December 19, 2004

The quiet man

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No one ever put it together back then, the glowering Nazi monster and the friendly, smiling man behind the facade. No one, it would appear, but the good people of Ellenville.

A symbol had come to town that spring. It was 1938, and the symbol’s name was Max Schmeling, a German heavyweight fighter who for most Americans back then was as odious a figure as Osama bin Laden is to Americans today.

America was on the brink of war with Germany, and there was no more reviled a figure on the American sports scene than the beetle-browed German uebermensch.

Schmeling was in training at the Napanoch Country Club just outside of Ellenville, getting ready for his rematch with reigning heavyweight champion Joe Louis, a battle that some boxing fans still rate as the fight of the century.

It was a fight fraught with heavyweight symbolism. Louis was a black man in a popular sport, at a time when few blacks were allowed to excel publicly at anything. He was a sharecropper’s son, and the best fighter of his generation.

Schmeling was his apparent opposite – a German citizen whose dark and glowering visage seemed to embody the Tuetonic ideal favored by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. There were pictures of Schmeling standing politely next to the Fuhrer, and that’s all that most people needed to know about Max Schmeling back then.

Because he was also the only man to knock Louis out before he’d won the championship, Louis declared he wouldn’t feel like a true champion until he’d bested his nemesis. When the match was announced, the world stage was set for a battle of unparallelled symbolism: the black American sharecropper’s son vs. Hitler’s Aryan superman.

But it’s a funny thing about symbolic heroes and villains in war time. Nobody will ever naysay Louis’ greatness as a boxer. But the villain Schmeling is another story.

IN THOSE days, Sullivan and Ulster County’s many hotels and bungalow colonies were favored by fight managers who sent their proteges there for fresh country air, lots of good food and isolation.

So here was Max Schmeling, the arch-fiend of the Third Reich, training on the edge of the Jewish Alps, walking the springtime streets of Ellenville and … throwing out the first pitch of a semi-pro baseball game between Poughkeepsie and Ellenville teams.

”You know the guy had a Jewish manager?” says village and town historian John Unverzagt.

Not many people knew that then or now. Unverzagt, whose historian status is evident on the newspaper-plastered walls of his downtown barbershop, knows things about Schmeling no one reading the sports pages of 1938 would have suspected of the Nazi beast.

On periodic trips to the Shadowland theater, he liked to snack on salami-and-liverwurst sandwiches.

Somehow, the propaganda of the day didn’t have much effect on Schmeling’s reputation. Crowds at his sparring exhibitions were large and friendly, much like the man himself.

Unverzagt recalls that after the war, Schmeling began corresponding with a 10-year-old boy named Bob McDole.

”He sent him a card every year,” Unverzagt said. ”He just seemed like a friendly kind of guy.”

History would soon put that friendliness to the ultimate test, even as the German and American propaganda machines shifted into overdrive before The Big Fight.
DURING A PRE-FIGHT White House visit, President Franklin Roosevelt told Louis, ”Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.”

Nazi publicists said openly that a black man couldn’t hope to beat such a fine example of Aryan superiority as Schmeling.

And on a muggy June night, 70,000 fight fans croweded into Yankee Stadium to watch the black sharecropper’s son defend his title against Schmeling.

The fight lasted two minutes and four seconds. Louis knocked Schmeling to the canvas three times before the referee stopped the fight.

And there, for most people, the story ends. America had bested Germany’s best. Louis held the heavyweight crown for 12 years; Schmeling became an instant nobody, an embarrasment to the Reich.

But a symbolic victory wasn’t enough to forestall the horrors of World War II.

A few months after the Louis bout, Hitler launched a pogrom against German Jews that has become known as Kristallnacht – ”the Night of Broken Glass.” Rampaging mobs streamed throughout Germany, openly attacking Jews on the street, breaking into their homes and destroying businesses.

Nearly 100 people were killed, hundreds injured and an estimated 1,000 synagogues burned. At least 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Schmeling was living in a Berlin hotel at the time. He was asked by a Jewish friend named David Lewin to harbor Lewin’s two teenage sons, even as the mob’s fury reached new levels of ferocity.

Schmeling secreted the boys in his apartment, leaving word at the front desk that he was ill and that no one was to visit him. When conditions improved, Schmeling helped get the young men out of the country and into the United States.

Schmeling never spoke about his actions, which were treasonous to the very government that had made him its champion.

Schmeling, it turns out, was never a member of the Nazi Party. He had never wanted to be the poster boy for the Reich. He hated Hitler as much as any American, but any such public sign of disloyalty would have brought ruin to his family.

Still, propagandistic images die hard, or not at all. For a generation of U.S. servicemen, Schmeling remained a despicable symbol of Nazism.

After the war, Schmeling became a successful businessman, in fact he was the man who introduced Coca-Cola to Germany. He stayed in touch with many of his former boxing opponents, including the man who laid him low before the entire world.

Joe Louis’ fortunes never matched his fame. Hounded by the IRS for back taxes, damaged by his years in the ring, he was reduced to being a celebrity ”greeter” at Las Vegas casinos after he retired from the ring. He died a pauper in 1981.

Max Schmeling – Hitler’s ”Aryan superman” – paid Louis’s funeral expenses.

And the two young Jewish men Schmeling helped flee to the states?
That secret history didn’t come to light until 1989, when the two young men invited their benefactor to Las Vegas, where the brothers had become – like their benefactor – successful businessmen.

Max Schmeling is still alive. He’s 99 and he was too frail to travel when he was honored by the Jewish Raoul Wallenberg Foundation as a ”Savior of Humanity” for his quiet willingness to risk himself during Germany’s darkest days. The award made barely a ripple in the news.

SCHMELING’S story isn’t a story about sports. It’s not even about righting a historic wrong. It’s a war story, an abject lesson in how war twists people to its own ends, how it invariably perverts and poisons everything it touches.

We think we know evil when we see it. But goodness, or its possibility, easily eludes us.

Schmeling wasn’t a Nazi, but he’s remembered as one because not everyone in the country could see the humanity behind the mask Schmeling was forced to wear, the humanity that saved lives, helped old friends and gave a 10-year-old boy the thrill of a lifetime.

It must have been rousing to witness Joe Louis’s righteous boxing victory. But raise a glass sometime to his supposed nemesis and loyal friend, raise a glass to an unwilling symbol of evil whose quiet humanity even Adolf Hitler couldn’t kill.

The second fight

The Schmeling-Louis rematch in 1938 was seen by about 70,000 people in Yankee stadium. The rest of the world could only sit by their radios and listen to a gravelly voiced announcer whose name is lost to the History Channel.

You can still hear the closing seconds of the fight at the History Channel’s Web site, delivered in the classic machine-gun cadences demanded by the medium: ”… a right and left to the head, a left to the jaw, a right to the head … Louis measures him. A right to the body. A left up to the jaw. And Schmeling is down! The count is five, six, seven, eight. The men are in the ring, the fight is over on a technical knockout. Max Schmeling is beaten in one round!”