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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Jewish Boxing in China

Jews have been in China for at least a thousand years, first forming a base in Kaifeng, a city west of Beijing and Shanghai. Merchants of all religions, including Jews, traveled the Silk Road, a network of well-worn trading routes, into China for over a millennium.

Boxing has existed in China for thousands of years, but it was used as a martial art and not as a competitive sport. At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of "boxers" staged protests against foreigners in China, a movement which quickly gained momentum. This event is often known as the Boxer Rebellion although scholars have begun to call it the Boxer Uprising, because the protestors advocated for reform within the Qing Dynasty, not a replacement of the regime. The movement was fueled by xenophobic angst, not revolutionary zeal.

The origins of boxing as a competitive sport in China date back to the 1920s. After the Qing were overthrown in 1911, China became a republic. Divisions soon emerged and a civil war between the Nationalists (GMD) and the Communists (CCP) erupted. When the Japanese imperialists attacked China in 1937, the GMD and the CCP halted their civil war to band together to fight Japan. At the conclusion of war against Japan in 1945, the civil war restarted. The CCP gained power on the mainland in 1949, which signified the end of boxing in China for several decades.

Boxing was one of the most popular sports among Jewish Russian immigrants and European Jewish refugees who lived in Shanghai during the interwar period. As Nazi persecution increased throughout the 1930s, Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria fled to Shanghai, representing a third wave of Jewish immigration to the city. By the late 1930s there were between 17,000-20,000 Jewish refugees in the city.

Jews first arrived in Harbin, located in China's northeast, in 1898. The Jewish community there soon has its own high school, hospital, and synagogue. The militant Zionist group Betar was active in the city. One member of the Harbin chapter of Betar was Mordechai Olmert, the father of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (served 2006-2007) and a future Minister of the Knesset in his own right. Mordechai, who was born in 1911 and fled with his family to Harbin to escape the Russian Revolution, was a member of the well-regarded boxing team. Both Betar, a wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement, and Maccabi, which represented moderate Zionists, had boxing teams in Harbin.

The center of Jewish boxing in China, though, was in Shanghai.

The first set of Jews to immigrate to the city were Baghdadi merchants, such as the Sassoons, who came in the late 1800s during the Qing Dynasty. The second wave were Russian Jews fleeing the chaos of the Russian Revolution, similar to the Olmerts who settled in Harbin.

Before Jewish boxing in Shanghai increased in popularity, Maurice Gecker, a Jewish fighter from Shanghai, was "highly-favored" heading into his fight against Korea's Tommy Kim, which likely took place on February 11, 1936. Before a packed crowd, young Kim "proved too fast and slippery" and won an unpopular decision as the main event of something called the Foreign "Y" Card.

Most of the boxing involving Jews began in 1939 and featured the final wave of Jews, refugees escaping the impending Holocaust. Though visas were technically required to enter Shanghai, in reality, no government in the city enforced passport control. The Jews settled in the lower class ghetto of Hongkew and its surrounding neighborhoods. By this point the Japanese had conquered Shanghai, subjugating the Chinese locals. Jewish refugees described the Chinese locals as treating the newcomers with "benign tolerance."

Shanghai was a world of contradictions to the refugees. Described as the "armpit of the world" that was "heavy with the smell of human excrement and urine," it was also an "exciting, teeming metropolis full of interesting, adventurous people, hidden treasures, and beautiful art." The lawlessness of the city allowed for gangsters such as Joe Farren and Jack Riley to thrive. These underworld figures dabbled in boxing.

The most proficient boxing trainer in Shanghai was a man named Max Buchbaum, whose surname has also been spelled Backbaum and Buchsbaum in different sources. Buchbaum, "described as a famous boxer from Berlin" shared the name of a famous post-war actor in Berlin. A couple of sources label Buchbaum as the light heavyweight champion of Germany.

After his fighting career in Germany, Buchbaum worked as a trainer for Maccabi Berlin before fleeing Nazi oppression to Shanghai.

Harry "Kid" Ruckenstein was born on December 10, 1919 in Berlin. He started boxing as a 105-pound  amateur in 1934. He was shipped by his parents to Shanghai in 1939. Ruckenstein had trouble finding a job in his new home. Buchbaum approached the kid and suggested Ruckenstein could continue his boxing career in Shanghai.

One of the best boxers in Shanghai was Sam Lewkowitz, known as the Maccabi champion of Berlin before World War II. He spent time in a concentration camp, but was one of the few Jews released. He quickly immigrated to Shanghai where he boxed under the name Sam Lewko for the International Sporting Club of Shanghai. He once knocked out a Japanese heavyweight who was brought to Shanghai with the intention of proving the Japanese were a superior nation. He also fought quality opponents from the U.S. and France.

Alfred "Lako" Kohn, was born in Berlin in 1927. He spent one day in a concentration camp before the Nazis instituted the Final Solution and sent him back home because he was too young to work in the labor camp. Because of his boxing exploits, Lako was considered a great hero to the Jewish refugees. "I had a very strong right," Kohn recalled, "I won most of my fights by knockout."

Lako Kohn taught Eric Reisman, who was born in Vienna in 1926, to box. Reisman came to Shanghai in late 1938 and boxed as an amateur for three years. He said he fought a Japanese opponent and was robbed of the decision, so he quit the sport ibn frustration.

To stage boxing matches, there needed to be officials. Max Ackerman, a former flyweight back in Austria, served as a boxing referee.

Dr. Sam Didner emigrated from Graz, Austria and arrived in Shanghai in December of 1938. Didner had had a brief boxing career in Europe. In addition to his many duties, Dr. Didner served as fight doctor in many of the refugee bouts.

On August 6, 1939 Sam Lewko was stopped in the fourth round by Leo Kubiak, who won by TKO. It was a rough night for Jewish boxers in Shanghai. Ruckenstein, who was called "Schoolboy" grabbed the lone win from a group of European Jewish refugees who fought on the card. Ruckenstein earned a points victory over Battling Fester. Ike Klein, Johnny Donat, and Little Neubeser all lost four-rounder on points.

Klein lost to Russ Grabovsky, Donat to Charlie Collaco, and Neubeser to Ting Ling. On the card, Boris Katz beat Kid Kurenberg by decision in another four-rounder. We can speculate that Grabovsky, Katz, and Kurenberg may have been Jewish, but we don't know for sure.

Kurt Wolf was another pro boxer in Shanghai. Wolf was mentioned in an interview by Robert Langer, but nothing else is known of him at this time. David Volovik Vardi, born in 1917, was another Jewish boxer in Shanghai. A member of the Shanghai Betar, he later relocated to Jerusalem.

Alfred Zunterstein, a Jew from Vienna, Austria immigrated to Shanghai in November of 1938. He had received training in boxing with Betar back in Europe, and continued to box in China. Zunterstein noted that the Jewish Recreation Club had boxing classes for youngsters. In fact, the club had 120 junior boxers. The Shanghai Jewish Recreation Club started a boxing team in 1939 with names such as Hirsch, Meyer and Schott.

Charles Klotzer, born Lothar Klotzer in Berlin, came to Shanghai in April 1939 at the age of 13. He joined the boxing team after getting beaten up by White Russians. Rolf Levine was Klotzer's boxing coach at first and then Buchbaum took over.

Ernst Schwartz, born in Vienna, was attending medical school when he had to flee due to a rise in antisemitism. Schwartz settled in Shanghai were he became a gym teacher and a boxing instructor. He stayed in China, learning the language, and eventually becoming a Buddhist monk in Nanjing.

Japan banned boxing in China in 1941. Especially in 1943-1944, food became scarce and hunger pervasive. Because the Baghdadi Jews were British citizens, the Japanese imprisoned them in internment camps. In 1943, all Jewish refugees were segregated and confined in the Hongkew ghetto. In order to leave the ghetto, Jews waited in longs lines hoping to secure a permit from the infamous Japanese official Kanoh Ghoya.

Especially when boxing returned from 1945-1949, many boxing matches took place between Jewish refugees in Shanghai and soldiers in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army. Manny Fox, a Jew from Baltimore, oversaw many of the U.S. Navy fighters. Fox fought professionally from 1928-9. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1931 and served on the U.S. Pillsbury in North China at Asiatic Station after the war. Fox learned some Mandarin, Beijinghua, and Cantonese.

BoxRec lists Ruckenstein with five fights before the Japanese banned boxing. On October 10, 1946, Ruckenstein beat a Russian named Joe Young to win the welterweight title of China. Ruckenstein said he also beat fighters from the U.S., Japan, Italy, and the Philippines.

Buchbaum moved to Israel after the war and trained fighters there. He saw talent in Israel, but became frustrated with the sabras' lack of interest in the sport. Lewko immigrated to the U.S. in 1948. Kohn won the New York Golden Gloves light heavyweight that same year and lost in the finals in 1949. Ruckenstein came to the U.S. in 1949 intending to continue his boxing career, but went into the hotel business instead.

"I was very good and so were others in our group. They were really good." Lako Kohn remembered of his boxing career in Shanghai. "We had good trainers, and we trained very hard. We took enormous pride to win. All of us wore the Magen David, which was important. When you're always on the bottom and everybody spits and laughs at you, and you are finally on even keel, it was important."

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