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Sunday, August 22, 2021

A Night in the Bronx

I began writing this article after a 2013 visit with my grandmother. During that visit, I attempted to unearth some of her formative memories, which was no small feat. Pain defined her past. She passed away last year at the age of 92 and I felt the urge to memorialize her by completing this article in time for her yahrzeit.

A Jewish family sits around their radio at 1422 Washington Avenue, across the street from PS 55, in the Bronx. My grandmother, five years old at the time, remembers the hoots and hollers spewing from her relatives and being thoroughly confused by it. She knows enough to understand the family's cheers are directed towards Max Baer, a heavyweight with a Jewish star on his trunks. In subsequent years, Baer's link to Judaism has been questioned, but in those moments of his fight a mile and a half away at Yankee Stadium against a member of the new-found Nazi nation, Max Schmeling, it doesn't matter whether or not Baer has been circumcised; Max is considered as kosher as a box of matzo on Pesach. But my grandmother could not have understood the implications of the contest.

This idyllic scene in the Bronx living room masks a troubled childhood and a difficult life. At the age of eleven, my grandmother was thrown into a Jewish orphanage like an unwanted couch. Her father was absent and her mother was ill-equipped to deal with her fifth and youngest child. None of my grandmother's adult siblings summoned the desire to take in their kin. When my grandmother married at the age of 19, her mother sat shiva for her because my grandfather was a gentile. Her new in-laws weren't any more compassionate, both being anti-Semitic immigrants. Adulthood was equally as cruel; she outlived her son, my father, by 30 years and remained a widow for her last 20. Those tragedies fueled her lifelong struggle with depression.

But on June 8, 1933, my grandmother was an adorable child with her innocence in hand and her life ahead. She remembers the people congregating around the radio for a single purpose. It was a rare occasion when they truly were some semblance of a family.

My grandmother doesn't remember the specifics of the fight. She doesn't remember the clubbing lefts Baer fired into Schmeling's face in the first round. She doesn't remember when Baer faked another left and came back with a hard overhand right and then another. She doesn't remember the Livermore Larupper out-muscling Schmeling throughout the bout and grabbing the German behind the neck with his left while smacking him around with the right. Or the explosive right Baer landed while Schmeling was on the ropes. She doesn't remember the slick way the smaller Schmeling parried Baer's punches when he wasn't being nailed. Or when Baer began an unanswered flurry with a devastating right and punctuated it with another monstrous right that floored a dazed Schmeling. And she doesn't remember Schmeling getting up, stumbling around, and being punched in the back of the head before referee Arthur Donovan could wave off the punishment.

Baer would later go on to win the world heavyweight championship after destroying Primo Carnera and then lose the crown to Jim Braddock. Max retired from the ring in 1941. Some consider him the only Jewish heavyweight champion of the modern era while others question his link to the Jewish people. For my grandmother's family, and countless others like them, Baer's victory over Schmeling symbolized Jewish strength in the face of impending vulnerability. And for my grandma, Baer's bludgeoning of the Nazis' favored son starred in one of her painfully few pleasant memories of a mostly nonexistent family.

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