Salamo Arouch, the Jewish boxer who survived Auschwitz through exhibition fights staged by Nazi officers and whose life inspired the 1989 film "Triumph of the Spirit," died on Sunday at the age of 86.
Arouch, born in Saloniki in 1923, began boxing as a child and became the middleweight champion of the Balkans at 17. The Germans captured Saloniki in 1941, and between March and August 1943, some 50,000 of the city's Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of them were dispatched to the gas chambers on arrival, but some 11,000, including Arouch, were sent to the forced labor camp, where the majority later perished as well.
In an interview with People magazine in 1990, Arouch related how he encountered an acquaintance from Saloniki who had been in the camp for some time. "'Where are the others?' I asked. He said, 'They are dead. All gassed and burned.' We thought he was crazy." Shortly afterward, Arouch's head was shaved, his clothes were taken and a number was tattooed on his wrist.
Then, at roll call one day, an SS officer asked whether any of the prisoners could box. Arouch was pushed from the line by friends who knew of his boxing history. The officer asked him if he were ready to fight right then.
"I was very scared," Arouch said. "I was exhausted from being up all night and not eating, but I said yes." He was taken to his first fight that very night, boxing against another inmate. This was the first of 200 matches.
The rules were simple, Arouch said: "We fought until one went down or they [the Nazis] were sick of watching. They wouldn't leave until they saw blood." At the end of every fight, he would return to the barracks with his prize - a loaf of bread - and share it with the other prisoners. Thanks to his special role, he was transferred to kitchen work, which was considered to be safer, and also offered greater access to food, than any other work in the camp.
The boxing allowed Arouch to survive until he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen in 1945. There, he worked at slave labor until the camp was liberated. After the war, he met and married Martha, a woman from Saloniki, and they immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1945. He went on boxing in Israel as an amateur, but became a businessman rather than a professional sportsman.
He acquired worldwide fame in 1989, after "Triumph of the Spirit" was released with William Deffoe in the starring role.
"Salamo returned to the camp just once after the war, to advise the filmmakers," Martha Arouch told Haaretz. "He stayed there for three months, going through the process again with the actors. He gave them advice and showed them how to box. He was happy that something would remain of him after he passed on."
The couple's daughter, Dalia Gonen, told Haaretz that "mother, who was also in Auschwitz and whose story is also in the film, spent the last 15 years caring for father after he had a stroke. Before he fell ill, he would visit schools and Israel Defense Forces bases to tell his story. After the film came out he met with world-famous boxers, like Mohammed Ali and Mike Tyson."