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Fighting For His Life

Matt Schudel

The Washington Post was the first U.S. newspaper to report the death of Salamo Arouch, a Greek-born boxer who survived imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II because he was so tough.

Arouch was from the Jewish enclave in Salonika, Greece, and was a rising boxing star when he was taken prisoner by the Nazis in 1943. Everyone else in his family -- his parents, his brother, all the young children -- was killed. Arouch survived by fighting, and beating, anyone and everyone his Nazi captors put in the ring against him. He estimated that during the 18 months or so he was in Auschwitz, he fought more than 200 men. The brutal fights lasted until one man couldn't go on. The losers were usually executed.

Arouch's amazing story was the basis for the 1989 Holocaust film "Triumph of the Spirit," starring Willem Dafoe. (View a trailer of the film here.)

It was the first feature film made at Auschwitz and the nearby concentration camp of Birkenau in Poland. An excellent five-part documentary series about the making of the film can be found here. The real-life Salamo Arouch is shown in Part 5.

After the war, Salamo Arouch moved to Israel and became a successful businessman. When the movie came out, he gave several interviews about his experiences and about the film. "It happened just that way," he said.

One interesting revelation from his interviews was that Arouch faced something very much like discrimination not just from his Nazi tormentors but also from some of his fellow Jewish prisoners. As a Sephardic Jew from Greece, he did not speak Yiddish, the common language of Eastern European Jews. Arouch and his family spoke the Sephardic dialect Ladino. He said that some of the Jews in the camp called him "Schvartzer" -- Yiddish for black -- and mocked him.

After the film was released, one of Arouch's fellow Jewish boxers from Salonika, Jacko Razon, sued him and the filmmakers, claiming that the movie told his life story, not Arouch's. He had some support for his case, but it's unmistakable that the broad outlines of Arouch's experiences are true and happened much as he described.

Salamo Arouch's story is one of the most horrific -- and heroic -- accounts of the Holocaust I have ever encountered.

By Matt Schudel  |  May 2, 2009; 1:34 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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