Auschwitz prisoner 172345 went down to the hall in a wheelchair. Between 1944 and 1945 he had been nothing more than that number tattooed on his arm when he arrived at the extermination camp. That afternoon of January 22, 2018, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Madrid, Noah Klieger was a 91-year-old man ready to relive hell for him. The Holocaust survivor began to talk nonstop. The terrifying testimony of him is the core of the book K.O. Auschwitz (editorial Córner), which has just been published and is a continuation of the report that the journalist José Ignacio Pérez wrote for the newspaper Brand.
“There we were taken to die like beasts,” Noah recalled. Living was not in his hands. Often it depended on a stroke of fortune. In his case, a boxing blow.
Naked, in the open and at 20 degrees below zero. This is how he spent his first night in Auschwitz. “The next day two SS men arrived and one of them asked: ‘Who knows how to box?’ I raised my hand. Almost 75 years have passed and I still don’t know what prompted me to react like this. It was something visceral. I didn’t think with my brain, I did it with my guts. I said to myself: ‘If they want boxers, it must be a positive thing.’ That allowed me to survive. Boxing saved me”, relived prisoner 172345.
It was a lie. Noah Klieger didn’t know how to box. He had never worn gloves. But if the Nazis wanted boxers… Tired of killing, on Sundays they looked for another distraction. Thus were born some evenings in which the prisoners fought each other and the officers exchanged bets —Adolf Hitler revered boxing and instilled its practice as one of the favorite sports of Nazi Germany—.
The fights were sometimes held in a hangar, and sometimes on the esplanade of the concentration camp, surrounded by electrified barbed wire and with the SS pointing their weapons. For those who wore striped pajamas, boxing meant prolonging a life that was not life. The fighters had certain rewards: a piece of bread, a cube of butter, some more soup, or working in the barn or kitchen instead of outside. That could decide which side of the line you fell on, dead or alive.
There were boxing professionals, even world champions. But Noah… “Show me what you can do, you have declared yourselves as fighters. If you have lied, I will send you to the gas chamber”, one of the kapos told them. These were the jailers of Auschwitz, criminals, murderers and rapists (some were German) taken from prisons to act as bloodhounds and beat prisoners. In return they earned a uniform and boots, and received more food and a better place to sleep. Several of those kapos were rivals of the prisoners in the fighting at Auschwitz. The fight was unequal: on one side of the ring, a 40-kilogram undead, skin and bones, who put on his gloves (or a simple bandage on his knuckles) after working 11 hours a day with little food: a liter of dark water, a piece of moist bread and the soup they gave the pigs; on the other side, the strong and well-nourished kapo.
Noah Klieger lost the more than 20 fights he played. If he survived it was because his first rival, Jacko Razon, a champion boxer from Greece and the Balkans, let him beat him to simulate a somewhat competitive fight. He then learned some basic punches, to move around the ring, the defense posture, to dodge attacks… More than a boxer, he had to be a good actor.
A champion and an Olympian
The boxers helped each other. They shared the bread and soup they earned, especially with the sickest, those they called “Muslims”, walking skeletons.
Víctor Young Pérez was called Champion. Number 157178. He had fought twice in Spain, in 1933 in Valencia and in 1935 in Barcelona. By then he was already the flyweight champion of the world. He fought for the Nazis until he was killed on one of the death marches for sharing food with another prisoner.
Antoni Czortek, number 139559, participated in the 36th Berlin Olympic Games and was runner-up in Europe in featherweight. Tadeusz Pietrzykowski’s life ended in the cinema: The Champion of Auschwitz. He was on the first transport to hell, on June 14, 1940. Prisoner 77 had been a champion of Poland and among prisoners he became a hero. “I only had one idea in my head: for fighting they were going to give me bread. I was hungry. My companions were also hungry. And combat gave me a higher position, so I had to prove my abilities. Only those who had a good trade had a better chance of survival, ”he recalled in the book. He came to knock down a German kapo, Walter Dunning, a triumph that earned him work in the stable, where he trained carrying hay and cutting firewood. On another occasion when he defeated a superior he met with revenge: he was infected with typhus.
Tadeusz secretly wrote to his mother: “They have given me 10 loaves of bread and 10 cubes of margarine and I have given them to the poor for Christmas. As you can see, boxing has served me well”.
Many of those fighters who boxed to keep breathing never wanted to return to a ring when they were released. Tadeusz set up a gym. Noah Klieger gave up the fight. He ended up being a journalist, like his father, he was a correspondent for L’Equipe, and his love of basketball led him to be president of Maccabi Tel Aviv. And above all, he dedicated his life to traveling the world to tell his story until he died in December 2018, at the age of 92. “Noah lived remembering hell for him so that it wouldn’t happen again”, explains José Ignacio Pérez; “Auschwitz never got out of it.”
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