The story of Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Pietrzykowski is a remarkable one. One of fortitude, resilience and most of all hope. And certainly one worthy of Hollywood, so much so that director Maciej Barczewski is commemorating it in his upcoming film Champion (Mistrz in Polish).
Tadeusz Pietrzykowski or “Teddy” as he was known, was born in Warsaw in 1917 and at the age of 20 became a bantamweight boxer. Before the war broke out, he had managed to achieve great success becoming champion of Poland.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, Pietrzykowski had hopes of joining the Polish army that was forming in France, as a fighter pilot, but his journey to the country was stopped by officials who arrested him at the Hungarian-Yugoslav border.
On June 14, 1940, Pietrzykowski became one of the 728 Poles and 20 Polish Jews who formed the first mass transportation to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. His prisoner number was 77.
Once the prison guards became aware of his boxing talents they quickly forced him to compete for their entertainment. For Pietrzykowski, it was a fight for survival.
His first fight was in 1941 against Walter Dunning, a pre-war German middleweight vice-champion who was a ‘kapo’ at Auschwitz. Dunning weighed 70 kilograms while Pietrzykowski, after months in the camp, weighed just 40 kilograms. Yet against all the odds Pietrzykowski came out on top, winning himself a loaf of bread.
Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Sobolewicz remembered decades later that “he was the smaller of the two, but he was agile and fast. He had an incredible punch, aimed right for the stomach, and knew how to duck his opponent’s blows. He won the fight and got his bread and margarine. You have to admit that the Germans kept their promise.”
In providing entertainment for the SS, boxing for Pietrzykowski became a lifeline. His success became a symbol of hope against his oppression and provided inmates with a sense of agency in the face of adversity.
“In order to survive the camp he had to prove himself in some way,” recalled Pietrzykowski’s daughter, Eleonora Szafran, “He had just finished his high school exams and had no professional skills. The only thing he could do was box.”
Over the course of his time in the camp, Pietrzykowski fought 37 times, losing just twice.
In 1943 he was sent to Neuengamme camp in North Germany, where he was also forced to fight, and then to Bergen-Belsen where he was liberated in April 1945.
After the war, Pietrzykowski worked as a physical education instructor in Poland, dying in Warsaw in 1991. He never returned to boxing after his time in the camps.
Unsurprisingly, this story has inspired many writers, including novelist Jozef Hen who wrote Bokser i śmierć which was adapted in to a 1962 film by Peter Solan.
Director Maciej Barczewski, himself the grandson of a former Auschwitz survivor, is also now adapting Pietrzykowski’s story for the film Champion.
“It’s a tale of courage, hope, and strength. First of all, it tells an unknown chapter of Polish history and of an extraordinary man, who for his fellow inmates became a symbol of hope,” says Barczewski.
The film draws on archives of statements from former prisoners, and memories of Pietrzykowski and his family.
Piotr Głowacki, who plays Pietrzykowski, says “the whole film is an attempt to answer who Teddy Pietrzykowski has become to me. This is certainly a story about an attempt to escape hell, about what a human is capable of, about recognising oneself.”
Produced by Krzysztof Szpetmański and Leszek Starzyński, the film also features actors Marian Dziędziel, Grzegorz Małecki, Rafał Zawierucha, Marcin Bosak, Marcin Czarnik and Piotr Witkowski and is being made with the support of the Polish Film Institute.
Filming of Champion was recently completed in Poland and is set to hit the big screens in the autumn.
Photo: Auschwitz Memorial