When defeat in the ring meant death in the gas chamber | Films | Entertainment


the champion of auschwitz movie

The film, starring Piotr Glowacki, left, as Teddy depicts the brutality of the camp fights (Image: Getty)

Spectators watching boxer Tadeusz ‘Teddy’ Pietrzykowski in the ring would marvel at the ferocity and accuracy of his punches. If it looked like the Polish fighter’s very life depended on every blow landing perfectly, then that’s because it did. Teddy was a prisoner at Auschwitz and his survival relied on winning. If he lost, the gas chambers were waiting.

Fighting for the entertainment of the guards, his opponents were kapos, or supervisor prisoners, who were handed responsibility to keep the other inmates in check by any brutal means necessary.

Teddy’s adversaries were mostly German, which the fight arrangers thought would increase the viciousness and make the betting more interesting.

To their frustration, he refused to rise to the bait and fought skilfully and in a controlled manner in every one of 40 bouts in his three years in the Nazi-run death camp in German-occupied Poland.

Now, 81 years on, his story is being brought to the big screen in a film called The Champion Of Auschwitz.

Teddy was a man who, thanks to a strong will to survive and a passion for boxing, has shown even the greatest unimaginable evil can be defeated,” says Polish actor Piotr Glowacki, who plays him in the film.

“This is a picture which, by showing closely the fate of Tadeusz Pietrzykowski, can give hope that if we strongly believe in something, if we work hard for something, we are able to overcome all the adversities, including our fears and anxieties.

“I treat the title of the movie ‘The Champion’ as a word that has many different meanings and definitions and interpretations. We are bidding farewell to the last people who experienced the Second World War personally. Hence this story has a mythological element, especially for the young audience. We show this story to give people confidence in themselves and in what they do.Thanks to this, everything is possible.”

Born in Warsaw in 1917, Teddy grew up with strong Catholic values, discovering a love of boxing at the age of 11 when he joined the Scouts, which he found to be the “most important school of life”.

To sharpen his skills he joined the CWKS Legia sports club, which he represented under the pseudonym Teddy in homage to his boxing idol, Teddy Yarosz. A legendary coach, Feliks Stamm, considered by many to be the father of Polish boxing, spotted his talent and helped to perfect his technique.

At bantamweight (around 53 kg) Teddy won the championship of Warsaw several times, but the outbreak of the Second World War curtailed a promising career.

He joined underground military units in France to fight for a free Poland but was caught making an illegal border crossing and sent to Auschwitz.

Polish actor Piotr Glowacki

TOUGH ROLE: Glowacki lost 20 percent of his body weight to play Teddy (Image: Getty)

As part of the first transport of 748 mostly Catholic Poles to Auschwitz on June 14, 1940, Teddy was tattooed with the number 77 and was allowed to practise boxing in his spare time, even though he barely had the energy because of the meagre rations and forced labour.

If prisoner athletes performed well in contests there was a reward, usually extra food rations. In one secret message to his mother, Teddy wrote: “Today I am an allweight world champion of KL Auschwitz. I’ll be fine even in hell.”

In March 1941, he became the first prisoner boxer to win a fight against the German kapo Walter Dunning, who had been middleweight vicechampion of Germany.

Dunning, weighing 70 kg (11 stone), is said to have stopped the fight when he realised he stood no chance of winning against a man weighing 40 kg (4 stone 4 pounds).

“He was the smaller of the two, but he was agile and fast,” recalled Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Sobolewicz. “He had an incredible punch, aimed right for the stomach and knew how to duck his opponent’s blows.”

During his three years at the camp Teddy fought 40 bouts while suffering fatigue, starvation and daily brutality.

To prepare for the demanding film role, Piotr lost 16 kg – 20 percent of his body weight – and worked up his muscles in the gym, often with expert boxing coaches. “I also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum,” says Piotr. “I spent several days there, having access to all places, archives, warehouses and to the enormous knowledge of the people working there. I had the chance to live for a few days in this place, which was the prison of Tadeusz Pietrzykowski but also the place, paradoxically, where he achieved his greatest boxing success.

“In a film where body and physicality are the essence of his fight for life, every moment of his presence on the screen is a story about this character.”

For the inmates of the camp, each of Teddy’s victories in the ring was a symbol of hope – hope that the Nazis were not invincible – and pride in Polish talent in the darkest of places.

Away from the ring,Teddy’s compassion for the other inmates was as powerful as his punches. He would give away his bout winnings of margarine and a loaf of bread to the malnourished fellow inmates around him.

He also stood up for Catholic priest Father Maximilian Kolbe who was treated cruelly inside Auschwitz, where he was given the number 16670. Despite lashings and beatings, Kolbe continued to defy the guards and preach to those around him. Father Kolbe is revered in Poland to this day for taking the place of a prisoner who was selected to starve to death in a bunker as a lesson to other inmates considering trying to escape. Kolbe was starved for two weeks and was ultimately given a lethal injection.

Using skills learned in the underground movement, Teddy also worked within a camp resistance movement, organised by Captain Witold Pilecki. In 1943, he took part in a failed assassination attempt against camp commandant Rudolf Höss.

The saddle on Höss’s horse was tampered with so he would fall, but the monster escaped with just a broken leg. The Nazis did not appear to realise he had been the victim of an attempted assassination and dismissed it as an accident.

Teddy was later deported to the Neuengamme concentration camp in northern Germany where he also fought. It was fortunate timing. The Auschwitz guards were becoming annoyed at his successes and wanted him sent to the gas chambers.

Teddy Pietrzykowski

FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL: Teddy knew the only way to avoid death was to win every bout (Image: Getty)

As the war drew to a close, he was evacuated to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated in 1945 having survived five years’ imprisonment. After a spell with General Stanislaw Maczek’s 1st Armoured Division, he became a teacher in Poland and eventually died in 1991, aged 74.

“I chose school sports in order to pay off the debt to my role models: professors, and educators, continuing their educational efforts for the good of the young generation,” he later wrote. Many of those he taught paid respectful visits to his grave in Bielsko-Biala in Poland.

His daughter, Eleonora Szafran, said: “In order to survive the camp, he had to prove himself in some way. The only thing he could do was box.”

Film director Maciej Barczewski says: “Pietrzykowski, like the biblical David, fought Goliath in the camp arena. Teddy’s strength lay not in his muscles, but in his masterful technique and fortitude. I knew that in order to create a convincing character of Teddy I was going to need an actor who, at first glance, would be the opposite of the boxer archetype.

“Someone who looks inconspicuous, even harmless, but in whose eyes you can see two clenched fists.

“At the same time, it would be an actor who, for the role of an Auschwitz prisoner, is willing to undergo radical transformation of his body, but also to master the boxing technique to the extent that allows fighting without cuts and without the participation of a double. Piotr was my first and only choice and he more than met these expectations.”

Barczewski was inspired to create the film after reading a line from a Polish writer, Tadeusz Borowski. In one of his stories, Borowski wrote: “There is still the memory of the number 77, who used to box the Germans as he wanted, taking revenge in the ring for what others got in the field.”

Barczewski adds: “This sentence intrigued me so much that I began to investigate the fate of the prisoners of the first transport to the Auschwitz camp, especially Tadeusz Pietrzykowski. I was fascinated by the fact that for his fellow inmates he was a symbol of hope for victory over Nazi terror. For his contemporaries, he was a superhero.”

Now Teddy’s bravery will have the wider audience it deserves.

  • The Champion Of Auschwitz is released in UK cinemas on September 3

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