I’m one of the first to put up their hands and say “WWII books and films are overdone”. But then you get a cracker that you just can’t resist sharing.
Champion: A German Boxer, a Jewish Assassin and Hitler’s Revenge by Stephen Deutsch
Dark-haired, slight, with deep-set haunted eyes, Herschel Grynszpan is an undocumented Jewish alien living in Paris. He receives a postcard from his parents – recently bundled from their Hanover flat, put on a train and dumped, with 12,000 others on the Polish border. Enraged, Herschel buys a gun and kills a minor German official in the German Embassy. The repercussions trigger Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in Germany and Austria, a calamity which some have called the opening act of the Holocaust.
Intertwined is the parallel life of the German boxer, Max Schmeling, who as a result of his victory over the then ‘invincible’ Joe Louis in 1936 became the poster boy of the Nazis. He and his movie-star wife, Anny Ondra, were feted by the regime – tea with Hitler, a passage on the airship Hindenburg – until his brutal two-minute beating in the rematch with Louis less than two years later. His story reaches a climax during Kristallnacht, where the champion performs an act of quiet heroism.
Look, I can tell you the usual about this book: it is very well written and researched; it is gripping; it really sucked me in. All that is true but what you really want to know is how it is different from any other book set around this era. Here’s what made Champion different for me.
For me, it was something different that Champion started in the mid-to-late 30s rather than in the crux of WWII. It provided me new insights into displacement and how discriminatory actions toward Jewish people were put into place bit by bit. Probably more so because of my ignorance than anything else but until now, I was more clued up from the point when people were beginning to be sent to concentration camps.
I’ve never really had an insight into Jewish people trying to get into Palestine before. It was both interesting and shocking to me how difficult it was for people who were not wealthy, despite the horrors all Jewish people were facing.
The story of Max Schmeling appealed to me. Before Champion, he was simply the guy the local sports hall was named after. At the beginning of the book, I wasn’t sure about him. Was he a Nazi or not? Then I learned about he saved two Jewish teenagers during the time around Kristallnacht and I realised he was a much more interesting figure than I originally thought. The inclusion of Max in Champion also reflected how politics often came into sport: Hitler saw Max as a shining emblem of Germany, Max’s refusal to fire his Jewish manager, how his fight against Joe Lewis conflicted people as they didn’t know who to cheer for, the black man or the Nazi.
Champion really went beyond my expectations when it comes to historical fiction. If you enjoy reading about this era but are tired of the same story being rehashed, pick up a copy and enjoy something new.
I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.