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Ring master

Stephen Deutsch’s chilling new novel melds fictional characters with real people and sport with horror, says Piers Plowright

17 July, 2020 — By Piers Plowright

Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936

KRISTALLNACHT – one of the nastiest words in the long and painful history of ethnic hatred and violence: the night of November 9/10, 1938 when Hitler’s SA thugs were licensed to smash synagogues, and Jewish-owned shops and businesses across Germany. And to kill and arrest.

It was the first act in the catastrophe of the Holocaust. And it’s the starting point for Champion, Stephen Deutsch’s new novel – or is it a novel? The central characters are real people, many of the facts are as they were, and the tragedy is un-softened.

But Deutsch brings a novelist’s eye to the terrible truth, compressing here, juxtaposing there, to go behind events and flesh out the story of – in particular – two characters.

The champion of the title is Max Schmeling, briefly heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, and even more briefly, after his defeat of Joe Louis in New York in 1936, Hitler’s poster boy.

And, his story intertwines with another historical, though forgotten, figure – another champion – a 17-year-old Jewish boy called Herschel Grynszpan, living with false papers in Paris, whose murder of a minor official in the German Embassy, triggers Kristallnacht.

And what triggers Herschel is impotent rage on hearing that his family, back in Hanover, has been rounded up and deported to the Polish border. This turns Herschel into a fighter, like his hero, Schmeling, who, by this time has begun to fight battles outside the ring.

Stephen Deutsch

One of the revelations of this novel for me is Schmeling’s refusal, well-documented but sometimes overlooked, to identify with the Nazis, and his sometimes dangerous work sheltering and helping German Jews. In fact he later joked, that his defeat in 1938 by Joe Louis in their return bout, was the best thing that ever happened to him, because the Nazis lost interest and withdrew their terrible patronage.

There had already been a crack in their support, after the first Joe Louis fight, since [lovely irony here which Deutsch wittily points up] Schmeling’s trainer, Joe Jacobs, known as “Muscles Yussel” is Jewish, with a very dim view of Hitler and Co.

“It’s big and full of hot air, just like the Nazis!” he says, staring at the air-ship Hindenberg sent by Hitler to fly Schmeling, his mother, and his blonde film star wife, Anny Ondra, to tea at the Chancellery, after his 1936 victory.

The flight and the tea party are two of the splendid set pieces in the book. Along with Herschel’s buying the gun he murders Third Secretary Ernst Von Rath with – a chilling blend of red tape and violence, his interrogation by none other than Adolf Eichmann and his sudden death at the hands of a sergeant whose boots he has just polished.

Other stories run behind these two central narratives: the cost and difficulty for Jews trying to get to Palestine in the 30s [“NO Yiddish please!]; the home life of the Goebbels family – a Czech actress and friend of Schmeling’s wife, Anna, has become Josef Goebbel’s mistress; Max Schmeling’s war service – as a paratrooper in Crete; and the boxer’s life up to his death, aged 90, in 2005, generous to the end, including his rescue of an impoverished and ill Joe Louis.

What Stephen Deutsch has done in this fact-based novel, is turn a horror story into a thriller, but without cheapening what happened.

At the end, in a chapter called “Loose Ends” and in “An Author’s Note”, Deutsch reveals what is fact and what is imagined. Whichever, it’s been a great ride.

  • Champion: A German Boxer, a Jewish Assassin and Hitler’s Revenge. By Stephen Deutsch, Unicorn Publishing Group, £10

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