Ten minutes into a recent private screening of Triumph of the Spirit, the story of a Jewish prizefighter’s struggle for survival in a Nazi concentration camp, four members of the audience stood up from their seats and quietly filed out of the theater. The walkout was more a tribute than a protest: The four were survivors of the death camps, overcome by the realism of what they were seeing onscreen.
Stronger, perhaps, was one who stayed to watch. It was the stocky man in a middle row whose own story was being portrayed by actor Willem Dafoe. And it was this man, Salamo Arouch, who would pay the film its highest accolade. “Last night I could not sleep at all,” he said haltingly on the bright L.A. afternoon that followed. “It happened just that way.”
Arouch’s entire family perished in Hitler’s camps, along with all but about 2,000 of the 47,000 Greek Jews who were uprooted from their homes in Salonika by a sweep of Nazi occupiers. But it was the unusual story of Arouch’s survival in the camps that led to what Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of L.A.’s Simon Wiesenthal Center, calls “the most authentic and moving film on the Holocaust I’ve ever seen.”
Born in 1923 to a Salonika stevedore who taught him to box as a boy, Arouch at 17 was crowned light-middleweight champion of the Balkans and seemed destined for a successful career as a prizefighter. Instead, two years later, in the summer of 1943, the boy, his family and neighbors were herded into boxcars headed for Poland’s Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. At the journey’s desolate end, “I saw a friend who had arrived before me,” he says.” ‘Where are the others?’ I asked. He said, ‘They are dead. All gassed and burned.’ We thought he was crazy.”
After being hosed down, body-shaved and tattooed on the forearm with an identifying number, Arouch was driven with whips and dogs to the camp’s center, where a brawny SS officer suddenly asked if there were any boxers among the new arrivals. Pushed forward by friends who knew his prowess, the 5’6″ Arouch was inspected by the commandant, a passionate boxing buff known for staging bouts between prisoners. “Are you willing to fight right now?” he asked.
“I was very scared. I was exhausted from being up all night and not eating,” recalls Arouch, “but I said yes.”
Arouch won that fateful round against a hapless Polish Jew, and from that time until the evacuation of Auschwitz in January 1945, he would win roughly 200 times again in the Nazi’s appalling blood sport. The rules at the matches, often preceded by juggling Gypsies and dancing dogs, were always the same: “We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching,” says Arouch. “They wouldn’t leave until they saw blood.”
Bunking with a dozen other fighters whose ranks were periodically thinned to make way for fresher, stronger men, Arouch won extra rations and lightened work details as “compensation” for the brutal fight schedule. Yet there was a stronger incentive for fighting well. “The loser would be badly weakened,” he says. “And the Nazis shot the weak.”
In the rest of Auschwitz, “each day was living hell,” says Arouch. “Prisoners worked from 4 A.M. until nightfall. They were constantly beaten with sand-filled rubber hoses and forced to work in the snow with the flimsiest clothing. Many were Poles who had lived nearby. When they tried to escape, the SS hunted them down with dogs and hung them where everyone would see. Once we had to watch 10 men die by hanging. One at a time.” So inhuman were the conditions, he says, that “to each other, we never said, ‘Goodnight.’ Only ‘Sleep.’ For many, it was better to be dead than to endure another day of suffering.”
But for a year and a half, forced to fight everyone from fellow prisoners to German soldiers, Arouch did endure, and finally, on Jan. 17, 10 days before the arrival of the liberating Soviet Army, Auschwitz was evacuated. Several months later, looking for relatives at newly liberated Bergen-Belsen, Arouch found instead 17-year-old Marta Yechiel, also from Salonika, who had barely survived a severe beating by a Nazi guard. Arouch nursed her back to health, emigrated to Israel with her and soon after, in November 1945, made her his wife.
After the war Arouch, now 66, the father of four and grandfather of 12, settled in a Tel Aviv suburb, where he owns a successful international moving company. Only a year ago, serving as an on-location consultant for Triumph, did he have occasion to return to Auschwitz. “It was a terrible experience,” he says, recounting the moment he found the rubble of demolished crematoria. “In my mind I saw my parents and began weeping. I cried and cried and could not sleep.”
Despite the painful memories it evokes, Triumph of the Spirit has also brought Arouch to a kind of peaceful resolution. “What kept me alive was a burning determination to someday tell the world what I saw at Auschwitz,” he says softly. “I am sure I had moments when I wanted to die. But being here now to tell what happened makes me feel good about being alive.”
—Susan Schindehette, Jack Kelley in Los Angeles, Mira Avrech in Tel Aviv