The starting point of my research into Jewish resistance to the Holocaust was a series of interviews I conducted in the 1980s with surviving members of that resistance. They told me some remarkable stories, including the account of Dutch Jews who boxed in concentration camps.
‘The SS guy at the gate recognised me. “Pity you’re Jewish,” he said. He knew me as a boxer and I had to fight a match. Against a Polish officer, one of the last. Well, they didn’t force me, but I was told it would be better if I boxed. A friend of mine, another inmate, also said I should do it. So they could come and watch. He never got a chance; only SS guards were allowed to watch.’
Leen Sanders finds it difficult to tell his story. When I interview him many years after the Second World War, he still resembles the Dutch boxing champion he once was, fighting in the feather to middle weight categories, when he proudly wore the Star of David on his shorts. His formerly athletic and muscled body wears the scars of numerous fights – the thickened ears and a broken nose.
Well hidden under his shirt sleeve, he has another scar – the tattooed number of a prisoner of Auschwitz. As we talk, memories return of his wife, his two young sons, his family and his friends, who all peristed in the Holocaust. He starts crying silently, unable to continue. The former fighter is brought down by mental images of scenes that no human can describe.
Boxing was a popular sport in the poor Jewish quarters of prewar Dutch cities. Training and matches offered an escape from the daily routine. It also built self-esteem as the art of self-defence required courage, stamina, quick reactions and technical skills such as fist- and footwork.
Boys like Leen Sanders entered the ring at an early age, in fights where the Queensbury rules were disregarded. Hard fighting continued until one boxer stayed down to satisfy the gamblers. Those who passed these early stages and kept their appetite for the game, joined clubs that occasionally produced fine skilled boxers.
From these ranks young men joined resistance groups after the Nazis occupied their country in 1940. They showed determination. ‘Do you think I would allow these Nazis to get me?’ asks another interviewee, Bennie Bluhm from Amsterdam. ‘No. When you’re a boxer, you think you’re stronger and faster. You’re self-conscious. We were young and in the strength of our lives.’
In February 1941, these men were able to prove their courage. Dutch Nazis started to terrorise the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam. But the Nazis ran into defiance from Jews who were prepared to put up a fight. During the ensuing street battles the Jewish fighters managed to defeat the Dutch Nazis, but the German SS broke their resistance. Several of Bennie Bluhm’s friends were arrested. One of them was Lard Zilverberg, a national fly-weight boxing champion who had organised Jewish fighting groups. Bennie saw a photo of his arrested friend, but never saw Lard alive again.
One of Bennie’s friends who initially escaped was Ben Bril.
Ben had been born in Amsterdam. As a young boy he fought on the streets, occasionally against the boys of the next neighbourhood. But when Ben joined a boxing school he learned to control himself and avoid street brawls. He was also taught discipline. Ben worked in a butcher’s shop, where he solely used his left hand, being right-handed, to chop meat and bones in order to strengthen his left jab. He distinguished himself in the fly-weight category at the 1928 Olympic Games, at the age of 16, and reigned for almost a decade as boxing champion of The Netherlands. In 1935 Ben won a gold medal at the Maccabiade in Palestine. He also started to wear a Star of David on his boxing shorts.
Ben and his family went into hiding after the deporation of Jews from the Netherlands started in 1942. In 1943, however, the family was betrayed and transported.
In a transit camp Ben was quickly labelled ‘The Boxer’. After the war a fellow inmate testified that Ben was ‘the only man I saw during 2.5 years in concentration camps or heard about, who risked refusing to carry out a formal order of the SS, yes, without any hesitation to refuse.’
When I interview him, Ben remembers: ‘They knew I was a boxer. At one point there was a roll-call. A boy had attempted to escape. In women’s clothing. He had been caught. The boy was placed in front of a rack and was to get 25 whiplashes. Suddenly, the under-commandant called: “Boxer austreten!”. I had to come forward to carry out the punishment. I refused. The commandant said: “If you don’t do it, you’ll get 50.” So I took the whip, but when I had to strike, I aimed too high. The commandant got mad. “Not so,” he cried, grabbed the whip and started beating like mad. I walked back to my line.’
Ben organised boxing training and matches to get some extra food for the boys.
Meanwhile, Leen Sanders had been active in the resistance against the German occupiers of the Netherlands. He and his family went in hiding after the deportation of the Jews from the Netherlands started. However, they too were betrayed and sent to Auschwitz, where Leen’s wife and sons were murdered on or shortly after arrival.
Separated from his family, Leen used his boxing skills to survive and help others in Auschwitz. He explains: ‘It saved my life. I was given a job in the kitchen, providing I taught the boss how to box. I managed to get some extra bread, which I handed out among fellow inmates. I could save lives, because of the food. At my own risk. I had to hide it under my clothes. If you were causght, then, then … then they pushed you in the dirt; so far you’d never be able to get out. I was lucky.’
Again traumatic memories prevent Leen from continuing. After the war he received letters from people, thanking him for his help. He tried a come-back, but couldn’t box again. Just like many other Holocaust survivors, he was unable to return to normal life. Leen soon emigrated to the Dutch West Indies and from there to the United States. When I spoke to him, he had just returned to Rotterdam in Holland. An old man had come back to his birthplace to die.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Glasgow Herald: ‘The Boxer of Auschwitz’.
The journalist Matthew Kenyon wrote an article about Ben Bril for the BBC Sport website: ‘The Dutch Jewish boxing champion sent to Nazi camps by Olympic team-mate’.