In A Nutshell
Salamo Arouch was a young Jewish boxer who was sent to Auschwitz after the Nazis invaded Greece. However, his skill in the ring saved him from the gas chambers. Arouch fought other prisoners in life-or-death boxing matches for the entertainment of their captors. Two years and over 200 matches later, Arouch was undefeated and still alive.
The Whole Bushel
If you saw Salamo Arouch, you might not peg him for a boxer. In his prime, he only stood 165 centimeters (5’5″) and weighed a puny 61 kilograms (135 lbs), not a big guy by any stretch of the imagination, but the man could move. He was light on his feet, and it was his dazzling footwork that won him his nickname, “The Ballet Dancer,” as well as the middleweight championship of Greece. Not only was Arouch fast, he was also built. When he wasn’t boxing, this young Jewish man spent his time working as a stevedore, hauling freight on the docks. However, Arouch’s life fell apart when the Nazis invaded Greece in 1941. His family was rounded up and sent to the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz where his mother and sisters were promptly murdered in the gas chambers. However, Arouch was spared thanks to a strange twist of fate.
After they were shaved and tattooed, the prisoners were introduced to the commandant who happened to be looking for boxers to entertain his men. After asking for volunteers, Arouch stepped forward, but the commandant was skeptical. Arouch was far too small to be a fighter, but just to make sure, the commander gave Salamo a pair of gloves and matched him up with another Jewish prisoner. Arouch dispatched him three rounds into the fight, and moments later gave a repeat performance, beating down a 1.8 meter (6 ft) tall Czechoslovakian inmate.
The commandant was duly impressed, and while most men were forced into hard labor, Arouch was assigned relatively easy duties and was given more food than most of the other prisoners in the camp. After all, he had to stay fit and healthy since he had to fight at least twice a week. The matches were held in a warehouse and were eerily similar to gladiator battles. As Arouch fought his opponent, the SS men drank and placed bets on who would win. The Ballet Dancer was no doubt a favorite as he won almost every fight of his career. According to Arouch, he won a grand total of 200 matches and tied twice thanks to a bad case of dysentery. After knocking out his opponents, Arouch was given a loaf of bread which he shared with the men in his barracks, but most importantly, he was allowed to live. His competitors weren’t so lucky. Like the bloodthirsty Romans of old, the Nazis didn’t care for losers, and everyone Arouch knocked out was shot or gassed to death.
Arouch’s Auschwitz career lasted two long years before he was finally transferred to Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The Nazis at Belsen weren’t sports fans, and Arouch was forced into hard labor, but he only worked a few months before the Allies liberated the camp. Finally free, the weary boxer married another Holocaust survivor and eventually returned to the world of fisticuffs where he lost the first and only fight of his career. He would later go on to meet boxing legends like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, and even returned to Auschwitz in 1989 to consult on Triumph of the Spirit, a film based on his life. Arouch passed away in 2009, leaving behind a complicated legacy. With each victory, he lived a little longer, but for every win, he sent a man to the crematorium. Arouch was a man in hell, forced to make decisions that most will never face. Like the man himself said, “If I didn’t win, I didn’t survive.”