Johann Trollmann and Romani Resistance to the Nazis, by Jud Nirenberg, Win by KO Publications, 222 pp, $24.95, ISBN: 9780990370376
Neuengamme may not be the best known of the many concentration camps set up by the Nazi regime, but more than 100,000 slave workers were held there and in its eighty-seven sub-camps during the Second World War. Those slaves had been imprisoned for a variety of reasons: for their political or religious beliefs; for their ethnic or racial origins; and for their sexual orientation. There were also a small number who had been sent there for criminal offences.
The 55,000 individuals who died or were murdered in the Neuengamme network of camps include Sergei Nabokov, the gay younger brother of the celebrated novelist; Rein Boomsma, the Dutch Resistance leader and a former international soccer star; and Fritz Pfeffer, a Jewish dentist who had hidden with Anne Frank and her family in an attic in Amsterdam.
A relative of mine also died in one of Neuengamme’s sub-camps. He was one of thirty-two Irish seamen who had been captured on Allied merchant ships. They had all refused to join the German war effort and were subsequently forced to work in the construction of an enormous fortified bunker that was designed to accommodate a new type of U-boat. My cousin died soon after a surgical procedure had been performed on him without sterilised instruments, or any form of anaesthetic, in one of the camp huts.
One of the most remarkable of the tens of thousands who suffered and died in the Neuengamme camps was a young man called Johann Trollmann. His harrowing story has now been told in a new book by Jud Nirenberg. Trollmann was a member of Germany’s small Sinti community ‑ a Romani people which had been settled in that country since the fifteenth century. From an early age, he displayed outstanding skills as a boxer, and, by the end of the 1920s, he had won several regional championships.
Trollmann had also encountered racist attitudes. At that time, there was supposed to be a distinctly German style of boxing. It was not considered männlich for German boxers to duck and dive from an opponent. Instead they were taught to stand their ground while exchanging blows. Trollmann’s fighting technique was very different. He danced around the ring, and this agility was viewed by some as evidence of his exotic “gypsy” character. He was even described in the pages of the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter as boxing jüdisch ‑ “like a Jew”.
In 1928, Trollmann had seemed to have a good chance of representing Germany at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. However, the national boxing officials disliked his “non-German” style of fighting, and he was not included in their selection. That only seems to have strengthened his resolve. In 1929 he turned professional, and won a string of bouts. His good looks and graceful style soon caught the attention of the public in an era when professional boxers could become popular celebrities. Trollmann enjoyed the spotlight, and he attracted many female admirers. Indeed, according to Nirenberg, German women had not turned up to watch boxing bouts in any significant numbers until Trollmann came along.
For obvious reasons, his ethnic origins did not endear him to the Nazis. However, the first targets for their racist policies were not Sinti but Jews. In 1933, the German light-heavyweight boxing champion was Erich Seelig. When the Nazis came to power in January of that year, they set about “Aryanising” all German sporting organisations, and the exclusion of non-Aryan sportsmen and women began. As a Jew, Seelig was expelled from the new boxing association in April of 1933. Soon afterwards he made his way to the USA. Johann Trollmann was one of the leading contenders for the title that Seelig had left behind.
On June 9th, 1933, Trollmann fought Adolf Witt in Berlin for Germany’s national light-heavyweight championship. Witt was presented to the public as a pure-blooded Aryan, while Trollmann was dubbed a “dancing gypsy” by the German press. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had praised boxing for its “spirit of attack”, and its need for “lightning decisions” and “steely dexterity”. He took a personal interest in Trollmann’s fight and was confident that Witt’s victory would demonstrate the innate physical superiority of the Aryan race.
Georg Radamm, the chairman of the German boxing association ‑ the governing body that had been set up by the Nazis ‑ was in the audience for the fight. Radamm was a fervent national socialist but by the end of the bout it was clear to him that Trollmann had won. To prevent that result, he instructed the judges to declare that the fight had failed to produce a clear winner. However, the audience that night were boxing fans, and they were not prepared to accept a verdict that was palpably unfair. After half-an-hour of raucous protests, the judges were compelled to reveal their scorecards ‑ which showed that Trollmann had won an overwhelming victory ‑ and he was awarded the title. Trollmann had wept with frustration at the initial result. His subsequent joy at being declared the winner was to prove short-lived.
A few days after the fight, he was informed that the German boxing association had decided that the light-heavyweight title should not be awarded to either boxer ‑ since both of them had shown “insufficient effort” in the ring. The tears that Trollmann had shed were also deemed by the Nazi authorities to be “disgraceful” and evidence of “pathetic behaviour” on his part. A new title fight was scheduled for the following month. This time the opponent was a boxer from a different weight called Gustav Eder ‑ and it seemed clear to Trollmann that the outcome of this fight had been determined in advance.
That may explain why he entered the ring looking like a caricature of the Nazis’ Aryan ideal ‑ with his hair dyed blonde and with white powder covering his face and body. This was clearly a calculated and spectacular act of defiance of the new regime. Trollmann had been warned before the fight that he would lose his boxing licence if he did not abandon his usual “non-German” style of fighting. As a result, he stood toe-to-toe with Eder, trading punches in the centre of the ring. It was an approach that suited Eder ‑ who could hit very hard ‑ and Trollmann was knocked out in the fifth round. This marked the effective end of his boxing career, since his licence was revoked the next year by the German association.
Trollmann spent the following years earning a precarious living by boxing at fairs and in poorly paid labouring jobs. In 1935, he married a woman who was classified as Aryan by the Nazi regime. However, the repression of the Sinti community greatly increased following the extension of the Nuremberg racial laws to include “gypsies” in November of that year. Those laws forbade marriage or sexual unions between Aryans and non-Aryans. Nirenberg believes that Trollmann divorced his wife in 1938 in order to protect her and their daughter from the risk of future persecution.
Nazi ideology placed a great deal of emphasis on the notion of physical perfection. Indeed, athletic ability was made a criterion for school graduation and entrance to universities. Given that, it is not surprising that the Nazis believed that German sportsmen and women could play an important public role. Nirenberg cites and contrasts some individual cases of athletes who became ensnared by the Nazis’ racial preoccupations. One of these was Hélène Mayer, who had won an Olympic gold medal as a fencer while she was still a teenager. Mayer looked like an archetypal Aryan princess: tall, blonde and blue-eyed. But her father was a Jew. In 1932 she won a state scholarship to study in Los Angeles. While she was in the USA, her scholarship was terminated because of her Jewish background and she lost her German citizenship.
Despite that, she was determined to represent Germany in the 1936 Olympics. After intensive lobbying from the American Olympic Committee, the German sports ministry was prepared to accept that Mayer’s Jewish ancestry was remote. She went along with that fiction and it allowed her to become the sole member of the German Olympic team to have any known Jewish connection. She was also the only member of that team who was not a German citizen. To her evident dismay, Mayer only won a silver medal. Nonetheless, she stood on the winners’ podium beside the gold medallist ‑ a Jewish woman from Hungary ‑ wearing a swastika badge and giving the Nazi salute. Despite this public display of acquiescence, her German citizenship was never restored by the Nazis, and some of her close relatives were murdered in Auschwitz. Mayer returned to Germany after the war and settled in Munich, where she died in 1953.
Other Jewish athletes were not allowed the same opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games. Gretel Bergmann held the German national record for the high jump. However, the sports ministry simply removed that achievement from the record books and she was not selected for the Olympic squad. Her rightful place on that team was taken by an athlete called Dora Ratjen, who was later revealed to have been a male transvestite. Like Seelig, Bergmann was able to find refuge in the USA. In an interview given in April of this year – when she celebrated her 102nd birthday – she said she would “never, never, never” forgive the Nazis for denying her the chance to compete in the Olympics.
Max Schmeling did not encounter any difficulties in being accepted as a genuine Aryan champion. In fact, the Nazi government promoted the heavyweight as the sort of heroic German athlete who could defeat any foreign opponent. Schmeling’s perception of himself was more modest. He arrived in New York in 1936 to fight an African-American: the “Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis. Schmeling was asked by one American reporter if he believed that black men had less courage than whites. “In sport,” he replied, “the Negro and the white man are just the same.”
Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda urged all patriotic Germans to listen to the radio broadcast of Schmeling’s fight, which, they were informed, would prove “the hegemony of the white race”. When Schmeling beat Louis, Goebbels was exultant, and cabled that the victory was a racial as well as a sporting triumph. Two years later, Schmeling was defeated by Louis in the first round of the rematch. There was no cable from Goebbels. Schmeling may have been portrayed as a poster boy for the Nazis, but, in reality, he did not share their racist views. Following the antisemitic pogroms launched on Kristallnacht in 1938, he helped Jews to escape from Nazi Germany at considerable risk to himself, and, when Joe Louis died in 1981 Schmeling was one of those who carried his coffin.
Following the outbreak of war in 1939, the Nazis deemed that the Sinti ‑ unlike the Jews ‑ were liable for military service. Trollmann was drafted into the German army and subsequently served in France and Poland. In 1941, he was wounded in action on the eastern front. The following year, the German high command issued a directive that all Sinti and other Romani were to be removed from the Wehrmacht for “racial-political reasons”, and Trollmann was discharged from the army “with dishonour”. Later that year, the SS Reichsführer, Heinrich Himmler, ordered that all those with “gypsy blood” were to be sent to concentration camps. Trollmann was arrested by the Gestapo in June 1942, and in October he was sent to the main labour camp at Neuengamme.
This camp manufactured bricks and was run by the SS as a commercial enterprise. Its commandant was an SS Standartenführer called Max Pauly, who was hanged by the British after the war. In 1942, Pauly’s deputy at the main camp was SS Oberführer Lutkemeyer ‑ by all accounts a sadist and a mass murderer. Before the war Lutkemeyer had acted as a boxing referee. He recognised Trollmann, and assigned him to teach the SS guards some of his boxing skills. Trollmann was already in a weakened state ‑ due to malnutrition, frequent beatings and illness ‑ but it seems the guards enjoyed sparring with a famous boxer whom they were able to knock down. After some months in the main Neuengammme camp, Trollmann was transferred to one of its sub-camps at Wittenberge. This was a much larger camp, but conditions were thought to be somewhat easier. It was there that he fought for the last time.
It was not unusual for the SS guards in labour camps to stage boxing bouts between the inmates. The winners were often rewarded with an extra ration of bread, and the prisoners would fight with a passion that was born of hunger and despair. In one of these contests, Trollmann was matched with a “kapo” called Emil Cornelius. Kapos were prisoners who were given certain privileges in return for helping the SS guards run the camps. They were mainly recruited from German inmates, and they often applied the camp rules with even greater brutality than the SS.
Cornelius was a German criminal who had been imprisoned since 1936. He was also regarded as one of the most vicious of all the kapos in Wittenberge. Despite his weakened state, Trollmann was still able to knock Cornelius out in a makeshift ring. It proved to be his final triumph. Some days later, Cornelius attacked Trollmann with a shovel and beat him to death. When he died, on March 9th, 1944, Johann Trollmann was just thirty-six years old. As it happens, my cousin died in the same week in another of Neuengamme’s sub-camps. After the war, Cornelius was tried by the British for war crimes – though not for the murder of Trollmann. He served fourteen years in prison, and was released in 1961.
It is difficult to determine just how many members of the Romani peoples died in the Nazi genocides. However, it seems that between 500,000 and 1.5 million were murdered in the course of the Second World War. Large numbers of Romani were also sterilised ‑ since the goal of the Nazis was to eliminate their existence as a separate “race”. Despite that, memorials or even public mentions of the Sinti and Roma who died in the camps are few and far between. This may be caused, in part, by a lingering prejudice against the Romani peoples of Europe. Dreadful as their treatment by the Nazis may have been, it was not unprecedented in European history. In fact, as Nirenberg makes clear, there is a shameful record of the persecution of Romani that spans the continent and crosses many centuries.
The Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis after the war focused the world’s attention on the unspeakable atrocities committed against European Jewry. However, no Sinti or Roma were called to give evidence at Nuremberg of similar crimes ‑ the murders, the tortures, the hideous medical experiments ‑ which were also perpetrated against their communities. It was not until last year that the European Parliament finally established a European Roma Holocaust Day, but the pattern of exclusion continues. A few years ago, David Cameron established a National Holocaust Commission in the UK. It has twenty-six members, none of whom are Romani.
Not all of this neglect may be deliberate. Since the war ended, many Jewish survivors have written eloquent and affecting accounts of their suffering in concentration camps. Those accounts have helped to shape and define our understanding of the Nazi genocides. By contrast, there is an almost complete absence of written testimony from Romani survivors. That does not, of course, justify the apparent lack of respect for their horrific experiences. Nirenberg points out that just three pages are devoted to the Romani in more than two thousand pages of the magisterial Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust.
In that context, Trollmann has acquired a special resonance as a symbol of Romani defiance. In 2003 ‑ seventy years after the original fight ‑ the German boxing federation decided to recognise him officially as the winner of his championship encounter with Adolf Witt. In 2010, a memorial to Trollmann, produced by the artists’ collective Bewegung Nurr, was unveiled in Berlin. In 2013, Gibsy, a feature film based on Trollmann’s life, was released to critical acclaim. This year Dario Fo, the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize for literature, published Razzo di Zingaro (The Gypsy Rocket) a novel that is also based on Trollmann’s life.
Jud Nirenberg has not produced a scholarly book, but one that has been written with deep feeling and sympathy for its subject. That sympathy is hardly surprising since its author himself comes from the Roma community. He may, perhaps, be overdependent on anecdotal sources, but that could scarcely be otherwise given the Nazis’ wholesale destruction of documents relating to the operation of their camps – as well as the comprehensive neglect by European historians of the Romani genocide. It is difficult not to conclude that some part of this neglect derives from a degree of prejudice against the Romani peoples and a relative indifference to their fate.
In my own book about the Irish seamen held captive in the Neuengamme slave labour camps, I drew attention to some of the Nazis’ Irish victims who had been written out of our own narratives of the Second World War. I thought I had mentioned every ethnic and religious group enslaved in those dreadful camps. However, I failed to include the Sinti and Roma prisoners. For that, I stand corrected.
David Blake Knox is a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His book Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves was published in 2012 by New Island Books.