BOOK REVIEW: 'The Berlin Boxing Club': Max Schmeling Helps His Jewish Friends in Young Adult Novel That Can Be Enjoyed by All

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Berlin Boxing Club': Max Schmeling Helps His Jewish Friends in Young Adult Novel That Can Be Enjoyed by All
If you have a teenager -- girl or boy -- in your family, or if you're one yourself, get a copy of Robert Sharenow's "The Berlin Boxing Club" (Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins, 416 pages, $17.99) and learn about Nazi Germany's descent into madness in the 1930s -- and how ordinary Germans, and an extraordinary one -- reacted to a Jewish family's persecution.

The extraordinary one is heavyweight boxing champion and German national hero Max Schmeling, who in this novel is a friend of Sigmund Stern, his wife Rebecca and their children Karl and Hildy. Karl is 14 when the novel opens in 1934 and he -- like the rest of his family -- is a thoroughly assimilated, basically nonobservant,  Jew. Karl and his mother have no distinctive Jewish features -- the kind  Nazis like Julius Streicher stereotyped  with hooked noses and fat lips, but Sigmund and Hildy lack the "Aryan" protective covering of Karl and Rebecca. Sigmund runs an art gallery and was -- as Karl later finds out -- a war hero veteran of the Great War, who declined the nation's highest honor, the Iron Cross.


After Karl is attacked and beaten at his school by a gang of bullyboy Hitler Youths, Schmeling takes Karl under his wing and introduces him to a boxing gym he frequents, the Berlin Boxing Club of the title. Karl becomes a proficient boxer, and muscles up much like the "Captain America" title character played by Chris Evans (but without the mad scientist details). 

Robert Sharenow
Robert Sharenow

Sharenow says in the book he got the idea from a 2005 nonfiction book by David Margolick, "Beyond Glory," about Max Schmeling and his matches with Joe Louis. By one of those  unbelievable coincidences, I reviewed the book in December 2005 and I'm quoting liberally from my review to put "The Berlin Boxing Club" into context, especially for those who've forgotten -- or never knew -- the history of Jewish prizefighters:


The year 1938 was notable for two sporting events that have become iconic: The match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral at Pimlico in Baltimore Nov. 1, 1938 was ably chronicled by Laura Hillenbrand in a book and later hit movie; the June 22, 1938 heavyweight title fight between champion Joe Louis (he won the title from “Cinderella Man” Jimmy Braddock) and German fighter Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. 
 
Vanity Fair contributor David Margolick ably describes the fight and the events leading up to it and its aftermath in “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink” (Knopf). It’s a cultural history of Depression America that reads like a well-crafted thriller.
 
Schmeling, who died earlier this year [2005] a few months shy of his 100th birthday – he was born in 1905, nine years before Louis – was an unlikely “Aryan.” Glorified by the Nazi regime, especially propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Schmeling (pronounced Schmayling) was a dead ringer for Jack Dempsey, with a heavy-browed, almost Neanderthal visage (fittingly enough, the Neanderthal is a valley in Germany!). He never joined the Nazi Party and had among his entourage an observant Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs. The 1938 fight – a rematch of the bloody 1936 pummeling of Louis by Schmeling – was promoted by another Jew, Mike Jacobs, no relation to Joe Jacobs. 
 
Occurring as it did during a period of racism and anti-Semitism that was as virulent in much of the U.S. as it was in Europe, the fight was more than just another boxing match, Margolick says: it was a seminal cultural event in the last year of what passed for peacetime in the awful 20th Century – the bloodiest in the history of mankind. 
 
Joe Louis was promoted as the anti-Jack Johnson, the flamboyant black fighter who won the heavyweight title in 1910 and who openly dated white women, drove flashy cars and lived large. Alabama-born and Detroit reared Louis, a worker in the Ford plant, was touted as a “good Negro,” a man who was happily married and who stayed away from liquor and white women. 
  
In the 1936 bout, the previously undefeated Louis was felled by Schmeling spotting a flaw in the “Brown Bomber’s” technique. He was aided in his quest by observation of fight films and by Joe Jacobs, a consummate manager. 
 
Margolick doesn’t portray Schmeling as a hero – as so many revisionist writers have done – but as a man who was interested in accumulating as much wealth as possible. This aspect was played down by Goebbels and other Nazis, who considered it to be a Jewish characteristic. Schmeling was an opportunist with good qualities; not long after the Seabiscuit-War Admiral race, during the Kristallnacht pogrom, Schmeling sheltered two young Jewish boys in his Berlin hotel room. One who survived the war as a refugee in the U.S. attested to the German boxer’s good qualities and love of America. 
 
After his service in the German Army’s paratroopers, Schmeling parlayed his good connections in the States to a Coca-Cola distributorship in West Germany. He was a lifelong friend of Louis. His complexity is captured by Margolick.



That incident recounted by Margolick about Schmeling rescuing two Jews during the pogrom called "Kristallnacht" (night of the broken glass, Nov. 9-10, 1938) and sheltering them in the  luxurious hotel suite that he shared with his wife,  Czech actress Anny Ondra, was used as a plot point by Sharenow in a somewhat disjointed novel that is nonetheless an exciting page turner. 


"The Berlin Boxing Club" -- which adult readers will enjoy, too -- should serve to educate as well as entertain, especially in light of the right-wing mass murders in Norway. It's important to remember that hatred of others -- Jews, Gypsies, Muslims, Gays -- has never died out in what British historian Mark Mazower called "the Dark Continent" in his brilliant history of Europe--called  Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (Knopf, 1999).     Characterization is especially well handled by Sharenow, the author of "My Mother The Cheerleader", which is currently being developed into a feature film by Julia Roberts' production company. I think that his ability to create fully realized people comes from his career as an award-winning writer and television producer. Karl and Hildy are delightful kids, with Hildy displaying the uncertainty of a young woman in early puberty, complicated by the anti-Semitism of 1930s Germany. The way Sharenow ends the book leads me to believe there will be a sequel. I'll say no more, other than to add that I recommend this book without reservation for readers of all ages.
About the author
 
Robert Sharenow is an award-winning writer and television producer who currently serves as Senior Vice President of Non-fiction and Alternative Programming for A&E Network and Bio Channel. He is responsible for supervising the development and creation of all of A&E’s non-fiction programming including the network’s signature real-life series, justice franchises, critically-acclaimed documentary series, A&E IndieFilms, and lifestyle programming. He also oversees original program development for the Bio Channel.ng TV Nation and the Emmy-award-winning children’s series Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego.

He is a graduate of Brandeis University who received his Master’s degree from New York University where he held a fellowship in the American Studies department. He lives in New York with his wife, Stacey, two daughters, and their dog, Lucy. His website: http://robertsharenow.com.

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