1944: Not Sim Kessel, Jewish boxer

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

“In December 1944,” begins Sim Kessel’s Holocaust memoir, “I was hanged at Auschwitz.”

He was twenty-five years old and had been caught attempting to escape.

Sim Kessel (called “Sam” in some accounts), a French Jew who boxed professionally, had been at Auschwitz for two years — a staggering period of time where the normal lifespan of a prisoner was at most three months — and had already escaped the gas chambers on two occasions.

The first time, he was in the infirmary recuperating from a severe beating and torture at the hands of the SS (one of his fingers had been cut off), and a Nazi doctor judged him incapable of recovery and took his number down. Then, a miracle: somehow, his chart was misplaced.

Four days later Kessel was selected again and this time actually marched to the gas chamber with other hopeless cases. As they were lined up, naked and shivering, waiting their turn to die, an SS man happened to pass on a motorcycle and stopped to have a look at them. Kessel recognized something in him:

Unmistakable. The stigmata of the ring. He also had muscular shoulders and a springy way of walking. I hesitated for a second and then thought, oh, what the hell!

Naked and shivering I walked up to him. I don’t know if it was a dim hope behind my overture, or some irrational kinship felt by boxers the world over, across all boundaries. I simply blurted out in German:


“Boxer? Ja!”

He didn’t wait for an explanation, he understood. […] “Get on!” he bellowed.

Kessel’s savior, whose name he never knew, took him back to camp and to the infirmary, where he made a full recovery from his injuries and rejoined the working prisoners. The two men never saw each other again. Kessel had no illusions about the character of the man who had saved his life:

This act of mercy which he had performed in the name of boxing meant something totally different to each of us. Obviously to me it was everything; for him, nothing at all. I was like a worm that one doesn’t step on at the last minute.

In December 1944, Kessel and four Polish prisoners tried to escape. He reflected later on that “the strategy could have succeeded despite its apparent idiocy.”

The idiotic strategy will be familiar to high school delinquents the world over: they casually walked out of camp together, in broad daylight, acting as if they had a legitimate destination in mind, and no one tried to stop them.

Unfortunately, they were caught the next day and sent back to Auschwitz. A public execution was the only punishment for escapees, and so the five were lined up on the scaffold in front of a crowd of some 25,000 prisoners. They each had to take their turn to die and Kessel was the last.

And then the rope broke.

Not that I knew it; I didn’t realize a thing, having lost consciousness from shock. I didn’t even know they had hanged me. […]

I came to. Or partly came to. It was as if I were in a dream, still unable to realize what was going on around me, aware mainly of the excruciating pain in my neck and back.

In some countries, if a person survives an execution they’re granted a reprieve and allowed to keep their lives. Not so in Auschwitz: you were simply hauled away and shot, this time without ceremony.

Kessel was left to the tender mercies of Jacob, described as “the camp’s official killer.” He knew his executioner’s reputation in camp and also out of it, for Jacob was also a professional boxer and had helped train the famous German champion Max Schmeling. Having nothing to lose, and remembering what had happened before, Kessel argued with him:

So I appealed to him, half in German, half in French. I argued that one boxer could not kill another boxer. That he, a former champion, a sparring partner of Schmeling’s, could not degrade himself by simply slaughtering me in cold blood.

Jacob listened and then walked away without a word. When he returned he carried a new camp uniform. Kessel was to put it on and simply rejoin the mass of prisoners outside.

Officially, Kessel was dead, and someone else’s body would be put in the crematorium ovens in place of his own. Certainly there were many bodies to choose from.

It probably wouldn’t have worked were it not for the fact that the Third Reich was in its death throes. The Wehrmacht was on the run, besieged by the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, and within days Auschwitz would be evacuated.

Kessel survived two death marches and other dangers before he was liberated on May 7, 1945, five months after the rope broke.

On this day..

7 thoughts on “1944: Not Sim Kessel, Jewish boxer

  1. I was reading Petro Mirchuk’s Auschwitz memoir, “In the German Mills of Death, 1941-1945” today and Mirchuk actually describes this incident: a sturdy, athletic Frenchman, hanged for trying to escape, the rope breaking, and the Frenchman hauled away to be shot.

    The incident took place in late 1944, though he doesn’t give the month. He’s got to be talking about Sim Kessel.

    I suppose Mirchuk would have been amazed to learn that everyone only BELIEVED the athletic Frenchman had been shot, and that he in fact survived the war.

  2. I actually saw Jacob mentioned in another book, Thomas Geve’s “Guns and Barbed Wire: A Child Survives the Holocaust.”

    Anyway, on page 98 it says: “The camp’s lone and odd symbol of defiance was Jacob, a big burly Jewish boxer. Reared in Poland, he had toured the world winning fame–it was said–as a trainer. Now his job, anything but glorious, was steward in charge of the punishment cells.”

    I read that and thought: Aha, I recognize you.

    I wonder if Sim Kessel ever ran into him after the war. Probably not, since Kessel apparently returned to France, but it would have been cool if they did.

  3. Jacob was Jewish. He survived. He assisted with the execution of prisoners. Just yesterday (21/7/13) I met an Auschwitz inmate who knew Jacob in Auschwitz! I asked him about Jacob – he said he did what he had to do – he had no choice.

  4. Pingback: ExecutedToday.com » 1944: Jakob Edelstein and family

  5. Pingback: Another, happier anniversary « The Charley Project Blog

  6. I don’t remember whether Kessel said anything about Jacob’s religion or not. He could have been a Jew, or he could have been a Gentile prisoner (Auschwitz had plenty of those, especially Poles and Communists) as easily as he could have been a Nazi.

  7. Yet another example of the power of sports to bridge our divides.

    Also, was Jacob a Nazi? If so, was he aware that he shared his name with the progenitor of the 12 Tribes of Israel?

Comments are closed.