The Jewel of Jewish Boxing

The little-known story of Szapsel Rotholc, who went from Polish hero to alleged Nazi collaborator

In 1934, Szapsel (Shabtai ) Rotholc was a member of the Polish boxing team that traveled to Budapest ahead of the European Amateur Championships. One year earlier, as Adolf Hitler was rising to power in Germany, Rotholc became the first Jewish boxer to win the Polish championships. And in Hungary, he did what many people had considered impossible: He beat the odds, overcoming all the stigmas and the racial theories to win a bronze medal in the flyweight division.

"An unparalleled Jew," was how Henrik Lazar, the sports editor of the now-defunct Krakow-based Jewish newspaper Nowy Dziennik, praised Rotholc. "At a time when the level of Jewish athletes in Poland is in decline and when we are searching for a competitor whose achievements can serve as a symbol of the strength and prowess of Jewish youths, we have found a source of joy and pride: Rotholc the wonder, the Jewish boxer."

Archive: Institute for Jewish Research

Rotholc, who was born in Warsaw in 1913, was a member of the Gwiazda Warszawa Boxing Club and was the star of Polish sport in the 1930s. Members of the Jewish community saw him as a symbol of the Jew who could defend himself, who fought like a lion before audiences of thousands - including Germans wearing swastikas. Another newspaper heralded his bronze-medal performance in Hungary as "the Jewish David slaying the German Goliath."

In 1935, word of Rotholc's prowess crossed the ocean. He traveled to Chicago for a competition between Polish and American boxers, where he won his country's only medal. A year later, he was voted top Jewish athlete in Poland's Sportsman of the Year poll of readers of the Przeglad Sportowy newspaper - a feat he repeated the next year.

On March 11, 1938, the Idishe Bilder newspaper ran a front-page headline proclaiming "Our Szapsel, the boxing hero." The article went on to point out that Szapsel, the Yiddish version of the Hebrew name Shabtai, means sheep, but his army of fans saw him as a far more dangerous animal. "Who would ever have imagined," the correspondent waxed, "that the Jewish people, the People of the Book, would take the sport of boxing to their hearts? After all, Jews - who are, by their very nature, gentle souls - have never been thought capable of such things."

The article went on to describe Rothholc as "our jewel, who made the Germans eat dirt."

By this time, Rotholc's record showed 15 victories in the 16 bouts he fought under the Polish flag. The stories of his victories, like that of his life, are full of contradictions. Very little has been documented, and that may be the secret of his enduring allure: At a time when the reality for Jews in Eastern Europe was black, Rotholc's achievements allowed his Jewish countrymen to dream.

In 1936, Berlin hosted the Olympic Games. Jewish organizations boycotted the so-called Nazi Games, but Rotholc, who at the time was serving in the Polish army, bowed to pressure from his commanding officers and agreed to participate. While he never actually competed in Berlin, the fact that he agreed to travel to Nazi Germany disappointed his many fans. On his return, he was ousted from the Jewish Sports Federation.

Toward the end of the decade Rotholc fell victim to the growing tide of anti-Semitism and found himself excluded from training camps and, eventually, from the Polish delegation to the 1939 European Championships. His last fight, in March 1939, was presided over by a biased, anti-Semitic referee, and was also the only loss of his career. In April of that year he quit boxing and opened a printing press. Shortly after the German invasion of Poland his wife, Maria, gave birth to their son, Richard.

When the Warsaw Ghetto was established, Rotholc joined the Jewish police. The respect accorded to him by the German and Polish guards enabled him to smuggle goods and money into the ghetto and to ensure his family's survival. In 1944, after the uprising, he was transferred to a work camp inside Germany, where he managed to survive the war. His wife was murdered, but their son was hidden by a Polish Catholic family and also survived.

By agreeing to join the ghetto police, Rotholc tarnished the image that he had built up over the pre-war years. He was determined to clear his name, but in 1946 he was put on trial by the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, accused of collaborating with the Nazis. There were contradictory accounts of his behavior as a police officer: Some residents of the ghetto said that he beat them mercilessly, while others told of how he managed to save the head of the Jewish resistance from deportation to a concentration camp.

On November 29, 1946, Rotholc was expelled from the Jewish community for a period of two years; his civil rights in the community were rescinded for a further three years. During his trial Rotholc enjoyed the support of the Polish Boxing Federation, the former captain of the boxing team and the country's top sports officials, all of whom testified on his behalf. On June 22, 1948, at the end of his period of exclusion, Rotholc was reinstated as a member of the Jewish Sports Federation. Later that year he was reunited with his son and emigrated to Montreal where he remarried and worked as a furrier. Rotholc died in Canada in 1996.