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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Review of Holocaust Fighters

Holocaust Fighters: Boxers, Resisters, and Avengers
By Jeffrey Sussman
Rowman & Littlefield, 2021

Holocaust Fighters smashes the myth that Jews were simply lambs led to the slaughter. Jews fought the Nazis before, during, and after the war. Not only did boxers such as Victor "Young" Perez, Nathan Shapow, and Harry Haft achieve some retribution, but so did non-boxers like those who joined Nakam and plotted to poison high-ranking Nazi POWs.

The theme of the book, however, is primarily the Holocaust. Fighting is a secondary topic. Each chapter is its own vignette, sometimes loosely connected to the rest of the book. The first chapter explores Hitler's obsession with boxing as an arena to showcase Aryan superiority. The next is a general overview of high-profile Nazis. Then there are five chapters each profiling a different boxer associated with the Holocaust. The boxers include Perez, Shapow, Haft, Salamo Arouch, and Johann Trollmann. The rest of the book is a mishmash of topics ranging from escapees of concentration camps, to revenge-seeking survivors, from the Nuremburg trails, to an overly positive take on Max Schmeling (a counterpoint here) and an extended appearance from, oddly, Wladimir Klitschko.

It all makes for an ambitious book that probably should have been more focused. Other Holocaust-related boxers are mentioned and could have been featured in their own chapters. Biographies of Benjamin "Kid" Perez (Victor's brother), Leone Efrati, Eric Seelig, Kid Francis, and Jacko Razon (to name a few) would have fit better than the Nuremburg trials or Klitschko.

With various chapters attempting to achieve different goals, the writing is naturally a bit uneven. There are flashes of brilliance and many spots where the narrative flows well. But those moments are eventually broken up by brief bouts of wordy sentences or needlessly repetitive phrases. Overall though, the prose is solid enough.
Within the narrative, Sussman describes the fate of each Nazi perpetrator, a welcome bit of research that places the Holocaust in a larger context. Providing the larger context in which the people chronicled here lived is a strength of the book. The tortuous lives the boxers were forced to endure in the camps during the Shoah is on heartbreaking display.

The thesis of the book is, "The men who created the hellish conditions in the Nazi concentration camps... were individuals of pure evil." And thus, fighting back against the Nazis is justified. While there is no issue with the second part, to consider the Nazis as pure evil strips them of their agency, their free will. They weren't born evil monsters, they were humans who chose to commit those evil actions. We all have a spark of evil and a spark of good within us, and it is up to us to make the right choice.

The prime exception to the good/evil dichotomy presented in the book comes in the form of a letter written to Harry Haft by his son Alan. It is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful missive to his late father showing the moral ambiguity of the Holocaust and the importance of understanding the horrors its victims faced.

Jeffrey Sussman's Holocaust Fighters comes at an important time. Knowledge of the Holocaust is fading as the years pass. A 2020 Pew Research poll found that fewer than half of Americans know that approximately six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust or that Adolph Hitler rose to power through democratic means. This book is for those who need to improve their knowledge of the Holocaust. Jewish boxing fans will appreciate it as an introduction to Holocaust boxers. Just be sure to skip the chapter on German boxing; it misses the mark.

More Holocaust boxing sources:
Harry Haft
A Boxer's Story
Triumph of the Spirit

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