A Fight for Memory: Monument Honors Sinti Boxer Murdered by the Nazis

By Siobhán Dowling

Johann Trollmann was a young boxing star when the Nazis came to power. The highpoint of his career should have been winning the light-heavyweight title in June 1933. But Trollmann was a Sinti and he was soon stripped of his title. Before long, he would fall victim to the Nazi genocide.

It seems an odd place for a boxing ring -- nestled beneath a canopy of trees in a quiet corner of Viktoria Park in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. The structure is made of concrete, its base slopes steeply in one direction and a dozen concrete spherical objects resembling boxing gloves cling to the ropes. But what's it doing here?

Nearby, a plaque bearing a photograph of a handsome young man in boxing gloves clears up any confusion. The ring amid the trees is a temporary memorial dedicated to Johann Trollmann, a boxer who was stripped of his light-heavyweight title by the Nazis in 1933 after winning a fight just a stone's throw away on Fidicin Strasse. There was no place for a champion like Trollmann in the Third Reich -- he was a Sinti. And like half a million other Roma and Sinti, he would fall victim to the Nazis' racial policy of annihilation, dying in a concentration camp in 1944.

The steep slope of the sculpture, says Alekos Hofstetter, a member of Bewegung Nurr, the group of artists who designed the boxing ring memorial, depicts "the abyss that Trollmann was dragged into."

Far from being just a static memorial, however, the site, unveiled on June 9, the 77th anniversary of Trollmann's title victory, has been the stage for a series of talks and concerts this summer. Workshops for local young people have highlighted Trollmann's life and the persecution of the Sinti and Roma -- referred to as "gypsies" by the Nazis -- in the Third Reich. The name of the memorial is simply "9841," Trollmann's concentration camp prisoner number.

Snubbed over Skin Color

Born in 1907 near Hanover, Trollmann's official German name was Johann but his family and friends knew him as Rukeli, derived from the word for tree in the Romany language. He started training at the tender age of eight and was soon competing with the Heros Hanover boxing club.

Even prior to the Nazis' rise to power, he fell victim to racism when the selection committee for the 1928 Olympic Games snubbed him in favor of a fighter he had recently beaten. In response, Trollman moved to Berlin and turned professional. The money was good and winning, not skin color, was the only thing that mattered.

His fame quickly grew into the early 1930s, and he became known for his "dancing" style; his good looks turned him into something of a heartthrob. Hofstetter claims Trollmann was "one of the inventors of modern boxing." His agile, dynamic style coupled with technical proficiency made him a precursor to Muhammad Ali. Yet as the Nazis gained popularity he was increasingly lambasted in the rabid right-wing press, who dubbed him the "gypsy in the ring."

Once they secured political power in 1933, the Nazis were quick to take control of a sport which had become hugely popular in the Weimar Republic. New leisure time resulting from the introduction of shorter working hours after World War I had created an instant audience for mass spectator sports. And while it was regarded as a quintessentially proletarian pursuit, boxing mega-stars like Max Schmelling also attracted bourgeois fans and celebrities such as Bertolt Brecht and actor Hans Albers to the stands.

Banned from the Sport

The Nazi takeover had an immediate effect on the boxing world, with party members taking up positions as top officials in the federation and Jews were immediately banned from the sport. A ban on Roma and Sinti would soon follow.

Hitler was hugely enthusiastic about the sport, says Roger Repplinger, author of a semi-fictional account of Trollmann's life "Leg dich, Zigenuer" (Lie down, Gypsy). "Only two sports were mentioned in 'Mein Kampf,' jujitsu and boxing," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Hitler regarded the sport as a virtue and that made it important to the Nazis." The SS and soldiers trained in boxing and it was taught in schools, though the English-based word Boxen was replaced by Faustkampf, or fist fight. "For a nation that was being prepared for war," Repplinger explains,"boxing was seen as very useful."

"In the end, it was because the Nazis saw boxing as noble that Rukeli lost his title," he argues. That title fight on June 9 was both the highlight of Trollmann's career and the turning point.

He and his opponent Adolf Witt fought 12 rounds at the Bock Brewery on Fidicin Strasse. Trollmann was clearly the better fighter and should have won on points. But the Nazi officials at the match pressured the jury into a draw. There was instant uproar in the crowd and things threatened to turn nasty.

"This was an audience that knew about boxing and could see that the match was being manipulated for political ends," Sophia Schmitz, a historian of boxing in this period, explains. "The crowd was definitely not prepared to take part in this kind of manipulation based on racism." Fearing for their safety, the jury relented and Trollmann, weeping with frustration at almost having had victory snatched from him, was triumphantly awarded the title belt.

His victory would be short lived. A few days later he was notified that his title was being withdrawn because of his "unsatisfactory performance."

Fighting for Dignity

What followed was both a farce and, in some ways, a moral victory for Trollmann. He was forced to fight another big match on July 21, against Gustav Eder. But this time he was ordered to fight in the "German style," which meant standing still and trading blows. Trollmann knew that he was sure to lose if he had to forego his lightfootedness, so he decided to make his mark in another way. He powdered his body white with flour and dyed his hair blond -- becoming the caricature of an Aryan. When he entered the ring that night he wasn't fighting to win, but to maintain his dignity.

"After losing his championship title it was absolutely clear to him that he was done as a boxer under the Nazis," says Schmitz. She sees his last major appearance as a statement: "'I will not allow myself to be discredited as a Sinti, I will make a mockery of this racist description of the dancing gypsy and instead I will play the Aryan sport boxer.'"

Hounded out of the sport, Trollmann struggled to make ends meet in the 1930s and often went into hiding to avoid being sent to the new "gypsy camps," where the Nazis gathered Roma and Sinti before transporting them to concentration camps. He divorced his wife, a non-Sinti, to protect her and their daughter. Then the war started and Trollmann was called up and fought until 1942, when all Roma and Sinti were discharged from the Wehrmacht. The once famous boxer was soon arrested and sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg.

He tried to keep a low profile, but the camp commandant had been a boxing official before the war and recognized Trollmann. He forced the fighter, terribly weakened by the punishing work and lack of food, to train the SS men at night. His very survival was at stake.

The prisoners committee decided to act. They faked his death and managed to get him transferred to the adjacent camp of Wittenberge under an assumed identity. But there too, the former star was soon recognized and the prisoners organized a fight between him and Emil Cornelius, a former criminal and hated Kapo -- one of the prisoners given privileges for taking on responsibilities in the camp. Inevitably Trollmann won and Cornelius soon sought revenge for his humiliation. He forced Trollmann to work all day until he was exhausted. He then beat him to death with a shovel. Trollmann was just 36 years old.

Something to Be Proud Of

Silvio Peritore of the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg says that Trollmann's fate was typical of so many of his people under the Nazis. "When you see how he suffered: banned from his profession, ostracized, disenfranchized, finally sent to a concentration camp and murdered. It is an example of the entire holocaust of the Sinti and Roma," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Peritore explains that young people are particularly interested in Trollmann's biography when they come to the documentation center on school trips. "He embodied the sporting spirit and he was a brave person." They respect the way he stood up to the Nazis and "can identify with him."

While the Trollmann memorial is in Berlin only temporarily before moving on to other cities, he will get a permanent memorial in Berlin this Thursday in the form of a Stolperstein, a "stumbling block." These mini-memorials are small bronze squares honoring individual victims of the Nazis and placed in sidewalks around the country. Artist Gunter Demnig will place Trollmann's Stolperstein outside the former brewery in Kreuzberg where the title fight took place. A permanent memorial to the murdered Sinti and Roma of Europe is set to be constructed between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate later this year, after almost two decades of delays.

Peritore says the the memorial is vital for the community, explaining that the genocide inflicted by the Nazis has had a huge impact on the identity of Roma and Sinti people in Germany. "In every family people were murdered. In my own family we lost many relatives in Auschwitz and an appreciation of our dead is very important for our self-image, for our identity," he says. "We have to sensitize people to the current forms of anti-Roma and Sinti prejudice."

Artist Hofstetter says that the Trollmann memorial is important for making the connection with discrimination today and for creating a positive image of Roma and Sinti people. "We are showing that this is a part of German culture. Trollmann was a champion and young Roma and Sinti can be proud of that."

The Trollmann memorial can be viewed in Viktoria Park until July 16. The ceremony to mark the unveiling of the Stolperstein for Johann Trollmann will take place at 3 FidicinStrasse on July 1 at 4:30 p.m. For more information (in German) go to http://www.trollmann.info/

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