The memory of Prisoner Number 77 still brings hope to the heart of Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Sobolewicz as he remembers how his friend boxed for bread in the notorious Nazi German camp.
The story of fellow inmate and boxer Tadeusz Pietrzykowski has been all but forgotten nearly seven decades after the end of World War II.
The very idea of sport at Auschwitz seems preposterous.
The camp was set up by the Nazis in southern Poland after their 1939 invasion to hold and kill Polish political prisoners, and was to become a hub of the Holocaust, during which the Nazis murdered six million Jews.
Polish author Marta Bogacka, in a new book “The Auschwitz Boxer”, has brought the story of Pietrzykowski, little known outside Poland, back into the spotlight.
To Sobolewicz, 89, it still seems like yesterday.
“The first bout took place on a Sunday in March 1941 next to the Auschwitz kitchens between Tadeusz Pietrzykowski and the German ‘kapo’ Walter Dunning,” he told AFP, using the term for the common criminals deployed by the Nazis as overseers.
A rumour went around that Dunning, a former middleweight professional who had fallen foul of the law, was looking for an opponent in exchange for a loaf of bread and some margarine.
Pietrzykowski, a pre-war bantamweight at the boxing club Legia Warsaw, rose to the challenge.
“Teddy, as the Polish media nicknamed him before the war, must have weighed about 45 kilos (99 pounds), and Walter around 70 (154 pounds),” Sobolewicz said.
In peacetime, the maximum fighting weight in Pietrzykowski’s category was 54 kilos, and 75 kilos in Dunning’s.
In June 1940 Pietrzykowski had been on the first train convoy of 700 Polish political prisoners deported to Auschwitz — a former army barracks in the city of Oswiecim.
“So he was already very thin after eight months of backbreaking work and malnutrition,” Sobolewicz said.
“He was the smaller of the two, but he was agile and fast. He had an incredible punch, aimed right for the stomach, and knew how to duck his opponent’s blows. He won the fight and got his bread and margarine. You have to admit that the Germans kept their promise.”
More fights were to follow.
Pietrzykowski threw himself into them, knowing full well that he risked death by starvation.
For his fellow inmates, every blow he struck was a source of pride and hope.
“We were elated. We said to ourselves, ‘As long as there’s a Pole punching a German in the face, Poland’s not finished’,” Sobolewicz said.
After Germany’s defeat by the Soviets at the Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, the camp guards from the Nazis’ notorious SS sought ways to forget that the tide of the war was turning, Sobolewicz said.
They watched the matches — pitting prisoners amongst themselves as well as against the kapos — and placed bets.
After the first scratch bouts, the camp authorities let the boxers build a proper ring and allowed them to make gloves, according to Bogacka’s research.
Pietrzykowski notched up some 40 fights, and around 20 more after he was transferred to the Neuengamme camp in northern Germany in 1943.
He survived the war, passing away in 1991 in Bielsko-Biala in southern Poland.
His most celebrated Auschwitz match was against Schally Hottenach, a 96-kilo German. He won with a second-round knockout.
That bout inspired the 1963 film “The Boxer and Death” by Slovak director Peter Solan.
Auschwitz’s twin camp of Birkenau was purpose-built nearby in 1942.
Jews from across Europe — often told by the Nazis that they were being “resettled” in the East — were sent there directly by train to be murdered in its gas chambers.
The new arrivals had a meagre chance of surviving thanks to the “selection”, where the SS picked out individuals deemed suitable for forced labour because of their peacetime professions.
Boxers were on the list.
Jewish middleweight Salamo Barouch, from Greece, was one who survived as a result, though he is not known to have faced Pietrzykowski in the ring.
The camp also saw football matches.
“The kapos wanted to amuse themselves. They played football amongst themselves, but taking on players of a different nationality had an extra edge,” said Kazimierz Albin, who escaped in February 1943 and joined the Polish resistance.
“And for us, being on the team meant getting extra food rations and getting given lighter forced labour, so it was a chance to survive,” recalled Albin, 90.
Adam Cyra, a historian at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, said a football pitch was set up to the right of the Birkenau train-ramp.
“For people who were about to die, the vision of prisoners playing football against the kapos was meant to be reassuring,” he said.
A million Jews perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with tens of thousands of others including Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war, between 1940 and its liberation by the Red Army in January 1945.
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