The Jews Who Fought for Freedom in the Ring

Back in the 1920s, there were more Jews with professional boxing licenses than any other ethnic group in the United States. It was part of a new Jewish ethos that called for self-defense

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“Muscular Judaism,” which became a popular Zionist slogan, was a term coined by Max Nordau during the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898. Nordau, a physician and Hungarian-Jewish author, was a dignified, proud individual. He sought to fight the image of the Diaspora Jew as a weakling and a coward, someone who, during pogroms, chose to hide behind the pages of his Talmud and Mishna instead of swinging a punch. Nordau’s call for a conscious revolution did indeed resonate here and there. However, old habits die hard, and aversion to the use of force was still deeply rooted in Jewish consciousness during this period.

Max Nordau. Sought to fight the image of the Diaspora Jew as a weakling and a coward. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Five years later, in 1903, a Jew named Hayim Nahman Bialik visited the city of Kishinev in the Bessarabia region of the Russian empire, and was shocked to discover tens of Jewish women, men and children spread out lifeless on the ground, their limbs askew and the fear of death reflected in their wild eyes. Appalled by the barbarity of the pogroms, but even more so by the helplessness of the Jews, Bialik wrote his famous poem “In the City of Slaughter.” In it, Bialik rebukes his fellow Jews who hid in their holes and prayed that the evil would not come to them, when in front of their eyes their mothers, wives and daughters were raped and killed. Bialik therefore plays the role of God and sarcastically lashes out at his co-religionists:

Wherefore their cries imploring, their supplicating din?

Speak to them, bid them rage!

Let them against me raise the outraged hand, – Let them demand!

Demand the retribution for the shamed

Of all the centuries and every age!

Let fists be flung like stone

Against the heavens and the heavenly Throne!

(Translation from Complete Poetic Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Israel Efros, ed. New York, 1948)

The Kishinev Pogrom was a watershed moment in the history of Jewish power. Bialik’s poem shook the Jewish public and Jewish self-defense units sprung up like mushrooms after the rain. In Palestine, a group called Bar Giora was created; the Bund, a socialist self-defense organization, was established in Eastern Europe; and in other areas sports organizations were founded, including Hakoach, Shimshon, Hagibor, and others.

There was a new Jewish ethos: the ethos of boxing. This influenced not only the Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) who immigrated eastward toward the Vistula River, but also the many Jews who crossed the ocean at the end of the 19th century and immigrated to the United States. The fact that in the New World pogroms were not a significant threat did not mean that these Jewish immigrants were able to leave their sense of fear and victimization, inherited from their ancestors, at Ellis Island, the entry point to the U.S. However, in contrast to previous generations, these immigrants adopted the new ethos and chose to fight (both literally and figuratively) for their freedom.

Raised fists in New York

Benny Leonard. Crowned the greatest Jewish boxer of all time. Credit: Courtesy

In his fascinating book “When Boxing was a Jewish Sport,” Allen Bodner describes the golden age of Jewish boxing in the United States, from the days of mass immigration until the Second World War. During this period, Bodner counts 23 different Jewish boxers who won world titles. The scope of the phenomenon of Jewish boxing is reflected in the fact that in 1928 there were more Jews with professional boxing licenses than any other ethnic group in the United States. Between 1905 and 1934 there were 10 World Champion title matches that were fought between two Jews – when there could be only one champion from each weight category.

Among the major Jewish boxers during this era – including Eli Stoltz, Artie Levine, and “Lefty” Lew Tendler – the most prominent was Benjamin Leiner, whose Hebrew name was Dov Ber ben Avraham Gershon and who later adopted the American name Benny Leonard. Leonard was born on the Lower East Side in New York. He commented, “I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. ... to the south were the Italians, to the north were the Irish, and the public bathhouses were down the block on our street. When the Italian and Irish kids came to bathe, we had two options: to fight, or not to leave the house.”

Lew Tendler.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Leonard, who regularly boxed with a Star of David on his shorts, symbolized the New Jew, who was no longer a wagon driver, a peddler or a moneylender, but rather a determined fighter who went into the ring and raised his fists in the name of all of the previous generations. Leonard was already crowned as the greatest Jewish boxer of all time at the beginning of his career, over the course of which he earned 88 victories, 68 of which were knockouts. His love for boxing did not end with his retirement, when he chose to become a referee. He also fulfilled the phrase “he died doing what he loved” when he died of a heart attack in the middle of a fight he was refereeing in New York.

From the ring to the camps

The connection between death and boxing became more chilling during the period of the Holocaust, and was embodied by two famous Jewish boxers: Salamo Arouch and Victor Perez. A Tunisian Jewish boxer who found success in Europe, Perez was born in 1911 in Dar El-Berdgana, the Jewish Quarter in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. At 5’1” (158 centimeters), his short stature did not prevent him from dreaming about a boxing career, and when he was 17 he forged a passport and moved to Paris to make his dreams a reality. During the day he worked as a shoe salesman, and in the afternoon he would train. After three years in Paris, Perez was crowned the premier flyweight boxer in Europe and France.

Victor Perez.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When he returned to Tunisia in 1931, Perez was given a royal welcome. At the port, no fewer than 100,000 fans waited to receive him: the biggest welcome in the history of the country. The celebration upon his return also included donations to the synagogue and the Jewish school in his city. One of the most famous fights in Perez’s career as a boxer took place in 1938 – days after Kristallnacht – when he fought in Berlin against a German champion while wearing shorts embroidered with a Star of David. When he entered the arena the Nazi spectators booed Perez, who surveyed the anti-Semitic crowd impassively.

In 1943 Perez was deported to Auschwitz. Nazis in the camp identified him, and not long thereafter he became the camp’s boxing entertainer. Perez was forced to participate in a series of showcase fights against Nazi opponents. He won them all except for one particularly cruel and unusual bout that he fought against an extremely heavy German. During this time the Nazis made sure Perez worked in the kitchen so he could have enough food to continue to fight. In the kitchen Perez met another great Jewish boxer: Salamo Arouch, the Balkan champion who lived in Thessaloniki and, like all the city’s Jews, was sent to Auschwitz in 1943.

In one of the first roll calls in Auschwitz after Arouch’s arrival, an SS officer walked among the prisoners and asked if anyone there knew how to box. Arouch was pushed out of the line by those who knew him and his boxing history. That night he won his first fight in the camp. He would fight approximately 200 more times, all of which he finished on his feet as the winner. Because of boxing, Arouch was able to survive Auschwitz until he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen in 1945, where he worked as a slave laborer until the camp was liberated. After the war, Arouch met Marta Yechiel and they fell in love. The couple was among those who came to Israel during the illegal immigration of 1945. Once in Israel, Arouch continued to box during his free time, but not professionally.

Unlike Arouch, Victor Perez did not survive the Holocaust. During the death march Perez tried to give food to a friend, but was shot by the Nazis. His body was left to freeze on the snowy ground on the side of the road, without a burial or a sign marking the place where he was murdered. A number of years later, the stories of Perez and Arouch were told on film in France and the United States – “Triumph of the Spirit,” about Salamo Arouch (1989); “Victor ‘Young’ Perez,” (2013); and a short film by ESPN about the career of Benny Leonard.

Ushi Derman for The Museum of the Jewish People (Beit Hatfutsot). Originally published in Hebrew here.

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