Some boxers fight for a living. Salamo Arouch fought for his life. Many of today’s boxers sport fancy tattoos. The only tattoo Arouch bore was his prison number: 136954. This was the mark stamped on his forearm in Auschwitz after his 1943 arrest by Nazi officers.
Arouch was born Jewish in the Greek town of Thessaloniki. With an undefeated amateur record of 24-0, he had been crowned Light Middleweight Champion of the Balkans and was in the midst of tryouts for the Greek Olympic team when World War II broke out. Arouch was drafted into service and joined the Greek Army Boxing Team. When Greece surrendered to Germany, Arouch was arrested along with his family, all of whom were later murdered in the camp. Salamo’s fate would surely have been the same if it weren’t for his boxing skills.
Forced by the Nazi commandant to fight fellow prisoners for the officers’ entertainment, Arouch quickly learned the difference between these boxing matches and the bouts of his past: At Auschwitz, the winner received extra bread and soup. The loser would never be seen alive again. “We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching. They wouldn’t leave until they saw blood,” he would later relate. “The loser would be badly weakened, and the Nazis shot the weak.”
Often facing bigger men, some of whom outweighed him by over 100 pounds, Arouch fought twice to three times a week, racking up over 200 victories. He knew that one defeat could mean the bullet or the gas chamber for him, just as surely as it did for his opponents. Morally and emotionally devastated, he focused only on gaining the next day of life, later saying: “I trembled. But a boxer had to be without compassion. If I didn’t win, I didn’t survive.”
After the liberation of the camps, Arouch immigrated to the new state of Israel, where he joined the army and fought in the War for Independence. He also went back to boxing, finally fighting professionally, in an arena where a loss did not mean certain death. After his first loss, he hung up the gloves and opened a successful shipping and moving company.
In 1989, Arouch returned to Auschwitz to serve as consultant for the movie about his travails, Triumph of the Spirit, starring Willem Dafoe. Some years after suffering a debilitating stroke, he died peacefully in his bed, surrounded by his healthy family, at age 86.