FIGHTLAND

Gypsy in the Ring: The Brave Life of Johann 'Rukeli' Trollmann

The story of the light-heavyweight boxing champ whose career was cut short by the Nazis.

by Christina Newland
26 July 2016, 10:08am

This article was originally published on FIGHTLAND

The historic Berlin drinking establishment known as the Bock Brewery had seen its fair share of rowdy crowds long before the night of 9th June, 1933. Its serving hall and former tap-room garden had been home to concerts, political rallies, and boxing matches since the turn of the century. But on that fateful summer evening, a hint of the tumult to come rumbled through the gathered crowd. The occasion was a showdown for the vacant light-heavyweight championship of Germany—fought between Adolf Witt and Johann 'Rukeli' Trollmann. Witt was the favourite to win, particularly among the members of the newly-powerful National Socialist Party. Herr Hitler admired boxing as a noble sport, and as such, was determined that the Aryan Witt would demonstrate his racial superiority by winning the title.

Witt's decidedly non-Aryan opponent, Trollmann, was a Sinti gypsy, born in 1907 in Hanover to a family of nine siblings. Right-wing newspapers scathingly referred to him as 'the gypsy in the ring'. But this bigotry had done nothing to quell Trollmann's popularity—or his success. His swarthy good looks earned him many swooning female fans, and his fleet-footed 'dancing' style in the ring led him to a series of victories after turning pro in 1929. As he weaved and ducked around the ring that night—easily side-stepping blows from the outclassed Witt—there seemed to be no stopping the 26-year-old fighter from becoming champion.

The boxing fans who filled the brewery bellowed and whooped, overwhelmingly supportive of Trollmann as he whirled around the ring. But six rounds into this show of domination, the fight was abruptly called off. The jury declared that the outcome was a 'No Decision'—neither a win nor a loss for either man. Trollmann was stunned. In 1928, for racially motivated reasons, he'd been denied his rightful place as a German athlete at the Olympics. Now the injustice seemed to be happening all over again.

Chaos ensued; the onlookers, jeering and shouting, flooded the ring, launching chairs and fists into the melee. German boxing authorities, under the thumb or at least sympathetic to Nazi imperatives, had refused to reward the clear winner on the basis of his race. But for loyal fight fans, this would not stand. The threats grew so pronounced that the jury were forced to reverse their decision; reluctantly, they handed the belt over to Trollmann.

No filmed footage exists of the prematurely-ended bout. But one can fill in the details from accounts of the night; a room heavy with smoke, stale beer, and sweat. The electric charge of violence in the air; the dark-haired, weary 'Rukeli', head bowed as he was finally handed the belt. Overcome by frustration and relief, he stood in the ring and openly wept. It's said that the crowd chanted his name that night.

Boxing fans had a simple, righteous desire to see the best man win—and win he did, damp with exhausted tears. In a heartbreaking turn of events, the title was stripped from him again within the week. But on that night of 9th June, however briefly—Johann 'Rukeli' Trollmann and his admirers had overcome the most powerful racist regime of the age.

Still, it's difficult to talk about the evening of that contested 1933 title fight, even as a stranger; even as a stranger separated from Rukeli by nationality, language, and many years of history. Because once the young gypsy man had displayed his blazing talent—and inspired mass public affection—the Third Reich boxing authorities knew they couldn't be seen to tolerate a celebrity of his kind. After that evening, Trollmann, though he was not yet thirty years old, had put his best days behind him.

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In 2010, a temporary monument appeared in a quiet part of Berlin's Viktoria Park. It was a perfect replica of a boxing ring in concrete—with posts and ropes intact. The symmetry was only interrupted by one corner of the ring sloping down into the earth. Its key features were its sturdiness—and its lopsidedness. 'Good luck winning in this cockeyed ring', it seemed to taunt. The monument was made for Trollmann.

The harassment began only a week after the 1933 bout. The newly-formed German Pugilism Association, chaired by rabid Nazi Georg Radamm, determined that Rukeli had an 'un-German' boxing style. They stripped him of his light-heavyweight title and stole Trollman's glory for a second time. Less than two months later—and as popular as ever—he would fight again. But in that space of time, something had changed irrevocably.

On July 27th, Rukeli would face famed brawler Gustav Eder. Consolidating their power over the sport, the new National Socialist regime insisted that Trollmann fight in the 'proper' German manner. This involved an old-fashioned, flat-footed approach; Johann's signature elegance and agility was disdainfully described as 'dancing like a gypsy'. But those who'd watched 'Rukeli' in his prime compared his ultra-modern technique to Muhammad Ali's— and now he was being asked to surrender it. Forced to exchange blows and absorb punishment from Eder—a formidable puncher and a considerably larger man—Johann was at great disadvantage.

Knowing he would either lose in the ring or be stripped of his license outside of it, Johann was left with little choice but to capitulate. Yet when the young man marched into the ring, his appearance shocked everyone present. He was doused from head to toe in thick white flour, his flop of blue-black hair dyed peroxide blonde. This was his approximation, and mockery, of the Aryan 'ideal'. It's not recorded how his opponent or the crowd responded. Shock must have melted into either admiration or rage. This powerful statement of defiance, brave as it was, was the final gesture of a man who knew his career was over.

In the movies, Rukeli would have been the underdog. Forced to change his whole technique, he might come back with a glorious win. But reality was not so kind. It took five rounds for Johann—who stood his ground and endured a thorough battering—to be knocked out.

He would fight nine more professional bouts before his licence was finally revoked in 1935. One of Johann's few living relatives—nephew Manuel Trollmann—has spent years researching his uncle. Johann's brother, Albert, was a fellow boxer who survived the war and passed away in the '90s. Speaking to Manuel before he died, Albert recalled the increasing violence of Nazi threats to the Trollmann family. The number of fights Rukeli was forced to throw—under direct threat to his family's safety—is unknown.

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'Rukeli' was the name that friends and family knew him by. It came from the Romani word 'Ruk', meaning 'tree'. Growing up, the olive-skinned boy had a graceful body, lean and long-limbed—with an inborn sturdiness that earned him the nickname. Most who met him liked him; many were surprised to learn the man's profession. Rukeli, like most Sinti, was family-oriented—though he married somewhat later in life than most, at age 28, to a non-Sinti Berliner called Olga Bilda. Later that same year, their only daughter, Rita, was born. A child with half-gypsy blood was an unwelcome addition to any German household under the Reich; and so, by 1938, Johann made the first of many painful compromises. After a barrage of death threats, he obtained a divorce, hoping to protect his wife and daughter. We know little of what happened to Olga and Rita next; only that Rita was a teenager before she learned the identity of her father, and that her mother would never speak of it.

1935 was to be an eventful year for the young Trollmann family; beginning with the boxing association's decision to revoke the fighter's licence. With his professional career at an end, he was reduced to fighting at seasonal fairs to make ends meet. The family became largely itinerant, looking for work and avoiding confrontation with local authorities.

Unfortunately, Johann's popularity had come back to haunt him—people kept recognizing him. For reasons which are unclear, he was arrested that summer and sent to a labor camp. It would be the first in a series he'd find himself in. Much of his extended family met similar fates, or were forced to choose between concentration camps and forced sterilization. By early 1936, Johann had been one of the countless Sinti and Roma subject to sterilization via an enforced vasectomy. At only 29, his family should have been growing. Nazi Germany had taken his heavyweight title, his professional career, and now his future.

By the end of a turbulent decade, Johann was no longer a prizefighter, but a soldier. Drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1939, he was sent to occupied France and the Eastern Front. He was not German enough to fight for the title, but apparently German enough to fight for the country.

He was even wounded in battle before he was ejected—once again, for racial reasons. No matter how bravely they fought, all Sinti and Roma were dishonorably discharged from the military in 1942.

There's a lot about Trollmann's life that we don't know. Did Rukeli ever see his wife and baby daughter again? Did he return from battle a weary, defeated man, or as ferocious and defiant as ever? What we do know is that, lost in the chaotic waves of war, the civilian Johann was imprisoned once more. Beaten and severely mistreated, he lost 60 lbs over the course of three months. Finally, he was deported to Neuengamme concentration camp, given prisoner number 9841, and a brown triangle patch—the Nazi designation for 'Romani'. It was in a satellite camp of this grim location that—at thirty-five years old, emaciated and desperate—he would have one final boxing match.

On a winter day in 1943, in a satellite camp near Hamburg known as Wittenberge, Johann 'Rukeli' Trollmann was recognized, again. This no longer had the thrill of celebrity; only the threat of retribution. Being recognized meant that he would be known as the man who, less than a decade before, had been Berlin's famous 'dancing' prizefighter. Now he was brought low, starved and exhausted from 16-hour days of slave labor. It wasn't long before a feared Kapo and ex-criminal known as Emil Cornelius challenged Rukeli to a fight. A Kapo was a prisoner deemed responsible for the others within the Nazi hierarchy—usually violent convicts, and often more sadistic than the guards themselves. There was no choice but to say yes.

What happened next, like so much of Rukeli's story, is somewhat clouded. But what is known thanks to eyewitness testimony is this; the two men did fight. It must have been bare-knuckle. Rukeli—in spite of being malnourished and frail—won. The following day, Cornelius, seemingly unable to accept his loss, crept up behind Rukeli as he worked. He proceeded to beat the fighter with a shovel until he was dead.

Johann 'Rukeli' Trollmann's body was fired full of bullets and thrown in a mass grave with the other corpses of Wittenberge camp. He was 35 years old, and just one of the estimated half-million Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis. It's hard not to surrender to a sense of hopelessness—thinking of that robust young prizefighter, lean, dark, and fast—collapsed in the ignominy of a mass grave.

But Trollmann fought hard for his dignity, and for the dignity of his people. He proved there was no such thing as Aryan superiority, either physically or in the hearts of the public. In the ring, even when he lost, he won. He covered himself in flour and laughed in the face of Nazi stupidity. He made tragic compromises, lost his pride, changed his name—all to protect his family. In that way, his ordinariness—his basic, dogged will to survive—was as vivid a trait as his heroism.

In the end, Rukeli lost everything. In 2003, the German Boxing Association finally gave something back to him. Seventy years on, they recognized Johann Trollmann as the rightful light-heavyweight champion of 1933. 'The gypsy in the ring' had finally been vindicated.