The Boxer’s Story by Nathan Shapow with Bob Harris (Biteback, £9.99)
Born in Riga, Latvia on 6 November 1921, Nathan Shapow, or “Nachke” to his friends, was a pre-war boxing champion and a member of the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Betar.
But, in the summer of 1941, his life was turned upside down when the Nazis invaded Latvia, home at the time to 40,000 Jews, and slaughtered thousands of them. Soon, the Jews who had survived the initial Nazi onslaught were sent into the Riga Ghetto as forced labourers.
There, Shapow caught the attention of Obersturmfuhrer Hoffman, an SS officer who took great delight in beating defenceless Jews in the ghetto. On one occasion, Hoffman decided to search Shapow’s room.
The ghetto prisoner, alone with the SS man and suspecting that Hoffman’s intention was to find an excuse to kill him, faced the decision, as he put it in his memoir, “to die like a coward or die as a warrior”.
When he saw that Hoffman was reaching for his gun, Shapow reacted: “I took a step towards him, moving slowly, almost imperceptibly and, as his hand closed round the handle of his pistol, I let my training take hold.
“With all my strength and skill, I threw a fast, round-arm left hook… he was not prepared for my assault… I followed with a classic straight right, connecting with his chin, which had veered to the side from the force of my first punch, his mouth hanging open in shock and pain… down he went, his gun sliding… I grabbed a heavy wooden stool, hoisted it above my shoulders and brought it down on his skull with all the power I could muster and heard the cracking of bone. He died in an instant.”
Shapow dumped the body several streets away. This was the first of several physical encounters, including at least three boxing matches, that Shapow would engage in to stay alive.
Nathan Shapow goes on to reveal how physical training, and boxing in particular, played a key role in his survival. But his story is also about Jews in the Riga Ghetto, their fight against the Nazis and the terrible punishment they endured as the Nazis hit back at them, as they did following the killing of Ober-sturmfuhrer Hoffman.
The Riga Ghetto was liquidated in November 1943, and Shapow was then transferred to other Nazi concentration camps before being eventually liberated by the US Army on 16 April 1945.
He emigrated to Palestine that yearjoining the Irgun in its fight against the British Mandate and later joined Israeli forces to stem the Arab invasion during Israel’s War of Independence.
In 1960, Shapow emigrated to California, where he died peacefully on 25 May 2018, aged 96.
His memoir tells one man’s extraordinary story of heroism, defiance and fortitude that touched the lives of many others. In spite of all the tragic setbacks he experienced, including losing his mother and two brothers in the Holocaust, his marriage, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren together represent Nathan Shapow’s ultimate triumph.
Ahron Bregman is the author of ‘The Spy who Fell to Earth’. He teaches in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.