From Heavyweight Champ to Holocaust Hero

Stand for Israel  |  August 22, 2022

Man and boy play boxing
(Photo: German Federal Archives)

For many history buffs – especially those of WWII and the Holocaust – the name Max Schmeling often brings up negative connotations.

Max Schmeling – the heavyweight champion from Germany who, in the days before WWII, was exalted by Hitler as the height of Aryan fitness.

Max Schmeling – the former champ soundly defeated by Star-of-David-clad Jewish-American boxer, Max Baer (father of the actor who portrayed Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies).

Max Schmeling – the German boxer who delivered the first defeat of Joe Louis’ storied career, but who Louis punished in a one-round knockout in their 1938 rematch.

Despite these facts that many know of, few know that Max Schmeling – historically associated with the Nazi regime – not only defied Hitler and the Nazis, but also saved the life of two Jewish children who might otherwise have been murdered by them.

A Nazi Fighter

In 1933, when Schmeling was beaten by Max Baer, the international press rejoiced in the Jewish fighter’s victory. Three years later, as the Nazi regime had furthered its evil plans that led to a second world war, Schmeling surprisingly beat Joe Louis. But after Louis humiliated Schmeling in their rematch, the Nazis shunned Schmeling (also looking down on the fact that he had a Jewish manager).

Later in life, Schmeling admitted how grateful he was that he had not beaten Louis in what, at the time, was called “The Battle of the Century,” admitting, “Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagined if I would have come back to Germany with a victory.”

Schmeling did not return victoriously, however, and because of that the Nazi party – of which he was not a member – shunned him. But Schmeling not only did not join the Nazis or dissociate with his Jewish friends, he helped save Jews from the Nazis.

A Holocaust Hero

As Berlin became increasingly dangerous for Jews, a Jewish shop owner who was friends with Schmeling sent his two teenage sons – Werner and Henri Lewin – to the boxer’s hotel room. And despite the fact that such an act of “treason” would not only tarnish his reputation in Germany even further, but could have jeopardized his very life, Schmeling hid the boys in his room for several days, pretending that he was ill so that no one would discover the hidden Jews.

In a 2002 article by Joe Eskenazi, an elderly Henri Lewin not only revealed that he and his brother still kept in contact with the aged fighter all those decades later, but also said, “In the Third Reich he committed an act of treason, breaking the law of the Third Reich to clean itself of every Jew. By knowing this and doing what he did, he has made himself a mensch among menschen.”

Max Schmeling passed away in 2005 at the age of 99. And while he might be remembered as the heavyweight champion boxer who was heralded by Hitler, he should also be remembered for being a Hero of the Holocaust.