Dov-Ber Rosovsky was a world-champion boxer and injured World War II hero whose fierce Jewish pride made him an icon to American Jews.
Dov-Ber was born in New York in 1909, the son of a Talmudic scholar who fled to America after barely surviving a pogrom in Belarus. Dov-Ber grew up in Chicago, helping out in his father’s small grocery store in a poor neighborhood and studying to be a rabbi.
His life was changed forever when his father was shot dead resisting a robbery at his store. Dov-Ber’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown and the kids were farmed out to foster homes.
Dov-Ber became bitter and angry. He turned his back on religion, changed his name to Barney Ross, and took a job working for Al Capone. Barney’s goal was to make enough money to buy a house and reunite his family.
He soon became such an effective street fighter, however, that he gave professional boxing a try. Strong, fast, and determined, “Barney” became a world champion in the three different weight classes. He was known for his exceptional stamina and his street smarts.
In the 1930’s, when Hitler was rising to power, Barney Ross became a hero to American Jews by showing pride in his heritage and taking a public stand against Nazi Germany. He was determined to end each fight on his feet to show that Jews fight and don’t go down. In Barney’s final fight, he defended his title against fellow three-division world champion Henry Armstrong. Barney got brutally pummeled and his trainers begged him to let them stop the fight, but he was determined to stay on his feet. He’d never been knocked out in his career and wasn’t going to start now. He retired from boxing in his early 30’s with a record of 72 wins, 4 loses, 3 draws, and two no decisions, with 22 wins by knockout. He achieved his goal of having no career knockouts.
After retiring from the ring, Barney/Dov-Ber enlisted in the US Marine Corps to fight in World War II. The Marines wanted to keep him stateside as a celebrity morale-booster, but Barney insisted on fighting for his country. He was sent to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. During his time in Guadalcanal, Barney became friends with Chaplain Frederic Gehrig. Father Gehrig found an old pump organ on the island, and Barney was the only one who could play it. On Christmas Eve, before Barney and his fellow Marines were to go to battle, Gehrig asked him to play “Silent Night” and other Christmas songs for the troops. Barney happily obliged, finishing off the concert with “My Yiddishe Momma,” the song he used to play when he entered the boxing ring. Father Gehrig would later describe Barney Ross as a “national treasure.”
One night, Barney and three other soldiers were trapped under enemy fire. All four were wounded but Barney was the only one able to continue fighting. He gathered his comrades’ weapons and fought 22 Japanese soldiers, killing them all. Two of the American soldiers died, but Barney carried the third man to safety, even though the soldier weighed 230 pounds, while the wounded Barney weighed only 140! For his courage, Barney Ross was awarded a Silver Star and a citation from President Roosevelt.
Barney was hospitalized for his battle injuries, and the pain was so bad that he became dependent on morphine. After the war, he returned to America and opened a bar lounge. However, his drug addiction intensified as he turned to heroin, which was easier to obtain than morphine. Barney became hooked on heroin, an addiction that cost him $500 a day, as well as his marriage, his business and his life savings. Finally he hit rock bottom, and checked into a veteran’s recovery facility. He kicked his habit once and for all, and became a public speaker who educated high school students about the danger of drugs.
In the 1960’s, Barney made his living as a celebrity spokesman. After a brutal struggle with throat cancer, Barney Ross died at age 57.
For his wartime heroism and for modeling Jewish strength and pride, we honor Dov-Ber “Barney Ross” Rosovsky as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.