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.
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.