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Thursday, September 7, 2023

Review of The Fighter of Auschwitz

The Fighter of Auschwitz: The incredible true story of Leen Sanders who boxed to help others survive
By Erik Brouwer
Cassell, 2023

Leen Sanders of Rotterdam, Netherlands was one of the best European boxers of the late 1920s and for much of the 1930s. He began as a featherweight and climbed through the lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight divisions. Known for his "double defense," Sanders was a short, stocky, and powerful man whose fighting style was- contrary to his stature- that of a technical boxer.

When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Leen's fortunes quickly took a terrible turn because of his Jewish heritage and his activities in the resistance. He and his family were eventually sent to Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazis' camps. Sanders's boxing prowess won him special treatment at the concentration camp. He used his relatively privileged status to help as many people as possible, but he couldn't save his family.

Erik Brouwer's The Fighter of Auschwitz is an incredibly written story. The descriptions and pacing before the war befit a classic novel. The author paints an amazingly vivid picture of the European boxing scene during the '20s and '30s. Because of Brouwer's considerable talent as a writer, the book would've been even better if Sanders's boxing matches had been detailed in depth. His engaging depiction of Leen's fight against Teddy Pietrzykowski for the all-weights championship of Auschwitz is an exception. Considering the situation, it's a remarkably extraordinary recounting.

Appropriately, the tone changes when the story reaches the Holocaust. Compared to many other books about the Shoah, The Fighter of Auschwitz is not quite as soul-crushingly sad. The privileges afforded to Sanders made his internment not as horrific as it could've been, and his selfless heroism while in the camp shows glimpses of human generosity in the face of utter cruelty. Brouwer also wisely pulls punches when it comes to the tragic ends of Leen's loved ones. In those instances, he foregoes unnecessary flourishes and thankfully avoids drawing out their deaths in an emotionally manipulative manner. The inmates' experiences in Auschwitz are detailed but not superfluously so.

A must-read for fans of Jewish boxing and for those learning about the Holocaust, The Fighter of Auschwitz should be read by everyone. In this moment of heightened anti-Semitism, this story has the potential to change minds for the better.

Other resources: The Jewish Boxing Blog's Holocaust Boxing page.

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