Monday, April 6, 2015

Module 10--The Berlin Boxing Club: A Review

by Robert Sharenow

Sharenow, R. (2011) The Berling Boxing Club. HarperTeen, New York.

The Berlin Boxing Club is a brilliant book.  This story, while fictional, plays so authentically that it reads almost like the memoirs of a young man who with a mixture of good luck and skill manages to escape the horror that would engulf all of Europe.  Integrating the real and the fiction, The Berlin Boxing Club crafts its story of triumph, tragedy, and a young man's growth to manhood all in a brilliant

Karl Stern is a secular German with Jewish heritage, but he doesn't think anything of it.  The Stern family is not religious (Karl's father, Sigmund, is at the very least a hostile agnostic if not an atheist).  The Sterns are an intellectual family: Sig is an art dealer, Mrs. Stern is a cultured though emotionally fragile wife, and Karl's younger sisters Hildy (for Hildegard) is a typical child.  He and Hildy are very close, and Karl gladly accepts Hildy's nickname for him: Spatz.  This is from her favorite children's book series about the adventures of a mouse named Winzig and its friend, a bird named Spatz, who always outwit the stern train station manager Fefelfarve.  The Spatz und Winzig stories inevitably had their call to arms, "There's adventure in the air...and cake to be eaten!"   Karl has an enthusiasm for cartoons and dreams of creating his own strip, even creating some Spatz und Winzig cartoons for Hildy..  Mr. Stern thinks these activities are a waste.

Despite Karl's lack of observing Judaism and his non-Jewish looks (he is fair and has a small nose, due to his only non-Jewish grandparent), he is still Jewish by heritage.  That makes him a target for the Wolf Pack, a group of bullies who are encouraged to violence by the growing rise of Nazism in Germany.  The Wolf Pack beat him up viciously (confirming Karl's Judaism when they pull his pants down and see he is circumcised).  Karl ends up urinating in front of them, adding further humiliation.

He goes to the Gallery Stern, which is facing tough times from two fronts.  First, the Sterns were big proponents of what has been declared "degenerate art", now forbidden by the Nazis.  Second, as Jews their business has dried up.  Finances are down and while they put up a brave front it's clear times are tough.  However, help comes from an unexpected source: legendary German boxer Max Schmeling, who has done business with Sigmund and is something of a patron.  Schmeling is not fooled by Karl's "falling down stairs" story: he knows boxing bruises when he sees them.  He also sees that Karl has the raw material to be a successful boxer.

Schmeling's wife, actress Anny Ondra, has taken a shine to a painting of Schmeling (one of the few that isn't the kitsch the Nazis like), and the boxer and Sigmund strikes a very reluctant deal.  He will give Karl boxing lessons in exchange for the painting.  Sigmund, who finds the sweet sport beneath intellectuals, isn't keen on the idea, but who can deny Max Schmeling?  Karl for his part, is thrilled.

Max Schmeling

Karl finds himself in the Berlin Boxing Club, where Max does show him a few things, but most of his training is really done by the BBC's owner, Worjyk, and Nebling, a big guy with a soft voice that stutters and quite a gentle man.  Despite Worjyk's hesitation, what Max says goes, and Karl begins training at the BBC.  He also follows Max's instructions about the 300 to the letter (100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 50 pull-ups, fifty minutes of running).  Over time, Karl begins to build himself up physically and begins to also gain the respect of the other BBC members.  He even wins a few fights and Max hopes Karl will be the German Youth Boxing Champion.

However, times continue to get tougher.  Karl's beloved Uncle Jacob is arrested (whether due to his Judaism or his Communist activities or both is unclear) and sent to Dachau.  The Nuremberg Laws strip Jews of basic rights and Karl is expelled from his school.  Hildy has rotten apples thrown at her because unlike Karl and his mother, she looks like Sigmund (read, more Jewish).  The Gallery is forced to close and only money from printing secret invitations to boys/men's only parties hosted by a transvestite known as The Countess keep them afloat (the Countess and Sigmund having served together in the war, with Sig having saved his life).  Max is too busy with his fights against legendary Joe Louis to give Karl or the rising anti-Semitism much thought or notice (though we learn he is displeased by it all).  Eventually, Karl's romance with his Aryan neighbor Greta is discovered and because he mixed with a non-Jew, the whole family is evicted from their apartment.  They take refuge in the closed gallery. 

Barney Ross

Despite this (or perhaps because of this), Karl continues to train, his looks shielding him mostly from the bigotry.  He even finds new heroes, a whole world of Jewish boxers he was unaware of, like the American Barney Ross. Karl finds inspiration in boxers like Ross, who show that Jews are able to fight, these Sons of Solomon, these Hebrew Hammers.  They are not ashamed, and neither is Karl.  He comes close to his goal of a championship, even getting a beautiful blue robe with "Berlin Boxing Club" on it, until he fights one of the Wolf Pack in the ring and after the bully's loss, the others reveal Karl's Jewish heritage, disqualifying him immediately.

Eventually, Sigmund and Karl attempt to defend their home during Kristallnacht, but Sigmund is stabbed by broken glass by the crazed thugs.  His mother manages to get her husband medical attention but is forced to leave Karl and Hildy behind.  With no one else to turn to, he asks help first from the Countess (who takes them away while dresses as a woman during the chaos), and finally from Schmeling himself.  Schmeling is appalled at the violence going on but his star has fallen after he fell to Louis. Still, despite the danger, Schmeling does what he can and helps Karl and Hildy find their mother.  She insists on them taking some random books with them, as she and Max have managed to get them passage to a ship bound for America (despite having to separate them).  She will continue to care for their father, and as they leave, Karl discovers that the books contain rare works of art that they can use for finances.  While Karl and Hildegard Stern manage to leave Nazi Germany for safety in America, they still wish their parents were with them.  Still, 'there's adventure in the air, and cake to be eaten'.

Cletus Seldin "The Hebrew Hammer"
Born 1986

I was extremely moved by The Berlin Boxing Club.  Robert Sharenow uses a first-person narrative that allows us into Karl's mind.  In many ways, Karl's story is that of many a young man who find that being different makes them a target.  In this case though, it is mixed with the horror of the anti-Semitism that the Nazis would turn into one of the most barbaric crimes in human history.

Karl does not become more observant or religious.  He still pretty much has no real interest in G-d.  However, over time he grows to accept and embrace his Jewish heritage, especially after learning that contrary to Nazi propaganda, Jews can be quite tough physically.  They are not the 'mongrel', weak people they insist they are.  They are strong, powerful, and Karl sees that being Jewish does not equal being weak.

The Berlin Boxing Club is a tragedy and a triumphant tale.  We see how a great romance with Greta (who genuinely loves him) is destroyed by the world, but she is powerless and afraid to do anything about it.  We also see that the members of the BBC cared only about one thing: boxing.  They had no interest in whether Karl was a Jew or whether anyone else was (we learn that another member kept his Judaism secret and managed to leave for Palestine).  Once his heritage is exposed, we see the real tragedy of the divisions people place on themselves and others.

I was saddened when I read that Karl, in his rush to leave the Championship, noticed too late he left his robe behind.  He never did get it back, and that detail saddened me tremendously.

Yuri Foreman: Born 1980.
Boxer.  Rabbinical Student.

Sharenow also created some astonishingly cinematic moments in The Berlin Boxing Club.  In his first public fight, Karl wins in an open-air area where rain had been threatening to erupt all day.  Once they lift his hands in victory, we learn the following. 
"At that moment a loud clap of thunder drowned out the crowd, and the clouds finally burst, as if slit open with a razor blade.  Thick sheets of rain poured down, causing the crowd to instantly scatter.  Nebling and Worjyk ran fro cover, and I was alone in the ring.  I let the rain fall on me, cooling my heated body, and looked around the empty ring with a deep feeling of satisfaction.  I had won my first fight".

Sharenow captures this moment beautifully, the images pouring from the page.  He has an amazing power of description, from the triumph of Karl's first victory to the horror of The Night of Broken Glass.  Sharenow paints vivid and realistic portraits not just of the situations but also of the characters, real or imagined.  Max Schmeling is true to history: there is no record of him ever being sympathetic to the Nazis and as Sharenow puts in a post-script, Schmeling did indeed save two Jewish children during Kristallnacht, and while Karl and Hildy were not based on them (they were two boys), from that one historic point Sharenow spun a brilliant story.

He also provided fascinating detail about the last days of the Weimar Republic.  Tales about men like The Countess or Sigmund's evolution from hostility to quiet embrace of his son's boxing and artistic aspirations would be enough, but Sharenow mixing them into Karl's own story makes for more interesting and brilliant reading.

I can't find much to fault with The Berlin Boxing Club.  It's an authentic voice of a young man who finds strength (physical and emotional) through boxing, and who despite the horrors around him, manages to survive.  It was wise of Sharenow not to give us a purely happy ending or to give us a different conclusion.  We now have to speculate whether Mr. and Mrs. Stern were murdered in a concentration camp or whether Hildy and Karl really were separated forever.  It's an unclear world they are going into, but at least at this point, they are safe.

In a review for The Berlin Boxing Club, it is noted that a theme is how there are "hidden heroes among us, and that we can aspire to dreams and heroism ourselves".  I think this is so true, as Karl becomes his own hero, who could aspire to be anything.  He could continue to be a boxer, or become an illustrator.  Karl Stern's future in America is whatever he wishes it to be, and even within the confines of Nazi Germany, he managed to go far.  He is an inspirational character, and while The Berlin Boxing Club is historical fiction, I think it is also inspirational.


An obvious program would be to host a youth boxing match.  We could also invite the local Jewish community to speak on the Holocaust, and have an illustration contest in the style of Spatz und Winzig.  I also think showing copies of the paintings involved in the "Degenerate Art" exhibit or creating their own 'degenerate art' would be a great way to contrast Nazi ideas of art with those of the times;  it ties in well with the book because Herr Stern was an art dealer. 

Robert Sharenow


[Review of the book The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow]. Retrieved from

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