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Boxers Of Yesteryear: Johann Trollmann

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Johann Wilhelm Trollmann

(Rukeli)

 

If there ever was a story of ‘Blatant Injustice’ in the annals of boxing history. It is without a doubt that the Johann Trollmann's story would rank high in the list. He was first destroyed as an athlete than finally murdered by the Nazi regime.

If there ever was a story of ‘Blatant Injustice’ in the annals of boxing history, it is without a doubt, that the Johann Trollmann's story would rank high in the list. Trollmann is one of the most tragic yet almost forgotten personalities in the history of German boxing, a young boxing star, who should have won the light-heavyweight title in June 1933. But Trollmann was a Sinti and when the Nazis came to power in Germany he was soon stripped of his title and even denied the right to use his unique style in the ring ‘Dance of Trollmann’ as it was known by his fans.

The Nazification of all aspects of German life extended even to sport. Soon after Hitler took power, the drive began to exclude Jews from German sport and recreational facilities. The German Boxing Association expelled amateur champion Eric Seelig in April 1933 because he was Jewish. Seelig later resumed his boxing career in the United States. Johann “Rukelie” Trollmann, being a Sinti boxer (Gypsy origin) was also purged from German sports. In June 1933, Trollman, the German middleweight boxing champion, was striped of his title and banned from boxing for “racial reasons,” on the excuse of an "unsatisfactory performance."

Trollmann was born 12.27.1907 in Hannover into a family of eleven, Trollmann's official German name was Johann but his family and friends knew him as Rukeli, derived from the word for tree in the Romany language. He started training at the tender age of eight and was soon competing with the Heros Hanover boxing club. He was a successful amateur, winning four regional championships, a north-German championship and took part in the German championships. These credentials nearly made it possible for him to take part in the Olympic Games of Stockholm in 1928 but there he faced discrimination the first time when he was denied his place for being a Sinti. Instead a boxer from Hamburg called Cunow took his place - a fighter who already was beaten a few times by Trollmann. As an explanation the officials told him his style was yellow and “not German”. In response, Trollman moved to Berlin and turned professional.

His fame quickly grew into the early 1930s, He was one of the earliest exponents of the hit-and-move style. Trollmann was agile and dynamic and had technical proficiency in the ring. He filled the papers, sold out the venues and among his fans were many national celebrities and very likely even more women. Promoters couldn’t get enough of him: 19 outings alone in 1932 are testimony not only to his box-office appeal, but also to the success he had in the ring. Yet as the Nazis gained popularity he was increasingly lambasted in the rabid right-wing press, who dubbed him the "gypsy in the ring."

In April of that year, Jews were officially thrown out of any boxing involvement, which led to Erich Seelig having to leave the German lightheavyweight title and flee the country. Even before that, Trollmann had a hard time chasing a title shot, but being a Sinti now became downright dangerous in Germany. Still, he was so dominant in the ring that in June of ’33 he was matched with Adolf Witt for the vacant belt.

They squared off on June 9 in Berlin over 12 rounds with the national title at stake, and the German boxing authority at the time banked on their ‘Arian Hero’ smashing the brash ‘Gypsy’ once and for all. However, after half the distance was boxed even the biggest ‘Fuehrer-worshipper’ could see that Trollmann not only made the fight look easy, but was winning hands down in the truest sense of the word. While punches were still exchanged, the chairman of the boxing authority – sure enough a member of Hitler’s NSDAP party – ordered the judges to call the fight a ‘No Decision’. The moment this was made public on conclusion of the fight, an outrage broke out. The fans at ringside were so incensed by this manipulation that within minutes the Nazi boxing administrators had to fear for their well-being. With no other choice to escape unharmed, they relented and declared Trollmann champion. He wept in the ring out of happiness.

Eight days after he won the title he got a letter from the “BdB” in which it was stated that he was stripped of the title due to his “disgraceful behavior” (he shed some tears after winning the title) and “bad boxing”. The leading German boxing magazine “Boxsport” approved of the decision, writing “running and winning isn't what a champ is supposed to do”.

A new fight was scheduled for July 21, with Gustav Eder as Trollmann's opponent. Trollmann was threatened that he had to change his "dancing" style or lose his license. Trollmann, of Sinti heritage, arrived the day of the match with his hair dyed blonde and his body whitened with flour; in a final act of defiance he imitated the caricature of an Aryan by making fun of the Nazi ideology.. He took the blows of his opponent for five rounds before he collapsed.

The persecution of Sinti and Roma in Germany dramatically increased in the following years. In 1938 a new law was announced which made the Sinti equal to Jews and the only chance to escape the concentration camps was to have oneself sterilized, Trollmann too underwent this operation. In 1939 he was drafted into the Wehrmacht, and fought on the eastern front. He was wounded in 1941 and was returned to Germany as a result.

He had to divorce his wife, a non-Sinti, in order to protect her and their daughter.

In December 1942, Himmler enacted the "Auschwitz decree", which declared Roma to be on the same level as Jews. Trollmann was arrested and brought to the concentration camp Neuengamme, his was prisoner number 721/1943.

There he was forced, while in a desparate physical state, to take on the guards for some extra food.

The prisoners committee decided to act, as Trollman's health deteriorated. They faked his death and managed to get him transferred to the adjacent camp of Wittenberge under an assumed identity. Trollman died in 1944, there are different stories about the way he died, however journalist and author Roger Repplinger, recently was able to find out the real circumstances of his death, which were even more tragic. It was in 1944 when Rukelie had to fight his last fight. His opponent was a prisoner like him. But he was different. He was a “Kapo”, a prisoner who collaborated and spied for the Nazis. His name was Emil Cornelius. And so Trollmann went out for his last dance and he did well knocking Cornelius down, humiliating him in front of his friends of the SS. This sent Cornelius into a rage, in which he picked up a club and beat Trollmann to death with it while the SS-guards were watching, laughing and mocking Rukelie.

The ‘Dance of Trollmann’, as fans called his style during his rise in boxing, was finally over under the most unhuman circumstances imaginable. Johann ‘Rukelie’ Trollmann’s life was taken away from his just like the word ‘Champion’ that he earned in the ring.

It was only in 1993 that Trollmann got recognition and was posthumously taken into "the ranks of German masters" as German champion in light-heavyweight boxing. In 2003, seventy years after his victory, Trollmann's surviving relatives received his championship belt from the German professional boxing federation. A small street in the old town of Hannover was named after him. A memorial-stone (so-called Stolperstein) is located at Schulterblatt 71, the theater-building where Schulterblatt 71 boxed. The ring amid the trees is a temporary memorial dedicated to Johann Trollmann.

Johann Wilhelm (Rukelie) Trollman

Boxers of Yesteryear: A series of historical and biographical articles exploring the rich history of boxing and honoring the great pugilists of yesteryear.

 

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