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Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Look Back: Ben Bril and Nathan Shapow

In an effort to link the past with the present, The Jewish Boxing Blog will offer monthly a short biography of notable former Jewish boxers.

This series so far has been reserved for professional Jewish boxers, but Ben Bril and Nathan Shapow, though neither ever fought professionally, are two amateurs who deserved to be remembered for the horrors they endured outside of the ring. Both men survived the Holocaust.

Ben Bril was born on July 16, 1912 in a poor Jewish section of Amsterdam, Netherlands. He was one of six children born to a fisherman father. Bril began boxing at an early age and made the 1928 Summer Olympics, held in his hometown, Amsterdam. A flyweight, he was only 15 years old at the time.

Bril was good enough to make the 1932 Olympics, but was barred by the Dutch Olympic committee because Ben was a Jew and the committee was led by an anti-Semite. Bril earned a gold medal at the Maccabiah Games in 1935. He boycotted the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi-governed Berlin.

On May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Things soon became progressively worse for Dutch Jews. In 1941, the new German-led government began deporting a small number of Jews and the deportations only rose in size as time passed. Bril was deported to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany, with his wife and son. Amazingly, the trio survived the war. But almost all of the rest of Bril's family died in the Holocaust. Only one brother survived.

Bril would eventually become a boxing referee, officiating fights in the Netherlands, Germany, England, and Spain among other places. He oversaw separate fights involving heavyweight contenders Henry Cooper and Karl Mildenberger.

Bril, who died in 2003, has been honored with a movie and a biography in the Netherlands, but there is still too little about his life in English. The Ben Bril Memorial, featuring a series of boxing matches, is held every year in October in Amsterdam. Junior welterweight Barry Groenteman, a native of Amsterdam, has participated in the memorial multiple times. "It means a lot to me," he said.

"Ben Bril is a Jewish boxing legend in the Netherlands. It's a honour for me to carry his legacy. My biggest motivation is to tell our story to the world. I'm a very proud Jewish person and very proud to be a Jewish boxer." Barry continued, "It's important for me that in 2014 I will win all my fights. And to keep Jewish boxing in Europe alive."

Nathan Shapow was born on November 6, 1921 in Riga, Latvia. He had two brothers and lived in a two-bedroom house with his parents, Mordecai and Chaye. Shapow's boyhood hobby was boxing, a sport in which he honed his skills at local Jewish youth clubs. He soon fought in amateur bouts.

As the situation worsened for Latvian Jews throughout the 1930s, Shapow became more political. Keeping the family tradition, Shapow was a follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky, as is current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shapow would become a member of Betar, a right-wing militant organization that believed in Jabotinsky's Revisionist Zionism.

Latvia was contested ground between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Both countries occupied Latvia in the early 1940s. While in the Nazi-controlled Riga ghetto, Shapow was a member of a group called the "Strong Ones." These men stole what they could to stay strong in order to protect their fellow Jews from the anti-Semitic authorities. At one point, with a crunching straight right Shapow killed an SS officer that had come to kill him.

Throughout the Holocaust, Shapow was transferred to numerous work and death camps. He miraculously avoided certain death on countless occasions. One time he was saved by a man who he had known from his boxing days. During the hell he endured, Shapow's ability to steal food kept himself well-fed relative to other starving Jews. He was also generous with his filched bounty, giving away sustenance to fellow interred Jews.

In the camps, Shapow was forced to engage in boxing matches with other inmates for the enjoyment of gentiles. In his book, he claims he was quite successful against even professional fighters because of his tremendous power.

After the war, Shapow managed to make it to Palestine illegally and fought in the notorious Irgun and with the Stern Gang in the years before Israel's independence. After independence, he fought in the new nation's early wars. By  the 1960s, he had grown tired of fighting constantly and took part in a few different professions. He soon moved to the United States, where he still lives.

"Ben Bril Memorial." benbrilboxing.com (in Dutch).
Shapow, Nathan. The Boxer's Story: Fighting for My Life in the Nazi Camps.2012.
Shoah Foundation. "Holocaust Survivor Nathan Shapow Testimony." 1994.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to read About Bennie Bril, but you wright every month a blog about former Jewish boxers, I can not find on your blog?