Sometimes a story comes along that knock you right back in your seat, despite having read thousands of books both fiction and fact, this one does just that. Even when you have read many, many stories connected with that factory of death, Auschwitz, one comes along that simply leave you wondering how you missed this.
This morning one such story became known to me, the story of death camp inmate 136954, one man in millions rounded up in an industrial process of extermination who defied the odds and survived. This is not so unusual in that people did survive, I have read many accounts, all horrific in their own way, as is the story of inmate 136954, Salamo Arouch.
I do not intend to try to tell his story, he was a Greek Jew, the son of a docker, a champion boxer, a man with a family, all of whom perished in the camps. He survived because he was a boxer, he fought over 200 bouts in Auschwitz in which the stakes could not have been higher, win and you live to fight another day, lose and you die, gassed or shot. Salamo often had to fight two or three times a week for the entertainment of Nazi officers, several times whilst suffering from dysentry, regularly against bigger opponents, Salamo weighed around 135lbs and once knocked out a 250lb opponent in 18 seconds. He drew twice and came close to the gas chamber but against all the odds he was still alive when the camp was liberated.
When we train, when we fight, wherever we fight there is a lot at stake, pride, honour, the family name, prize money even. Every fighter technically puts their life on the line in any fight in that things can go wrong and when violence is used death is always a possibility. Raise that to certainty in a way that we only relate to in the barbaric practices of the Roman amphitheatre, so comfortably in the past and at such a distance. Bring that forward 2000 years and it starts to feel much closer to home. Uncomfortably close.
The Concentration Camps of this world have been full of horrors and we will never be free of such things as it is in our evolutionary biology as a species to be this cruel, each of us has the capacity for kindness and cruelty whether we like this fact or not. We have a dark and a light side to our personalities and most of our mundane lives we never have to get in touch with the dark side. Teaching a small group on Saturday we explored very briefly where we may go to if our very survival, and that of our loved ones, depended upon our actions. It is a dark place indeed, or it could be as for most of us it remains eternally, thankfully, hypothetical. For Salamo Arouch, once he passed through those gates bearing the legend ‘Arbecht Macht Frei’, that darkness became a reality. Tattooed number 136954 he became a plaything of those in power who was forced to destroy others like himself to survive.
Last week I got gloved up, did a bit of sparring, I have fought for real, many times, never in the ring and never knowing that to lose meant to be led away to die and to win meant just a few more days of life. Sometimes we learn things that simply amaze and inspire us and sometimes the nature of the lesson is disturbing. Salamo Arouch died a free man in Israel in 2009 aged 86 leaving behind a wife, he met in Belson whilst searching for his family, and four children.