Salamo Arouch, a Greek-born Jewish boxer who survived the Auschwitz death camp in World War II by winning fight after fight against fellow prisoners, to the delight of Nazi guards who had placed their bets on him, died in Israel on April 26. He was 86.
His family announced the death to the newspaper Haaretz; no immediate cause was given, but they said he had never recovered from a stroke 15 years ago.
Mr. Arouchs literal fight for survival was the basis for the 1989 movie Triumph of the Spirit, directed by Robert M. Young, with Willem Dafoe playing the 5-foot-6, 135-pound boxer, who won hundreds of matches over two years at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in southern Poland.
By the age of 22, with a 24-0 record, Mr. Arouch had won the amateur junior middleweight championships for Greece and the Balkans, according to boxrec.com, an online boxing encyclopedia. Because of his fancy footwork, he was known as the Ballet Dancer.
The titles meant nothing when, in May 1943, the Germans marched into Mr. Arouchs hometown, Thessalonica, in northern Greece, and began rounding up its 47,000 Jews. About 2,000 would survive.
On May 15, 1943, after days crammed in a box car, Mr. Arouch along with his parents, three younger sisters and his brother arrived at Auschwitz.
His mother and sisters were immediately taken to the gas chambers.
My family and I arrived at Auschwitz at 6 in the evening, Mr. Arouch told The New York Times in 1989. I was standing all night until the next day, naked. The Nazis cleaned us with water, disinfected us, shaved our heads and put numbers on our forearms. His number: 136954.
Soon after, a camp commandant drove up in a large car, stepped out and asked if any of the prisoners were boxers or wrestlers. Mr. Arouch raised his hand.
The commander did not believe me because of my height, Mr. Arouch recalled.
The commander, he said, drew a ring in the dirt; another prisoner was brought forth; and in the third round the other prisoner went down for the count.
It was the first of more than 200 fights that Mr. Arouch would win, with only two draws, he said.
They were like cockfights, he said, staged every Wednesday and Sunday night in a smoke-filled warehouse, with the guards drinking and placing their bets.
The loser would be badly weakened, Mr. Arouch told People magazine in 1990, and the Nazis shot the weak.
As a winner, Mr. Arouch was spared slave labor; he worked as a clerk.
His father, a laborer, grew weak and was sent to the gas chamber.
His brother refused to pull gold teeth from the dead and was shot to death.
Salamon (he later dropped the n) Arouch was born in Thessalonica in 1923, into a Sephardic Jewish family in which most of the men were fishermen or stevedores. As a teenager, he worked as a stevedore.
He won his first amateur fight when he was 14.
After Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, Mr. Arouch began searching for relatives in other liberated camps.
While searching Bergen-Belsen, he met Marta Yechiel, a teenager from his hometown. They were relocated to Palestine, married and eventually had four children and 12 grandchildren.
Mr. Arouch fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. He later ran a shipping and moving company in Tel Aviv.
When Triumph of the Spirit was filmed on location at Auschwitz, Mr. Arouch returned there as a consultant.
It was a terrible experience, he told People magazine, recounting the moment he found the rubble of demolished crematoria. In my mind I saw my parents.
New York Times
May 4, 2009