Sinai Says: A boxing hero who fought through to the end of the Holocaust

Victor "Young" Perez was just as great a champion out of the ring as he was in it.

Allon sinai 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Allon sinai 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost." - Arthur Ashe Victor "Young" Perez's story begins on October 18, 1911, in the modest neighborhood of Hafsia, a Jewish quarter of the city of Tunis in what was then still the French colony of Tunisia. From a young age Perez set his sights on becoming a boxing champion and at 14, he started training in the Maccabi organization, along with his older brother Benjamin "Kid" Perez. Just six years later, on October 26, 1931, Perez, who weighed 110 pounds and stood only 5'1," knocked out the American champion Frankie Genaro in the second round of their bout in Paris to win the World Flyweight Boxing Championship. Living in the fast lane quickly took its toll on Perez, however, who by now had made Paris his home, and just a year later he lost his title to Englishman Jackie Brown. Perez decided to move up into the bantamweight class in the hope of regaining his past success and in 1934 he fought Panama's Al Brown twice for the world championship, but lost both times. Perez continued to fight until 1938 and in November 11 of that year he even traveled to Berlin where he proudly wore the Star of David on his trunks and was booed by the Nazi crowd. He fought his final professional bout in Paris the following month, and his overall record in 133 professional fights was 92 wins (28 knock-outs), 26 losses and 15 draws. Perez remained to live in Paris despite the growing anti-Semitism, but after the French capital was occupied by the German army in 1940 he tried to escape, only to return shortly afterwards. On September 21, 1943, he was arrested by the Milice, the collaborationist French Nazi police. Soon after, he was deported from Drancy to Auschwitz with 1,000 other French Jews on the infamous "Convoy 60." Perez was assigned to the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp in Auschwitz, a slave labor camp based around the German I. G. Farben synthetic rubber factory where the prisoners were worked almost to death and then sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz 2-Birkenau. Perez had the fortune, or perhaps the misfortune, that the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz 3 was an aficionado of boxing. He gathered the amateur and professional boxers and ordered them to put on boxing exhibitions twice a week for the camp's staff to enjoy and bet on. The boxers were given two special benefits. Each night they received an extra bowl of soup and once a week they were given one day off from their duties as slave laborers so they could train. Perez faced a German-Jewish heavyweight, who was a foot taller and weighed some 50 pounds more than him, in his first fight in the camp and scored a quick knock-out. He would go on to fight for the next 15 months in the camp and reportedly won 140 straight bouts. Perez, however, was just as great a champion out of the ring as he was in it. At Auschwitz 3 he was assigned to work in the camp kitchen and whenever he could he stole a 50 liter container of soup and gave it out to starving prisoners. When he was warned by friends that he would be hung if caught, he answered, "Human beings were created in order to help others - We live, in order to help." As the Soviets advanced west, closing in on Auschwitz, the Nazis decided to evacuate the camp. One of only 31 survivors of the original group of 1,000 Jewish prisoners sent from France on "Convoy 60", Perez and some 57,000 survivors of Auschwitz were sent in the direction of concentration and labor camps in Germany in what is better known as the "death marches." On January 21, 1945, the fourth day of the "death march," the prisoners were stopped outside the Gleiwitz concentration camp and Perez snuck away from the group and found a large sack of bread in the kitchen of the abandoned German camp. Perez raced back to share the treasure with his friends, but as he approached the group a German guard spotted him. "These are my friends and they are starving. I'm just bringing them some bread," Perez tried to explain, but the Nazi insisted Perez not move. "Young" ignored the SS guard and leaped to give the sack to his starving friends. The Nazi pointed his machine gun at Perez and fired several shots, killing the former champion instantly. Victor "Young" Perez: A true hero and a remarkable champion, both in and out of the ring. This story would not have been published without the help of Yossi Katz.