The big man stood in the middle of the yard, where the guards had set up a boxing ring in the mud. In front of him a thin, smaller, muscled man kept the boxing gloves up to try and defend his tiny frame from the wide arm of his opponent. All around them, the guards and the officials and the prisoners watched this strange show.
The field possessed a geometrical order. The commander’s headquarter, the guardians’ towers, the barracks where the Jews lived, gave the lager of Monowitz the ordered aspect of a modern factory. Except for the fact that the material to use were people imprisoned in there. Millions of Jews passed through the gates and died during the year the camp was open.
A perfectly organized industry of death, run by people hired to do that job, as though it was any other job.
The Nazis held a special respect for the famous people. The commander of Monowitz, one of the lagers orbiting around Auschwitz, Heinrich Schwartz, loved boxing and was especially happy when some previously famous boxer fell into his hands. So, when he learnt that Victor Perez, called “young”, had arrived, he did not lose the chance to make him enter in his team of slaves-athletes.
Victor was born in Tunisi from a Jewish family, since his youth he was fascinated by boxing. Hos brother was a good boxer and helped him get into the professional activity. At the Maccabi Tunis, the local Jeiwish team for the young, Victor soon emerged with his talent and quickly rose in the world classify to fight for the highest category.
Victor became world champion at 18 in 1931, in the flyweight category, beating Frankie Genaro in Paris. He was the youngest world champion of all time in 1931, so the fans nicknamed him “young”. In an instant, he became a sort of king. The Bey of Tunis called him to triumphally return to the city where 100000 people cheered him. All at once, the novel World Champion was thrown in a world of parties, actresses, joys, that slowed him and prevented him from getting more victories.
A typical story, that we have seen in plenty of movies. He still managed to stay at the top for years, losing against Panama Al Browm and Jackie Brown (not related), but winning a lot of bouts and building a solid reputation. Though he was born in Tunisi, he loved Paris, and this love for the city, and for Mdeleine Balin, lost him, because he never decided to leave France, as he could have done, and returned to Paris a short time before Nazi Germany invaded France.
In 1943 Victor refused to obey a law that required all the Jews to present themselves at the police and was soon arrested. The SS loaded him on a train in the direction of Auschwitz where he was destined to the camp led by Commandant Schwartz.
And here he had to fight almost every day for his life and to make the commander’s life more enjoyable. A group of fighters had to climb on a ring built in the camp at least twice a week. In order to do this, they could work in the kitchens and have some more food to keep themselves up. There, Victor met Primo Levi, the author of “if this is a man”, one of the most representative books about the Holocaust, and the swimmer Alfred Nakache.
The commander liked very much to pit the boxer against bigger opponents: guards, German soldier boxers from the Navy or the army that were passing near and wanted to prove themselves against a world champion. Victor crossed all the borders of brutality to stay alive, finding always a bit of humanity in himself. Once he was sent to a small cell filled up with mice because he brought food to a friend.
In a way, he never gave up. Compared to others, he was lucky. A bit more food, the exclusion from the gas showers, from the job in the plastics factory. But in order to have this, he had to put his body every day against bigger opponents, like this guard, a middleweight, or more, who tried to hit him and to kill.
A hostile crowd surrounded them. Soldiers, guards, officials, all supported the big man who should have killed the small Jew. Unless, the small possessed an anger in himself, a bestial, an animal instinct to survive, that kept him miraculously alive. He was able to dance around and to hit the face of the big man without giving the time to react.
When he saw his man was not able to win, commander Schwartz stopped the bout to avoid a humbling defeat. Victor returned to the barrack, we don’t know what he did, what the prisoners knew about him. He must have gone to the kitchen to work and see around him the humanity condemned to a terrible death.
The Soviets freed Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. But Victor had already gone in a march with 1350 prisoners, Alfred Nakache among them, to Buckenwald. They walked in the snow for four days. Only 47 arrived, and Victor was not among them. Some say he was killed by a guard he had beaten. Others, that a soldier shot him with a rifle while he was trying to help a friend. We don’t know with certainty.
Victor was one of millions of Jewish victims of the Nazi madness. His story owns something even madder: in the middle of the tragedy, the ones who killed every day thought of having fun by using these victims as a form of distraction. While children died every day, Victor and Nakache, “the swimmer of Auschwitz”, could survive by doing what they could do better, setting themselves aside from a quick death, but looking in the eyes of the ones who regarded the Jews as nothing but rubbish to free the world from.
This is why every year on the 27th of January, the day the Soviets freed the Auschwitz camp, we stop for a moment to remember. And we as a sport page, do it by remembering a specific story of those days, that, with its hallucinated mix tragedy and sport, shows us a corner of the folly where we hope we’ll never fall again.