Salamo Arouch literally fought for survival during World War II. But he wasn’t a soldier, he was a boxer of Jewish-Greek descent. That means the All-Balkans Middleweight Champ ended up in Auschwitz when the Nazis rolled into his home city of Thessalonica, Greece, in 1943.
That’s where he started fighting for his life.
Before his internment in the Nazi death camp, Arouch’s boxing record was an undefeated 24-0. He likely never imagined how high that number would climb during his life — or what was in stakes throughout the 200-plus bouts he would have to fight. When the Nazis captured Thessalonica, they rounded up the city’s 47,000 Jewish citizens and shipped them away. A young Salamo and his family ended up at Auschwitz.
Almost the moment he arrived, a car drove up and out stepped the commandant, who asked if any of the new prisoners were boxers or wrestlers. Dutifully, the young Arouch rose his hand. He had been coached by his father and won his first fight at age 14. But the Nazis didn’t take the young fighter at his word. They drew a circle in the dirt and gave him gloves before ordering he and another Jewish boy to fight on the spot.
Arouch squared off with boy. Both were exhausted and frightened, but the Greek came out on top, knocking out his opponent within minutes. Immediately, the guards presented him with another opponent. This time, it was a six-foot-tall Czech man. Arouch knocked him cold, too.
This was the first of hundreds of fights that Salamo Arouch would have to endure in the coming years. He would be led to a smoky warehouse two or three times a week and forced to fight anyone they could pit him against in a cockfight-like ring.
“We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching. They wouldn’t leave until they saw blood,” he recalled. For his part, Arouch managed to keep his strength up because he was given light duties as an office clerk and was fed more and better food than the other prisoners. He managed to eke a win out of every battle, with only two draws due to suffering from dysentery. Soon, he began to realize he was leading each defeated opponent to their fate.
“The loser would be badly weakened,” Arouch told People magazine in 1990, “and the Nazis shot the weak.”
As he fought for his life, his brother and father perished at the hands of the Nazis. His father was gassed because he grew weak. His brother was shot because he refused to remove gold teeth from the bodies of corpses. The young Salamo continued to box, but soon found himself at Bergen-Belson, a camp that killed some 50,000 people. He would not be among those.
The British 11th Armoured Division liberated the camp on Apr. 15, 1945, one year and 11 months to the day after he and his family were first shipped to Auschwitz. It was there he met Marta Yechiel, who would become his wife. The two moved to Palestine to start a new life, but war came quickly and the onetime member of the Greek Army joined the armed forces of a new country, Israel, and fought to keep it a free and safe homeland for Jewish people — especially those like himself, scarred by the Holocaust.
He came to run a successful shipping business out of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. When his life’s story was made into a movie, Triumph of the Spirit, starring Willem Dafoe in 1989, he served as an advisor to the film. Since it was shot at Auchwitz itself, it was not a good experience for the old survivor.
“It was a terrible experience,” he said of returning to the ruined camp. “In my mind, I saw my parents and began weeping. I cried and cried and could not sleep.”
Arouch suffered from a stroke in 1994, one from which he never fully recovered. He died on Apr. 26, 2009 at age 86.