The Box­er’s Sto­ry: Fight­ing for My Life in the Nazi Camps

Nathan Shapow with Bob Harris
  • Review
By – June 11, 2014

Among the more unusu­al Holo­caust mem­oirs to appear dur­ing the past decade is Nathan Shapow’s The Box­er’s Sto­ry: Fight­ing for My Life in the Nazi Camps, co-authored by vet­er­an sports­writer Bob Har­ris. Born in Riga, Latvia on Novem­ber 6, 1921 Shapow was a pre­war Mac­cabi box­ing cham­pi­on and a mem­ber of the Revi­sion­ist Zion­ist youth move­ment, Betar. 

At the time of the Nazi cap­ture of Riga in ear­ly July 1941 there were approx­i­mate­ly 40,000 Jews in the city. Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1941 thou­sands of Lat­vian Jews were mur­dered. On Novem­ber 27, 1941, 4,400 Jews from the remain­ing 29,000 were seg­re­gat­ed and assigned to forced labor in what was to be known as the small­er Ghet­to.” Shapow, a stark­er, one of the strong ones, was one of the 4,400.

Fit from rig­or­ous phys­i­cal train­ing as a box­er and swim­mer, Shapow imme­di­ate­ly drew the atten­tion of Ober­sturm­fuhrer Hoff­man (First Lieu­tenant) who sin­gled him out for spe­cial tor­ture. Assum­ing he would be shot at any time, Shapow end­ed up by first attack­ing and then mur­der­ing Hoff­man. This mur­der, which would remain hid­den for over six­ty years, was the first of sev­er­al phys­i­cal encoun­ters, includ­ing at least three box­ing match­es, that Shapow would engage in to stay alive. 

While Shapow’s mem­oirs focus on the role that phys­i­cal train­ing played in his sur­vival, this work also reveals the efforts by Jew­ish youth in the small­er Ghet­to to build under­ground bunkers, acquire arms, and estab­lish con­tact with Red Army par­ti­sans. Shapow pro­vides inti­mate details of the ambush of ten Jew­ish under­ground fight­ers on Octo­ber 28, 1942. As a warn­ing to oth­er Jews, the SS shot forty-one mem­bers of the Jew­ish police along with 300 oth­er Lat­vian Jew­ish workers. 

With the liq­ui­da­tion of the Riga Ghet­to in ear­ly Novem­ber 1943, Shapow was trans­ferred to a series of oth­er Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps includ­ing Kaiser­wald, Spilve, and Stutthof. 

He was even­tu­al­ly lib­er­at­ed by the U.S. Army, on April 16, 1945, with the sur­ren­der of the Nazi slave labor camp at Magde­burg. With the end of the war, Shapow was able to reach Pales­tine, where he enlist­ed in the Irgun Zvi Leu­mi (Revisionist/​Nation­al Mil­i­tary Orga­ni­za­tion) and lat­er fought in Israel’s War of Inde­pen­dence. Shapow emi­grat­ed to the U.S. in 1960.

Relat­ed Content:

Carl J. Rheins was the exec­u­tive direc­tor emer­i­tus of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Mod­ern Euro­pean His­to­ry from the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Stony Brook and taught cours­es on the Holo­caust at sev­er­al major universities.

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