by Daniel Diaz Heredia
Some time ago the anniversary of the great victory of Jessie Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics was commemorated. This resounding success of American power in the hands of an African-American shocked the Nazi regime, who were unable to deny the athletic superiority of their “Non-Aryan” opponent. One unusual thing is that despite the fact that Nazi Germany did not support the equality of people in a country such as the United States, which boasted of modernity and democracy, black citizens in that country were treated not even as second class, but as third-class citizens.
Imagine a young Jessie Owens who, after overcoming many difficulties and having an enormous will to win, became an international record holder, in spite of all the social barriers and economic difficulties involved in being an African-American of humble origins in the United States of the mid-1920s.
While Jessie Owens received worldwide recognition for his well-deserved triumphs, another athlete from another sport and another ethnic minority plunged into the greatest of anonymities… I am referring to the unknown Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann.
Johann Trollmann had the misfortune of being a Rom in Nazi Germany; the misfortune of being too radiant a figure for the dark Third Reich. Johann Trollmann, nicknamed “Rukeli”, grew up in the industrial area of Hannover, where it did not take him long to catch the attention of Erich Seelig, who would later be his coach. Seelig and Trollmann developed a boxing style characterised by harmonious leg movements that clashed with the crude stand-up boxing style of the early 20th century.
In 1933, with the rise of the Nazis to power, sports media began to criticise the successes of Trollmann by branding his style as “effeminate” or “unworthy of an Aryan fighter”. In June of that year Johann Trollmann fought for the national light-heavy weight title at the age of 25. Trollmann easily defeated the champion Adolf Witt on points, but the judges were unable to recognise his victory and nullified the fight. The crowd hailed Trollmann as the winner. Overcome with emotion, Trollmann cried in the ring.
It only took the German Sports Federation eight days to withdraw the national title and require a new fight to validate the title, asserting that crying in the ring was unworthy of a German athlete. In this second fight against Gustav Eder, the Federation did not allow him to use his footwork: i.e., he had to lose the fight or have his boxing license taken away.
On the day of the fight, and to make fun of the Nazi “Aryan warrior” policies, Trollmann climbed into the ring with his body caked in flour and his hair dyed blonde, mocking the Aryan warrior stereotype. During the fight he stood still and endured his opponent’s blows until the fifth round.
After this fight, Trollmann’s career never recovered. The Third Reich’s anti-Roma laws called for the boxer to be sterilised along with thousands of other Roma. A few years later, in 1939, the Wehrmacht sent him to the Eastern Front to perform “selfless service to the Third Reich”.
The ordeal of Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann had just begun: in 1942 Himmler signed the Auschwitz Decree, and Trollmann was imprisoned in the Neuengamme camp, where he eventually died. There are several versions of the circumstances of his death. The first account attributed his death to a gunshot wound, while another version leads us to believe that he died after a fraudulent boxing match against a Kapo (a prisoner who collaborated with prison guards), who after being knocked out by Rukeli bludgeoned Johann to death with the involvement of prison guards. He was thirty-five years old.
In 2003 Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann’s family posthumously received his title of German light-heavyweight champion. In Hamburg a monument stands in his memory.
In addition to all the abuse Trollmann suffered, his lack of recognition, to the extent possible, exacerbates his situation. While Jessie Owens took the gold medal in the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, overcoming barriers implicit in being a black citizen in the United States, Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann was sterilised and taken to a concentration camp after fighting for a state which led him from one punishment to the next, just for being a Rom. In an increasingly media-orientated society such as ours, the greatest damage that can be done to an ethnic group such as Roma is to be forgotten.