Max Schmeling: Aryan champ, savior of Jews

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On Friday November 9 2001 the 63rd anniversary of the Cristal Night was commemorated all around the world. This article was written on that occasion by the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

Perhaps best remembered in the ring for his two fights with Joe Louis, heavyweight champion Max Schmeling remains unjustly associated with Nazi Germany and was unfairly depicted as a villain in the United States. His title and image were used as a propaganda tool by Adolf Hitler to demonstrate Aryan supremacy. But by all accounts, Schmeling conducted himself as a gentleman and sportsman.

In fact, many years later, it was revealed that Schmeling risked his own life by hiding Jewish children in his hotel room and helping them escape Germany.

Schmeling turned pro in Germany at the age of nineteen in 1924 and won the German light heavyweight title in 1926. He’d also won the European 175-pound title and German heavyweight crown before coming to the United States to fight. In New York, in 1929, Schmeling made his mark by defeating a pair of top heavyweights: Johnny Risko and Paolino Uzcudun. Those victories earned him a number-two ranking and a shot at the heavyweight title.

The liberal-minded Schmeling who had a Jewish manager, Max Jacobs, found himself unwittingly turned into a symbol of Nordic-Germanic race superiority following his sensational victory on 19 June 1936 over the black American heavyweight fighter Joe ‘Brown Bomber’ Louis, considered by many the greatest boxer at his weight in ring history. In Nazi Germany, this triumph –to Schmeling’s dismay- was presented in racial terms as a victory that proved Negro inferiority.

The return bout at the Yankee Stadium, held before a crowd of over 70,000 spectators on 22 June 1938, was more politically and racially charged than any previous encounter in heavyweight boxing history. Joe Louis was determined to vindicate not only himself but also the pride of America and the black people. Within two minutes and four seconds of the first round Schmeling had been knocked out after facing an onslaught of unrelenting savagery from the black American champion.

However, history will remember him for what he achieved outside rather than inside the ring. The story of Max Schmeling is the story of a hero, who during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, saved the lives of two young Jewish brothers named Lewin. A decent man in conflict with the Nazi regime and racial policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, and a man who demonstrated extraordinary generosity, righteousness and humanitarianism. Yet Schmeling never once revealed his heroism.

In an article, published in History Today, two professors at the University of Rhode Island, Robert Wiesbord and Norbert Heterich, tell how Schmeling agreed to hide the two teenage sons of a Jewish friend of his, David Lewin, during the awful time of Krystallnacht, November 1938 when Nazi pogroms against the Jews reached new heights.

He kept the Lewin boys, Henry and Werner, in his apartment at the Excelsior Hotel in Berlin, leaving word at the desk that he was ill and no one was to visit him. Later, when the rage of hate died down a little bit, did Schmeling help them flee the country to safety. They escaped and came to the United States where one of them, Henri Lewin, became a prominent hotel owner. This episode remained under shrouds until 1989, when Henry Lewin invited Schmeling to Las Vegas to thank him for saving his life. To this day, Henri Lewin believes that he and his brother owe their lives to Max Schmeling and he is convinced that Schmeling himself could have died for his humanitarian gesture.

After World War II -Hitler never forgave his refusal to join the Nazi party, had him drafted into the Paratroops and sent him on suicide missions- Schmeling fought five times and never made the top 10 again. He won a few fights but in May 1948 was beaten by another veteran, Walter Neusel, at Hamburg. His boxing career over -Schmeling won fifty-six and drew four of his seventy fights- the former German and world champion remained a popular and much respected figure not only in Germany but also in America. Awarded the Golden Ribbon of the German Sports Press Society, Schmeling became an honorary citizen of Los Angeles and in 1967 received the American Sports Oscar. In the same year he published his autobiography, Ich Boxte mich durchs Leben. In 1957 the ex champion purchased a Coca-Cola dealership in Hamburg-Wandsbek. He is known as one of the most generous philanthropists in Germany today.

Schmeling treasured camaraderie and friendship and, somehow, each of his ring opponents became his friend. He regularly and quietly gave the down-and-out Joe Louis gifts of money, and the friendship continued after death: Schmeling paid for the funeral.

El Chileno, digital interactive newspaper.

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