Two Greek Jewish boxers from Thessaloniki, who survived Nazi concentration camps after being forced to beat other prisoners in the ring, are featured in the new podcast “Holocaust Histories.”
The five episodes highlight different boxers from across Europe who were in the prime of their lives and careers in the 1930s and 1940s, but whose dreams were shattered by Hitler’s army.
Episode Four focuses on Salamo Arouch and Jacko Razon, who were born and raised in Thessaloniki, which had the largest Jewish community in Greece. The two men, both Jewish, trained together at a boxing gym; Arouch eventually became a successful fighter while Razon turned his attention to soccer.
Greek Jewish Boxers Forced to Fight in Nazi Camps
As Hitler advanced through Europe, both men joined the Greek military, and were eventually captured. In the spring of 1941—one month apart—they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous concentration and death camps in German-occupied Poland.
There, and at other camps, they boxed other prisoners to stay alive, forced to do so by Nazi guards. Each won fight after fight, often against far larger men, knowing that one loss would likely mean death. Arouch was only 1.67 meters tall (5 feet 6 inches) and weighed just 61 kilograms (135 pounds), but in one fight, he knocked out another inmate who stood 1.98 meters—a foot taller.
“We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching,” Arouch told People magazine in 1990, referring to Nazi guards who would place bets on the fights. “They wouldn’t leave until they saw blood. The loser would be badly weakened. The Nazis shot the weak,” he said.
Jonathan Bonder created the Holocaust Histories podcast and narrated the episodes. He called it “remarkable that between the two of them [Arouch and Razon], they won a combined 328 fights in concentration camps with their life on the line—never losing.” Bonder, 36, answered questions from Greek Reporter in an email from his home in Toronto.
Bonder said Arouch and Razon “shared many experiences and horrors during the Holocaust; however, in the end it tore them apart rather than [bringing] them together.”
In 1989, more than forty years after they were liberated, Arouch’s story was made into the Hollywood movie, Triumph of the Spirit. Willem Dafoe played Arouch, who consulted on the movie. Razon sued, claiming the story was his and had been stolen. He eventually settled out of court, but it severed any relationship they had, Bonder said. Razon died in 1997 at age 76 while Arouch died in 2009 at age 86.
Bonder said their extraordinary personal story drew him in, but so did “the rich Jewish history of their birthplace, Thessaloniki. I was unaware of the significant Jewish history of Greece, specifically Thessaloniki,” he said.
Podcast Also Delves into Greece’s Resistance to Nazis
The episode details the boxers’ lives, but also examines the city’s Jewish history.
“I want to paint a picture from the start, during the 15th century up to the present day,” Bonder wrote. “The Jewish community in Thessaloniki grew substantially until the great fire of 1917. The drastic drop in the Jewish population between those times is shocking, going from the most populous Jewish community in Greece to about 1,200 today. The great fire of 1917 was a significant historical event that was tragic for citizens of Thessaloniki, only to have tragedy strike again with the Holocaust soon following, and 96 [percent] of the Jewish community killed.”
Thessaloniki had a population of more than 50,000 Jews before World War II — some 46,000 of whom were forced out and killed at Nazi death camps. Before the deportations, the Jewish community in the city—which was mainly comprised of Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had been chased out of Spain in 1492—had flourished to the point where it had earned the nickname “The Jerusalem of the Balkans.”
Looking into the stories of Arouch and Razon also provided a window into Greece’s own fierce fight against the Nazis, Bonder said.
“The Greek rebellion was strong and Germany was surprised by this,” he noted in his email. “This was especially the case on Crete. I was blown away by the stories of regular people taking up arms to fight the Nazi invaders. The personal accounts in the episode are incredible.”
Battle of Crete and Triumph of Hellenic Spirit
The Battle of Crete was the scene of one of the largest German airborne operations of World War II. In Greek history, it has come to symbolize the bravery and ultimate triumph of the Hellenic spirit.
The Cretans came out of their homes and challenged Hitler’s forces using whatever weaponry they had at their disposal. It was the first time the Germans had encountered significant opposition from a local population. Despite repeated attacks from the Nazis on local villages and communities, the Cretan Resistance remained active until the Germans surrendered in 1945.
Bonder added that “the people of Greece and Thessaloniki suffered horribly during World War II. When the Holocaust is mentioned, countries like Poland, France and the Netherlands come to mind…I want Greece to be thought of in the same manner,” he said. “In 1943 to 1944, there were 11,000 Greek prisoners in Birkenau concentration camp, which is a significant proportion; and by the end of the war, over 500,000 people died…We should never forget the stories of Thessaloniki, Salamo and Jacko.”