Salamo Arouch Passes Away, 2009
Updated: Apr 29
On This Day in Jewish History: April 26, 2009
Salamo Arouch (born Salamon) was born in Thessaloniki, Greece in 1923. Arouch grew up in a Sephardic household, where his father encouraged his boxing in the middleweight class. Before the war, Arouch had won the amateur junior middleweight championships for Greece and the Balkans with a 24-0 record. His skilled footwork earned him the nickname “the Ballet Dancer.”
He was on his way to place on the Greek Olympic team when the Nazis invaded Greece in May 1943. When the Nazis entered Thessaloniki, they began to round up the city’s 47,000 Jews (⅓ of the city’s total population). Arouch and his family were among those rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. On May 15, 1943, Arouch, his parents and siblings arrived at Auschwitz, where his mother and 3 sisters were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
In 1989, Arouch was interviewed by the New York Times and recalled his experience of arrival: “My family and I arrived at Auschwitz at 6 in the evening. I was standing all night until the next day, naked.” As Arouch stood, waiting for orders, an officer called out, asking if anyone was a boxer or wrestler. Arouch raised his hand.
Because of his height of 5’6, the officer did not believe him. The officer drew a circle in the dirt and called on another prisoner to face Arouch. By the third round, the other prisoner was down. Thus began the first of Arouch’s 200+ fights that he would win at Auschwitz. Twice a week, on Wednesday and Sunday nights, Nazi commanders sat drinking in a warehouse as they placed their bets. Arouch was faced with fighting other prisoners, often bigger than him. Unlike in Greece where he was fighting for a title, he was now fighting for his very survival.
Those who became weak from fighting were shot. Arouch, who consistently won, was spared from the slave labor other prisoners were faced with and instead worked as a clerk. His father was a laborer in Auschwitz but soon grew weak and was sent to the gas chambers. His brother refused to pull the gold teeth from the dead and was shot. Arouch’s entire immediate family had died in Auschwitz. He was 1 of 2000 from his hometown to survive.
When the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, Arouch began to search for relatives and friends in other newly liberated camps. While in Bergen-Belson, he met Marta Yechiel, who happened to grow up in the same town as Arouch. They moved to the British Mandate of Palestine, and subsequently got married. In 1948, Arouch fought in the War of Independence and later created a shipping and moving business in Tel Aviv.
In 1988, Arouch returned to Auschwitz for 3 months as an advisor for the film based on his life, “Triumph of the Spirit” (1989), where he was played by Willem Dafoe. It was the first film shot on location at Auschwitz. In 1994, Arouch suffered from a stroke, and on April 26, 2009 Arouch passed away, having never fully recovered. Arouch was faced with impossible choices in the Holocaust, yet his will to live never wavered. May his memory always be a blessing.