|Leen Sanders (from boxrec.com)|
Before he was a prisoner of the Nazis, before he was in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Leen Sanders was a boxing champion in The Netherlands, one of the biggest sports names in the country during the late 1920s and through the 1930s.
I never heard Dad expressly say this, but no question, Sanders was one of his heroes.
That was true before World War II when they were young men in Holland, when Sanders -- 11 years older -- came out of his hometown of Rotterdam to make his name in the ring and Dad was one of his fans in Amsterdam, and certainly afterward when they were each Holocaust survivors.
Sanders was a hero -- a life saver -- to many survivors such as Louis Van Thyn because at Auschwitz he risked his life almost every day, taking (well, stealing) food and goods right under the Nazis' hold and smuggling what he could to his fellow prisoners.
Translated from his biography on the Rotterdam link of the web site joodsamsterdam.nl: "Sanders the boxer appeared in several respects to Sanders the camp prisoner. However tough the conditions were, he always found a way to survive and then without losing his dignity.
"The latter maybe distinguished him from the vast majority of his fellow prisoners and even more striking was that he attached more importance to the lives of others than his own."
After he first went to the camp and was treated like any other prisoner, one of the Nazi SS men realized who Sanders was and decided he would be given special treatment (that seems like a misnomer, doesn't it, considering the circumstances?).
He was asked to put on boxing exhibitions and give lessons to the German guards and block elders. But more importantly, he was made one of the leaders in his block, a kapo or prisoner functionary, spared from hard labor and physical abuse.
According to the biography, here was the essence: He was put in charge of arranging and distributing the food in the block (barracks), and oversaw and was responsible for the maintenance of the block.
The work he did in the kitchen, according to fellow survivors, was key to their fate. Within a few days, everyone knew there was a champion in the kitchen.
My Dad and Sanders had this in common -- each lost most of their families to the gas chambers, including their parents, siblings (seven for Sanders) and their first wives. Sanders also lost two children, sons Joshua (10) and David (8) -- murdered with their mother, Selly, only hours after arriving at Auschwitz.
Unlike Dad, Sanders was part of the prisoners' group taken on the "death march" at the end of the war. That he survived that horrific ordeal made his story even more extraordinary.
I heard the name "Leen Sanders" almost all my life. Boxing was one of Dad's favorite sports and when he would tell people about his Auschwitz experiences, he invariably would mention Sanders.
He did so a couple of times in the 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, on which this series is based.
"In Auschwitz, we had some people who were more prominent, and they gave us some food sometimes," Dad told the interviewer, who was from the Los Angeles area. "I remember the name Leen Sanders -- I don't know if you've heard that name in Los Angeles -- he was living there before he died. He was a champion boxer in Europe. ... And he gave much food away, that Leen Sanders."
A few minutes later, Dad returned to the subject, pointing out that Sanders "was one of the block elders (leaders) in Block 9" and a leader of the Holocaust survivors' organization in the LA area."
This was in the 1960s when Sanders, as Dad noted, "lived in the Valley near Los Angeles. We visited him twice."
|The Dutch champion (from joodsamsterdam.nl)|
Honestly, I did not know much about Sanders' boxing career or his Holocaust story. What I found was -- in my opinion -- one of the most interesting stories among Dutch survivors.
He knew from age 14 that he was going to be a boxer. The sport fascinated him; he followed older brother Abraham (Bram) into it. By 18, he began fighting professionally, despite his parents' objections.
The web site boxrec.com shows that his pro record was 40-19-16 -- yes, 16 draws -- and that at different times he was the Dutch lightweight, welterweight and middleweight champion. He often fought against bigger men, but in 14 years, he was never knocked out.
He fought all over Western Europe -- Holland, Germany, England, France -- and was proud of his heritage: According to his bio, he had a Star of David sewn on the front of his boxing trunks.
He was often a contender for European titles, but given a chance to fight a Nazi-backed German champion for the middleweight title in 1936, he refused.
He fought continually right through May 1940 when the Nazi Army stormed into Holland and took control. Then he became just another Jewish person whose freedom and rights gradually were taken away. He and his family went into hiding in 1942, when the Germans began taking prisoners, but they were betrayed ... and soon they were in Auschwitz.
Sebil "Bill" Minco, like Sanders, was a Holocaust survivor from Rotterdam. After the war, he wrote his memoirs in a book Cold Feet (Koude Voeten in Dutch) and he detailed some of Sanders' heroics.
He recalled their first meeting when Sanders found out he was a Dutchman, disappeared for a moment and then came back to slip a loaf of bread under his arm, describing it as "the bread which heaven opened."
He goes on to say that "when we became desperate, Leen Sanders came to the rescue in person with a mess tin of soup, bread and underwear, and made it that we could pull something beautiful and we could [feel] appeased, overriding hunger somewhat.
"Later we found out that where prisoners were in distress, Sanders stood in the breach to relieve suffering as much as possible. The Dutch women who were in the [Block 10] experiment, he regularly provided with extra food. With great risk and danger to his life, he had food and clothes stolen from SS -- care units, kept hidden, and he managed to smuggle it inside."
Block 10, the medical experiment block where my mother was prisoner for much of her time at Auschwitz.
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