Pietrzykowski’s fights in Auschwitz

Pietrzykowski’s fights in Auschwitz

Tadeusz Pietrzykowski originated from Warsaw. He was the only one in his family to show an interest in boxing, which meant his hobby was looked upon unfavourably. Especially since he had a great talent for drawing and painting, which is why his future was seen more at the Academy of Fine Arts than in the boxing ring. However, the feisty 'Teddy’ – for this was his nickname – did not give up. In spite of the odds, he tried to climb up the sporting ladder. By the outbreak of the Second World War, he had reached the championships in Warsaw and the semi-finals of the Polish championships in the cock-weight division.

’Teddy’ was sent to Auschwitz together with the first transport of Polish political prisoners. He was captured by Hungarian gendarmes while trying to get to France, where he intended to support the ranks of the Polish army that was being formed there. He was later held in prisons in Muszyna, Nowy Sącz, and Tarnów (not having escaped the brutal interrogations that prisoners suffered at the hands of the Gestapo). He ended up in Auschwitz in mid-June 1940. He was 23 years old at the time.

In the camp, Pietrzykowski received number 77. The conditions the prisoners had to face were abysmal. Hunger rations, hard physical work in unhygienic conditions, and mean treatment by the camp kapos (corporal punishment for any offence) were part of the daily routine. And for those whose bodies could no longer cope, who were sick and increasingly weak, there was only one thing to look forward to – inevitable death – from exhaustion or in the gas chamber.

During his stay at the camp, Pietrzykowski met many interesting people. Among others, there were Polish athletes, including the well-known skiers Bronisław Czech (who died of exhaustion in 1944) and Izydor Łuszczek. He also made contact with other Polish prisoners and with Rotamaster Witold Pilecki, joining the resistance movement – the Union of Military Organisations – which he founded. 'Teddy’ also met Father Maximilian Kolbe on several occasions, whose conversations stayed in his memory for the rest of his life.

Tadeusz Pietrzykowski, Polish boxer/pl.wikipedia.org

At the beginning of 1941, a new capo, Walter Dünning – as it soon turned out, a former German professional boxing champion – arrived at Auschwitz. His sporting past and love of fighting were not hidden from the prisoners in order to induce greater obedience among them. One day Pietrzykowski was offered a fight with Dünning, the stakes of which were an extra portion of bread and margarine. All the German kapos were convinced that the skinny Pole, weighing 49 kg at the time, did not stand the slightest chance against his rival, who was several tens of kilos heavier and had not felt the hardships and suffering of the camp.

A primitive ring was set up in a corner of the camp kitchen. 'Teddy’ had to use work gloves as professional boxing gloves were not yet in the camp. In the first round, Pietrzykowski managed to throw a few dangerous punches, after which his surprised rival faltered. In the second, he successfully tried to avoid the German’s attacks at all costs, and at one point, recalling Felix Stamm’s advice, he delivered a powerful left hook. Stamm introduced Pietrzykowski to the secrets of fisting in the Warsaw Legia, where 'Teddy’ trained before the war. He was lucky because he met an incomparable professional – as it turned out years later – the most outstanding fighter in the history of Polish boxing, the coach of many Olympic and European champions.

The prisoners gathered around the ring and then began to recklessly shout loudly 'Beat the German’, which resulted in a violent reaction from the kapos watching the duel, who rushed into the crowd with fists and kicks. Dünning, on the other hand, approached Pietrzykowski and announced to him that he had met a worthy opponent and 'that’s enough’.

From then on, fights became a regular part of camp sporting life, with boxing being the second discipline (after football). They were organized in block no. 2 in the bathhouse and also in the square next to the kitchen. Over time, they began to be held in different blocks every Sunday. The crazy duel with Dünning enabled 'Teddy’ to move to a less strenuous job (in the stables), where, however, in order to stay as fit as possible under camp conditions, he did not shy away from heavy work, such as carrying bales of compressed hay or chopping wood. At the same time, he risked a lot by stealing food from the SS. He was aware that the Germans would expect further fights with his participation, which he did not protest against because he saw in them a chance to survive the camp hell.

’Teddy’ faced a wide variety of opponents: Germans (including the titled ones – the 1927 European middleweight vice-champion Wilhelm Maier and the two-time German champion from the first half of the 1920s, Harry Stein), Poles (at that time he tried to inflict the gentlest possible blows on his rivals), and fighters of other nationalities. He fought about fifty fights, of which only one ended in his defeat – it happened during a fight with Leen Sanders, a multiple Dutch welterweight champion of Jewish origin. It is worth noting, however, that in their rematch three weeks later, Pietrzykowski was victorious, knocking out his formidable opponent.

One day, he fought over two pots of soup with one of the Frenchmen, who displayed low craftsmanship. 'I fought for this soup with a Frenchman,’ Pietrzykowski recalled, 'an exceptionally weak one. I danced around my opponent so that the Germans would have more fun watching, and when he finally attacked me with fury, I did a dodge, and the Frenchman impetuously hit the capo referee. The joy of the fight was double: two pots of soup and a knocked-down kapo.’

Pietrzykowski, thanks to all these successes in three years, was recognised as the camp’s all-weight champion. The Germans began to reckon with him. Some even placed money bets on him. One SS man won 1,000 marks in this way and pledged to fulfil the Pole’s wishes. Pietrzykowski asked for food, and after only a while, the five pots of soup that the Germans had not eaten were at his disposal. He shared the soup with his camp friends.

With the successive duels he won and his growing self-confidence, combined with a certain arrogance towards the SS men, the guards apparently decided that enough was enough. Pietrzykowski’s attitude gave encouragement to his fellow prisoners and could, in the worst-case scenario for the Germans, even lead to a camp revolt. And the occupiers did not want to allow this to happen at any cost. A cunning plan was therefore devised. One day, under the guise of receiving a vitamin injection, the Polish fist fighter was placed in the infirmary. There, the camp doctor, Friedrich Entress, injected him with… typhoid fever. After a short time, Pietrzykowski lost consciousness and developed a fever. He was very weakened, and further persistence of this condition, according to camp custom, could only end in one way: being selected for the gas chamber.

Fortunately, his strong body fought bravely and did not give in to the illness. His friends from the camp and Rotmistrz Pilecki, who were taking care of him, helped him. This is how 'Teddy’ survived until a visit to Auschwitz by the commandant of another of the German concentration camps, located in Neuengamme near Hamburg. This turned out to be Hans Lütkmeyer, a pre-war boxing referee, who recognized Pietrzykowski (he had refereed one of the fights he had fought at a competition in Poznań). He offered the Pole a trip to Neuengamme, where he appeared again in the ring to fight the Germans. He stayed in Neuengamme until March 1945 and spent the last weeks of the war in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, from where he was liberated by the British.

Pietrzykowski returned to the country in 1946 as a 29-year-old. Unfortunately, his poor health, impaired by his wartime experiences, made a return to boxing at a high international level impossible. He therefore devoted himself to organisational and training work. He lived in Warsaw at the time and also attended lectures at the Academy of Fine Arts as a free student. He also began studies at the Academy of Physical Education, which he finally completed in 1959. At the same time, he worked as a boxing coach at the Zryw club. He continued his career as a trainer and physical education teacher in the following decades, also after moving to Bielsko-Biała. Young people loved classes with Pietrzykowski because, like no one else, he was able to get through to them and get them interested in sports.

Krzysztof SZUJECKI
Polish sports historian, specializing in the history of the contemporary sports movement. Author of books, m.in. the several-volume „History of Sport in Poland”, „Encyclopedia of Olympic Games” or „Sports Life in the People’s Republic of Poland”

Source: DlaPolonii.pl