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The Boxer's Story: Fighting for My Life in the Nazi Death Camps

The Boxer's Story: Fighting for My Life in the Nazi Death Camps

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The Boxer's Story: Fighting for My Life in the Nazi Death Camps

225 pagine
3 ore
Jul 11, 2012


Before 1940, Nathan Shapow, a young Latvian, had nothing more on his mind than enjoying his teenage years and becoming a champion boxer. But the Nazis’ systematic extermination of the Jews quickly put paid to his dreams. Soon he was to face a different sort of fight, where the prize for victory would be his life.

Escaping certain death time and time again, Shapow saw his youth disappear in the terror of the Ghettos and the horror of the camps. Fighting for his very existence for the simple reason of being Jewish, remarkably, he survived, fell in love and forged a new life in what was then British-controlled Palestine. There, he joined an underground military organisation and quickly became involved in the struggle to create a Jewish state.

Extraordinary and powerful, The Boxer’s Story is the inspiring true story of one man’s enduring fortitude.

Jul 11, 2012

Informazioni sull'autore

Nathan Shapow was born in Riga in the years of the Free Latvian Republic and survived various camps including Birkenau and Stuthoff. After the war he went to Palestine where he fought for the creation of Israel. He died age 96 on 25th May 2018.

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The Boxer's Story - Nathan Shapow




For more than sixty years I kept the secret, telling no one. Not Hela, my beloved wife, a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, nor our children Mike and Adina. I never breathed a word of it, not to those I loved most, or those who would have surely understood, my fellow concentration camp survivors, amongst them many of my closest friends in our adopted country, the United States.

I have always been open about the fact I killed as a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence and the young state’s battles with her neighbours, fighting the British, the Arabs of Palestine and their allies. Such is the collateral damage of any war. What I kept to myself until now was the day, long before I had seen Israel or America, when I committed murder; cold-blooded and premeditated murder.

Obersturmführer Hoffman was a self-important SS officer who took great delight in beating defenceless Jews in the Riga Ghetto. For some reason, I was amongst his favourite targets. Perhaps he could not stand to see my attitude, for I neither looked nor felt like the Nazi’s stereotype of the ‘racially inferior, degenerate Jew’. I was young, strong as an ox from years of football, swimming and boxing, and carried myself like an athlete. Though imprisoned in the Ghetto, a slave labourer, I was not cowed, despite being incarcerated in my home city by a foreign army which wanted nothing less than world domination and the ‘liquidation’ of the Jews. By October of 1941, just months after the Nazis came to Latvia, over 30,000 Jews had already been murdered. Those of us still alive had been selected to first serve the Nazis as slave labourers, before we joined the dead.

I had survived so far for the very same reason that Obersturmführer Hoffman loathed me with such passion. I was known as ‘Nachke’, a Shtarker, one of the so-called ‘strong ones’ in the Latvian Jewish Ghetto, strong from years of training as a boxer in the Jewish sporting organisation Maccabi and the Zionist Youth Movement Beitar. Before they could ‘eliminate’ all Baltic Jews, the Nazis used those of us they could as disposable slave labour, and my years of sport made me useful when it came to shifting lumber, breaking rubble, loading and unloading supply trains. But staying strong meant staying healthy – which, in the Ghetto, was possible only by way of stealing food.

The camp authorities provided us with bare subsistence rations, a daily quarter slice of bread and a ‘soup’ of lukewarm water flavoured with potatoes. It was hardly enough to live on, let alone to keep the strength required to work twelve-hour shifts of back-breaking physical labour, under the watchful eyes of German guards and Kapos – the lowest of the low, treacherous Jews and Latvians who policed the camps. They were prisoners themselves but, in return for informing on and beating inmates, received better rations than the rest of us, and gifts of alcohol and cigarettes. The Kapos were encouraged to be brutal in administering ‘discipline’ in the camps: many were criminals, rapists, murderers and sadists, released from Riga’s jails by the Gestapo and selected for their violent natures. They often seemed determined to prove themselves more brutal than their SS overseers.

Inmates who grew too weak to work at the speed demanded by our German masters would be shot on the spot: but to steal food could bring punishments ranging from a beating by the guards or Kapos to summary execution. When the Kapos reported me for stealing crusts of bread, it was Hoffman who ordered my punishment, often beating me himself. His weapon of choice was an SS favourite, a rod of iron encased in rubber, but I knew it was only a matter of time before he tired of me and put a gun to my head.

In that environment, with death an ever-present threat, my senses were heightened by my will to survive, sharpened as I watched and listened to the guards and Kapos, a watchfulness that gave me an advantage, as did my natural ear for languages. I spoke not only the native Latvian tongue sometimes known as Lettish, but also Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, a little English, and, like most Latvian Jews, good German. This was my secret weapon and I did not let my oppressors realise that I understood every word they said. Indeed, they thought their language was a mystery to Ghetto inmates, and freely discussed their plans in front of us.

On that fateful day, I knew Hoffman had decided to have done with me when I overheard him tell a fellow guard that I was stealing food from the mouths of German soldiers. That choice of words was telling, especially when he said that he intended to personally search my room in the Ghetto for contraband. I knew he meant to kill me. If he really wanted to have my room searched, he would have sent a guard or Kapo. No self-respecting Obersturmführer, an SS rank equivalent to that of Oberleutnant (‘senior Lieutenant’), would soil his well-manicured hands with such a lowly task, and Hoffman did not lack for self-respect. He was a preening, arrogant man, even for an SS officer, and would have thought it quite below his dignity to search an inmate’s room for food. I knew with perfect clarity that he was going to kill me … or so he thought. But I was not about to die without a fight, even though the odds were stacked heavily against me.

I comforted myself with the thought that Hoffman’s belief that Jews were spineless vermin, unable to resist the ‘Master Race’, prevented him from bringing guards or Kapos with him for security. It was to be one on one, though not exactly a fair fight. Only one of us, after all, was armed: my empty, Jewish hands against an SS Luger.

‘Raus,’ he snapped, ‘Du Juden Schwein.’ (‘Hurry, you Jewish pig.’)

Hoffman was dressed immaculately in his officer’s uniform, the SS insignia affixed to his shoulder, while I wore the paper-thin striped clothes of a prisoner, my light jacket emblazoned with the Star of David on the left breast, and on my back the word ‘Jude’ (Jew), prominently stretched across my shoulders, as was required of all Jews in the Ghetto. The Star of David, universal symbol of the Jews, marked us out as untermenschen, in fact, the very lowest of the ‘races’ in Nazi thought: an irony, as the Hebrew term for the Star, Magen David – The Shield of David – reflects the legend that King David bore the symbol into battle on his Shield. It was a proud emblem, and now adorns Israel’s flag, but the Nazis had perverted its meaning, and the yellow stars of the Ghetto uniform would not shield me from Hoffman’s gun.

‘Schneller, Schneller ihr dreck Juden!’ (‘Faster, faster, you Jewish scum!’)

The miserable weather, overcast and cold as rain fell from a sky the colour of ice, suddenly became a spectacle of beauty. The Rabbis say that those killed in the Holocaust died al kiddush Hashem – ‘for the sanctification of the divine name’ – but I was a fighter and, to me, to die at Hoffman’s hands would have been a terrible dishonour. I wanted more, more sky, more rain, more sun, more life: a life beyond the Ghetto, freedom and a family of my own in the Promised Land.

As Hoffman marched me down the narrow streets at double-time, towards the tiny cell that had become my home, pushing me with his gloved hand whenever my pace slowed, I mentally prepared myself to throw what would be the most important punch of my life. There would be no second in my corner, no referee or bell, no victory on points or by a technical knockout. I had to put him down fast and quietly or it was over.

We arrived at the house and he hustled me to my door, closing it behind him and sliding the bolt shut. I could smell his strong cologne in the tight, enclosed space as his lips curled back in a feral snarl and he began to unbutton his holster. This was the moment. Die like a coward or die as a warrior. I took a step towards him, moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, and as his hand closed round the handle of his pistol, I let my training take hold. With all my strength and skill, I threw a fast, round-arm left hook, the punch that made a legend of Joe Frazier.

Boxers learn early on that the round-arm left hook can be both a devastating blow when used correctly and an excellent ‘softener’, setting up a knockout punch. Thrown at close range, it comes outside the opponent’s field of vision and is difficult to defend against, even from a practised fighting stance. Reaching for his gun, Hoffman’s guard was down, both literally and figuratively. The SS were accustomed to us Jews being subservient and fearful, obeying their orders and never fighting back. He was not prepared for my assault. Though a strong man and trained soldier, Hoffman was softened by rich meals the likes of which I could only dream of, not to mention the officer’s reserve supply of vodka, schnapps and brandy. He was certainly no boxer, and my left hook was enough to stun him. I followed with a classic straight right, connecting with his chin, which had veered to the side from the force of my first punch, his mouth hanging open in shock and pain. I heard the crack of bone as Hoffman’s Aryan jaw broke.

Down he went, his gun sliding from his holster as he slumped to the stone floor. Where was the arrogant SS officer now? His ‘racial superiority’ must have deserted him, as he lay helpless, struck down by a Jew. This time he was the one to take a beating.

In another world, another time, I would have stepped back to my own corner, confident the referee would count him out. But this was no tournament, and the Marquis of Queensbury rules did not apply. There was no turning back. Had a Kapo or a German soldier passed by and stopped to investigate the noise, I would have been a dead man. If he recovered from my knockout blow I would not even live long enough to walk to the gallows in the infamous Blechplatz – ‘Tin Square’ – where many Jews had perished at the end of a hangman’s rope. Indeed, had he been able to fight me off long enough to reach his weapon or call for help, Hoffman might well have ordered not just my execution, but the death of all my friends. That was the usual Nazi response to resistance.

I could not use his weapon to finish him off, as the pistol’s report would have been loud enough to bring guards and Kapos running. In a frenzy, I looked around and grabbed a heavy wooden stool, hoisted it above my shoulders and steadied myself. I brought it down on his skull with all the power I could muster and heard, again, the cracking of bone. He died in an instant, his skull crushing inwards. It was a quicker death than he deserved, but a lucky one from my perspective, as very little blood was spilled.

I stood there for a second, regaining my breath and trying to accept what had just happened. I had killed my nemesis. He had come to murder me and I had turned the tables on him. But there was no time to take satisfaction in this victory; with every passing second the threat to my life grew. I forced myself to stay calm and think the situation through. It was early evening and everyone, Latvians, Germans, Jews alike, was out of the Ghetto on work detail. But they would soon be back. I had to dispose of the evidence.

I slipped quietly out through the door and looked up and down the damp cobbled streets: there was no one in sight. Short, stocky and strong as I was, I had no trouble lifting his inert body, hooking my arms under his shoulders and dragging him out of the house. Hoffman left a fitting monument to himself: a wet stain where he had voided his bowels as his brain caved in. I hauled him deep into the darkening streets, my ears alert for the slightest sound. I knew if I heard anyone approaching there would be no time to see if it was friend or foe. I would have to just drop the corpse where it was and disappear.

The further I took him away from my room the calmer I felt. At last, without ceremony or sympathy, I dumped him in a doorway several streets away.

Except for the distant rumble of an old tram car, it was silent as twilight spread through the Ghetto streets. The beating of my heart gradually returned to normal as a cooling rain washed sweat from my brow. Then I froze. His cap. His bloody cap. What had happened to his bloody peaked cap?

Forcing myself to keep a normal, walking pace – prisoners did not run in the Ghetto – I turned back towards the house. I was almost shaking when I burst into my room and began a frantic search for the grey cap with its death’s head insignia. At that moment, it was every bit as much a lethal threat to me as Hoffman’s gun had been when he reached for it. And I could not see the wretched thing at first.

There. When he crashed to the ground, the hat had, naturally, fallen and rolled, coming to rest behind the cupboard. I grabbed it, stuffed it inside my shirt, and hastily checked that the coast was still clear. Off I went, and as soon as I reached a deserted corner I tossed it out into the night, like a kid skimming stones on the surface of the Baltic.

Once again, I drew a deep breath and set off for home, my mind racing at the enormity of what I’d done. But there were no regrets. It had been the starkest and most straightforward of choices: his life or mine. I had killed for the first time.

It would not be the last.

Back in my room, I cleaned away all remnants of the Obersturmführer. The little blood he’d lost was quickly wiped away with an old rag, which I then stuffed onto the smouldering fire in the grate, watching it flame and vanish. I hadn’t realised just how much we’d bounced around in that small room. The few sticks of furniture were scattered across the floor and, on close examination, my three-legged stool, which had served so ably as a bludgeon, bore blood, skin and even hair on the edge that had struck Hoffman. I wiped the stool and rubbed it in the dirt to cover the traces of Hoffman’s remains. I straightened everything else up as best I could, but a small bloodstain remained on the floor. It was noticeable to me, but the floor was old, filthy and covered in stains. I hoped and prayed that no one else would recognise it.

I kept the gun that he had planned to kill me with, and hid it, along with the ammunition, in our secret cellar. The door was concealed beneath a heavy cupboard, which normally required two pairs of hands to shift. In the past, I had been able to move it by myself, with effort. That day, it was easier than usual. The adrenalin was still flowing.

The gun joined our secret cache of contraband – stolen food, vodka, and other luxury items that we ‘strong ones’ had stolen, scavenged or bartered for in the Ghetto’s black market. With our puny official rations, everything had its value, and the gun could be useful in our ongoing struggle. At first I thought that hiding it alongside the bottles and cans presented no extra risk – if the Germans came this close to discovering who had murdered Hoffman, they would have killed me in an instant. There would be no trial. The Ghetto did not enjoy the rule of law.

I was about to leave the dark, damp cellar when I realised that the gun would stick out like a sore thumb amongst our other treasures, prompting questions from the handful of people in my group who knew of our store. As much as I trusted them, who could tell what they might reveal under interrogation, or even torture? Why take the chance? The fewer people who knew, the less danger I faced, and if I kept both the gun and Hoffman’s death to myself, then, I thought, there would be no risk at all. Time would show how wrong I was in this respect.

At that moment, all I could do was to hide the gun inside my private ‘safe’ – no bank vault, but a narrow space in the floor, beneath a couple of loose bricks. I lifted them out and, after studying the weapon closely, stroking and caressing it like a pet dog, I slid it into the hole, replaced the bricks and scattered dirt around their edges.

I had made two serious mistakes, and realised them just in time. A third could kill me. With Hoffman’s body and hat disposed of and his gun hidden from Jews and guards alike, I made my way out into the night. It was fully dark now, and freezing. I shivered from both the cold and the terrifying thoughts of what might easily have happened if my first punch had not caught Hoffman cold, had a Kapo happened by and heard the struggle, had my luck not held as I got rid of the body.

It could – and by all laws of probability, it should – have been me lying dead with a bullet in my brain. Instead, it was that Nazi bastard. He would kill no more Jews. I began to relax a little as I joined up with a group of my fellow Jewish workers heading home, my head down, my collar high around my neck. If anyone noticed my sudden, strange

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