Willem Dafoe played Arouch in the movie, which got mixed reviews. Critic Michael Wilmington, writing in The Times, called it an “exaggerated, romanticized semi-'Rocky’ saga” but said its “unflinching re-creation of Auschwitz” gave the film “riveting intensity.”
Officers bet on the fights, and the prize for the winning boxer was a loaf of bread. Arouch said he shared his with other prisoners. Because of his boxing ability, he was transferred to kitchen duty, which was less exhausting than other camp work and offered him greater access to food.
As fellow prisoners died before his eyes, Arouch continued to survive. He was transferred in 1945 to Bergen-Belsen, where he worked at slave labor until Allied forces liberated the camp. He was among about 2,000 captives from Salonika to make it through the war alive.
While searching for relatives in postwar Europe, he met Martha Yechiel, another Auschwitz survivor from Salonika, who was six years his junior. (In the movie, her name was Allegra and they met and fell in love before they were captured.) They were the sole survivors of their families. The couple married and moved to the British mandate of Palestine in 1945. They had three children and 13 grandchildren.
Arouch fought in the Arab-Israeli war that broke out at the time of Israel’s independence in 1948. As an Israeli, he became known as Shlomo Arouch, boxed briefly as an amateur and opened a successful shipping and moving business in Tel Aviv.
Four decades later he returned to Auschwitz to spend three months as a consultant to Robert M. Young, who was directing “Triumph of the Spirit” from Shimon Arama’s script. He showed the film crew where he had slept and where he had fought. He gave boxing lessons to Dafoe. In an interview there with The Times, Arouch wept as he recounted his wartime captivity and said he couldn’t sleep for the first week of his return visit, “because everything came back.”
Ganon, his daughter, said his work on the film and his speeches in Israel about his captivity were to educate people about the Holocaust.
“It was not easy to tell his story, but it was important to him that people know what happened to him and others,” she said. “The day will come when there will be no one left to tell these stories.”
In addition to Ganon, he is survived by his wife and another daughter.
Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.
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