Saturday, January 25, 2014

The boxer Leen Sanders ... my Dad's hero

Leen Sanders (from
(15th in a series)
     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 "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
        I remember that, but in researching for this piece, I found the tie-in. Sanders and his second wife came to live in Culver City, Calif., which is exactly where my parents were visiting. Their friends from back in Amsterdam, Max and Greta Himel, settled there after immigrating to the U.S. in the 1950s, as we did. And I remembered the Himels from my early days.
       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 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.
      In the biography on Sanders, there is reference to letters he received from people thanking him for saving their lives. Members of the former "Beggars" resistance group -- Minco was one -- wrote a letter to the Dutch government in 1976 asking for a statue of Sanders to be erected at one of the satellite concentration camps where he wound up near the end of the death march in 1945.
       That didn't happen, but I suspect Sanders did not worry about it. One item I saw said he was always modest about his role at Auschwitz.
       In 1990, he told Ben Braber -- who wrote a book on Holland and the Holocaust -- that, "It was certainly a risk. If you got caught  then, then ... There were [built-in] risks that never came [developed]. I've never been caught. I was very lucky."
       After he came back to a wrecked Rotterdam in 1946, Sanders resumed his boxing career, but for only two bouts. A few months later he married Henriette van Creveld.
       They went to live for a time in Aruba, a Dutch-speaking country in the West Indies where Sanders was a boxing promoter-trainer, then moved to Los Angeles. As chairman of a Holocaust survivors group (WUF), he tried to arrange for war reparations and benefits. Dad makes a reference to this in his Shoah Foundation interview.
       Sanders and his wife returned to Rotterdam for his final years; he died April 8, 1992, at age 83.
       In his book, Minco wrote of the Auschwitz camp, "From the beginning there was aloofness [by everyone] for the Dutchmen ... There was one among us who have a very hard head and whose fist had always hit the mark."
       My Dad could've told you that about Leen Sanders, his hero.
       (Next: Food was always an issue)


  1. From Elsa Van Thyn: In 1967, I went with my parents to LA, and it was then that Daddy saw Leen Sanders for the first time since the war. I remember Daddy thinking that Leen Sanders had died, as Mr. Sanders thought Daddy had. It was quite a happy reunion. If memory serves me, we visited him at his home several days later. Quite the story.

  2. From Don Landry: Thanks. As you know, I love stories about boxers. (Note: Coach Landry wrote a book -- Boxing: Louisiana's Forgotten Sport, about college and high school boxing in the state).

  3. From Jean Afeman: Always at a loss of words in awe of such ... thank you for sharing ...hope you've thought of publishing.

  4. From Sid Huff: An incredible story, Nico. As a human being, it is almost incomprehensible that one group of humans could so mistreat another group of humans. Then I see what is happening today around the world and another part of me is NOT surprised. I'd wish I had known your Dad.