My father has always revered Joe Louis. Asurprising hero, perhaps, for a man born and raised in far-awayHungary. Not the hero one might expect of a Jewish cantor, whose workall his life has been singing liturgy in synagogues. Yet, among themost vivid memories I have from my childhood in Hungary and Israel,through my teen-age years in the United States, are the stories myfather told of Joe Louis.
Although my father was recalling events that he’donly read about in newspapers and seen in newsreels nearly 20 yearspreviously, his stories were filled with dramatic detail. Many times,in our living room, back yard or even occasionally before services inshul, he’d ball up his fists, get into a prize fighter’s crouch andshow us how the Brown Bomber landed the savage right to MaxSchmeling’s kidney that fractured two vertebrae in the unluckychallenger’s back.
“Two minutes! Just two minutes and four seconds isall it took!” he would exclaim. “They say that a Texas millionairewas at ringside that night, wearing a big cowboy hat. When somebodyaccidentally knocked his hat off at the beginning of the fight, hebent down to get it. By the time he looked up, the fight was over.”Saying this, my father would laugh until tears came to his eyes. Thenhe’d add, dramatically: “Can you believe it? Hitler had even sentSchmeling a telegram before the fight. ‘Congratulations to the newheavyweight champion of the world!'” Again my father would laugh.Again, tears would come to his eyes.
My father is a gifted storyteller, and the storiesof great men are his favorite topic. He knows many stories. Some ofthem are of singers such as him, of Koussevitsky, the legendarycantor; Gigli, the great Italian operatic tenor; and Chaliapin, thefamed Russian bass-baritone. Others are about the teachings and thesayings of the great rabbis of history. And still others are abouthis childhood and adolescence in Hungary between the two worldwars.
Always, though, and to this day, he comes back tothe stories of Joe Louis. And of his own father.
There are only three pictures left of mygrandfather, Shaya. In one, he is a young man wearing his World War IHungarian army uniform. He is posing in profile, his rifle in hisright hand, a long pickax in his left. On his back is a fullknapsack, and binoculars hang from a strap around his neck. He was anadvance scout. His assignment throughout the war was to climbmountains and lookout towers, occasionally behind enemy lines, andreport on troop movements. His face, looking out of the olddaguerreotype is calmly confident, almost defiant — a man aware ofhis powers.
When World War I ended, small bands of troops fromthe retreating Czech army entered his city of Balassagyarmat andbegan looting homes. My grandfather stood by his front gate, rifle atthe ready. “They are not coming in here,” he said. Theydidn’t.
After the war, because of his army service, Shayawas allowed a gun permit and carried a pistol in his travels as apeddler. When, in the late 1930s, the many restrictions against Jewsbegan to be enforced, Shaya lost his permit and his gun. One day,traveling home from a successful selling trip, he was attacked by tworobbers. Wielding a loose plank from his cart, he knocked both mensenseless.
When my father was about 12 years old, he waswalking home from Saturday-morning synagogue services with a few ofhis friends. Grandfather Shaya and the other men were walking somedistance behind the boys. A group of young men surrounded the boysand began chanting, “Dirty Jews, dirty Jews.” One of them yanked myfather’s payis, the customary long sideburns of religious Jews, andlanded a blow to my father’s head. Shaya came running, and the youngmen fled. He caught two of them from behind and hit them so hard witha fist in each back that they fell face down on the ground.
In 1939, Shaya, despite being 52 years old, wasordered into the Munkaszolgálat, the work detail attached tothe Hungarian army into which many Jewish men were conscripted.Stationed far from home, he rarely saw his family. One week, however,his unit camped only five kilometers from Balassagyarmat. ThatFriday, Shaya walked home to spend the Sabbath with his family. Heneglected to inform anyone that he was leaving. When he returned onSunday afternoon, his commanding officer accused him of desertion.Shaya replied, “I’m here. Besides,” and at this point he steppedclose to the officer and repeatedly tapped the man’s chest with hisindex finger, “if you hadn’t seen your wife and children in threemonths, and you were this close, what would you have done?” Thematter was dropped.
Shaya was released from Munkaszolgálat whena lookout tower, like the ones he’d climbed more than 20 yearsbefore, but now rotted from years of neglect, collapsed under him. Hebroke his right shoulder and several ribs and never quite recoveredfrom his injuries.
When my brother and I were about 16 years old, mymother told us one day that she was our father’s second wife, thathe’d lost his first wife and their three young children in theHolocaust.
This almost unbelievable news suddenly explainedthe sadness I’d always sensed in my father but whose cause I’d neverknown. It seemed to explain why he kept to himself so much, why herarely joined my mother and brother and me on family outings to parksor beaches, saying that he needed time to study for the next week’sTorah reading. We all knew that was not true. He could almost recitethe readings by heart after so many years of study and repetition. Hedidn’t need to rehearse every Sunday afternoon, all afternoon.
The truth was, he wanted to be alone. It sometimesseemed to me that he wanted to be alone so much that he was not apart of our family. Twenty years after their murder, my father wasstill in mourning for his first family.
His frequent stories of Joe Louis now took onextra meaning for me. Over the years, I began to see why Joe Louis’victory over Max Schmeling held such mythic power for myfather.
Sixty years ago, on June 22, 1938, when Louisknocked out Schmeling, my father was living in Kunhegyes, a smalltown 125 kilometers east of Budapest. He served as rabbi, cantor andschoolteacher for the Jewish families living in that community.Although he was happy in his life in Kunhegyes, he was well aware ofthe gathering horror of Hitler. After Kristallnacht, in 1938, myfather had visible proof that Hitler’s insane rantings could inspirevery real violence and horror. In 1939, that horror and violencepounded on his door. When war broke out, like his father, Shaya, hewas ordered into the Munkaszolgálat. He spent much of the restof the war in work camps in Poland.
When he returned home to Kunhegyes in late 1944,my father discovered that he had lost everything to the Nazis.
While he was away in the Munkaszolgálat,much of his family was taken to Auschwitz in cattle trains. There, inaddition to countless more distant relatives, he lost his father,Shaya; his mother, Rose; his only brother; three sisters; twonephews; and, perhaps most excruciating of all, his wife, two sonsand daughter.
To this day, my father believes that Shaya, had henot been recovering from the fall from the lookout tower, would havenever been taken alive to Auschwitz. He is certain that Shaya wouldhave taken to the grave with him a number of the hated Hungarianstate police who rounded up Jews to transport to the camps.
My own fantasies are slightly different but evenmore unrealistic. I dream that Shaya might have been able to save thewhole family.
Joe Louis was an exce
ptional man, worthy of myfather’s admiration. However, my father did not look up to him onlyfor his athletic feats. He revered him because Joe Louis didsomething my father had not been able to do.
Joe Louis beat the Nazis.
In all his stories, my father never mentioned thatthe Joe Louis fight of 1938 was a return match, that Max Schmelinghad defeated Joe Louis two years previously. I was more than 30 yearsold when I read that in a biography of Louis. When I told my father,he hadn’t known. In that same biography, I read that Joe Louis andMax Schmeling were, in fact, not blood enemies, that, in later years,the men were friends. That, I never told my father. I didn’t thinkhe’d want to know.
Sandor Slomovits is free-lance writer whoresides in Ann Arbor, Mich.