Víctor Pérez, from world champion to his disappearance in Auschwitz

In the 20s and 30s of the 20th century, if someone wanted to belong to a real elite, they had to go to Paris. Parties, luxuries, music and even sports. Boxing was no exception and boxers could be champions and buffoons at the same time. Very soon the Tunisian Messaoud Hai Victor Pérez found out – and enjoyed it and suffered it. He was born on October 18, 1911 in a Jewish neighborhood in Tunis. At 14 he boxed and three years later he was in France ratifying conditions.

It went very well. Before turning 20 he was already the French flyweight champion and on October 24, 1931, when he had just turned 20, world champion. There was knocked out at the Palais de Sports in Paris the American Frankie Genaro. By then he was, directly, Víctor ‘Young’ Pérez, as he is remembered in the world and in the Hall of Fame of Jewish Sportsmen.

What followed was what a champion usually has: expensive dinners, champagne and even famous models and actresses who succumb to his charms. But there is no eternal glory. English Jackie Brown defeated him in Manchester. Pérez later moved up to the bantamweight category and, in 1934, it was Panama Al Brown who gave him the coup de grâce with his trademark right hands.

Nazism cast a shadow over the world and being a Jew was dangerous. In November ’38 Pérez defied the Germans by traveling to Berlin with suitcases adorned with Stars of David. He was greeted with boos. In December of that year the thing was impossible. That is where the trail of Pérez begins to be lost. It is known that he does not fight anymore and also that the Nazis arrest him and that he would end his days in Auschwitz.

What is known is by his companions in Auschwitz. According to the records he had arrived on October 10, 1943. Soon 157 178 would be tattooed on him. Then he would become a beating machine to amuse assassins. Five days after his admission, he was sent to work in the kitchen and to train double shifts. On October 31, he had to be in shape to face a 1.80-meter, 75-kilogram soldier. The fight was declared null.

One of the entertainments of the soldiers was to watch boxing matches with the detainees. Sometimes with professionals like Young Pérez or Salamo Arouch, Jacko Razon, Feliks Stamm, Kazimierz Szelest, Antoni Czortek. If not, volunteer. He fought with his bare hands or, at best, with woolen gloves. And the fights ended when one of the boxers could not get up.

Witnesses and survivors told details to the Spanish journalist José Ignacio Pérez. His first step was to write a chronicle for the Spanish newspaper Brand and then, with more testimonies, he made a book called K.O. Auschwitz and that the Spanish publisher Córner has just published.

Noah Klieger (prisoner 172,345), who died in 2018 at the age of 92, reminded Pérez of a question that sounded lifesaving: “Who knows how to box?” The one who was encouraged boxed and the one who boxed had a less bad time or had one more ration of bread. Once the fighters were selected, a demonstration of how much they knew was required: “If they lie, they go straight to the gas chamber”, terrified Kurt Magatanz, responsible for the boxers. Magatanz was, above all, a murderer: he had killed three people, was serving a life sentence and had privileges due to his knowledge of boxing.

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The organizer of the tournaments was Commander Heinrich Schwarz. He loved boxing and wanted to relax watching fights every Sunday. Schwarz followed the guidelines of Adolf Hitler, who in his book My struggle highlighted the benefits of practicing boxing. “There is no sport that fosters the spirit of attack and the power of quick decision, making the body acquire the flexibility of steel,” he wrote.

The point is that Klieger, then a teenager, raised his hand without having ever boxed, was selected and then, in his first training session, was astonished by a detail. “There was a very small fighter who hit the punching ball at the speed of a machine gun. He had never seen anything like it in his life. I stared at it. ‘He is a world champion,’ they told me. To which I replied: ‘A world champion?’ ‘Yes, Young Pérez’, they answered me”.

Pérez and Klieger became friends in training. “Why was it good to be a boxer? The reason was that each night the commander distributed an extra liter of soup to each fighter, but not the same as they gave to the prisoners, it was a real soup, with a piece of meat, with potatoes; the same one that the SS ate. That food saved my life for five or six months while I was boxing,” Klieger says. I fought in twenty-two or twenty-three fights and, of course, I did not win a single one”.

Despite the privileges, Young Pérez’s body could not withstand the wear and tear of training plus forced labor. In a fight they confronted him with “a strong German” who made him kiss the canvas. They took him away on a stretcher and since then, everything is even more diffuse.

Some say that he died in March ’45 and others, more precisely, on January 22 of the same year. Where there is more coincidence is in the circumstances: in one of the Death Marches, when the Nazi regime was in retreat and the survivors were being taken out in masses on trains. There are those who say that he did not resist the transfer, others say that they killed him when he wanted to flee. But champion kills should always have something epic about them. Young Pérez is no exception: in K.O. Auschwitz we read that he was one of the last assassinated by the regime when he stole a piece of bread not for himself but for a prisoner who was as weak or weaker than him. They saw him and shot him.

Klieger told the Pérez journalist that he saw the Pérez boxer among those last prisoners. He was still alive. But there is also something that Klieger would never forget among so many memories that he kept for years because he could not count them. A phrase that he repeated to himself. “From Auschwitz you leave, but from Auschwitz you never escape”.

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