Heavyweight Hero: Max Schmeling

German boxer saved Jews

Max Schmeling was a German boxer and world heavyweight champion from 1930 to 1932. He resisted intense pressure from Adolph Hitler to join the Nazi party, and saved the lives of two young Jewish brothers during Kristallnacht.

Born into poverty in 1905, Max was shy and self-effacing. He was introduced to boxing as a teenager, when his father showed him film of Jack Dempsey winning the heavyweight championship. Max began boxing as an amateur, and after winning Germany’s amateur title, he turned pro in 1924. Max won 17 of his first 23 professional fights, and won the European championship in 1926.

In 1928, Max traveled to America, and won an eighth-round knockout at Madison Square Garden and a fifteen-round decision at Yankee Stadium. Max was a fan favorite in America until the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1932. Many Americans viewed Max as a representative of Hitler, not knowing of Max’s strong opposition to Nazism and fierce loyalty to his Jewish-American manager, Joe Jacobs.

Max was unwittingly turned into a symbol of Aryan racial superiority after his stunning defeat of heavily favored African-American boxer Joe “Brown Bomber” Louis in 1936. Max lost the rematch against Joe Louis in 1938, and years later he said he was “almost happy” he lost the fight, because he didn’t want to be an Aryan hero.

Germany hosted the Olympics in 1936, and Max agreed to compete only after Hitler promised not to harass U.S. athletes. The Nazis’ persecution of German Jews intensified on Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” in November 1938. Jews around the country were viciously attacked and many lost their lives. That night, Max agreed to hide the two teenage sons of his friend David Lewin.

Max kept the Lewin boys, Henry and Warner, hidden in his apartment at the Excelsior Hotel in Berlin. Max left word at the desk that he was ill and not to be disturbed. A few days later, Max helped the boys escape to the United States. (This story was unknown until 1989, when Henry Lewin, by then a prosperous hotel owner, invited Max to Las Vegas to thank him for saving his life.)

During World War II, Max refused to join the Nazi party, and Hitler punished him by drafting him as a paratrooper and sending him on repeated suicide missions, which Max miraculously survived. After the war, Max became one of the most generous philanthropists in Germany. He was known for being friends with all of his former ring opponents. Max regularly gave money to Joe Louis, who struggled financially after retiring from boxing. When Joe Louis died, Max Schmeling paid for his funeral.

For being a sportsman of integrity and heart, and protecting two Jewish teens on Kristallnacht, we honor Max Schmeling as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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