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The Mysterious Life of Johann "Rukeli" Trollmann: Boxer, Gypsy, Unsung Hero

Updated on August 21, 2017
A picture of Johann Trollmann in 1928, years before he was interred at the Neuengamme concentration camp.
A picture of Johann Trollmann in 1928, years before he was interred at the Neuengamme concentration camp. | Source

Who was Johann "Rukeli" Trollmann?

Johann Trollmann was a famous German boxer of Sinti heritage whose career ended due to the Nazi regime. He won the middleweight championship that was later revoked because of his ethnicity.

Trollmann, also known as Rukeli, which in Romani translates to "little tree" or "little oak tree," lived a mysterious and tragic life that ended prematurely. His presence remains a national legend and fighting style has influenced many modern boxers - even as it was denounced at the time. Rukeli's life ended, like so many others, at a concentration camp, when a kapo beat him to death with a shovel after winning his last boxing fight against a camp official. His memory remains as one of the many lives lost at the hands of the Nazis.

Johann Trollmann vs. Gustav Eder

Rukeli's most famous fight was against Gustav Eder, also known "Iron Gustav." He was set to fight a tough competitor, but this particular match was more than just another prize fight for both men.

The Nazi-favored Gustav was set to win as an example for the Aryan race. Rukeli had faced discrimination in previous matches due to his aforementioned "dancing style," and was warned to fight like a true German or face serious consequences. He knew he was set to lose, so he came up with a plan to make an example for himself and his people

Trollmann showed up to the match with peroxide blonde hair and a face covered in flour - one fit to mock the absurdity of the so-called Aryan race. He stood in the ring, fighting the way he was instructed, and took blows for six rounds until he finally collapsed from exhaustion. But it wasn't the proud, resilient Sinti boxer who had lost that fight to Rukeli or his fans. A cheap imitation showed up in the ring, and it was the cheap imitation that lost the fight. Rukeli was not showing how well he could fight, how strong he was a Romani man - he had made a mockery of this German fighting style and with that style he lost.

Life During Neuengamme Concentration Camp

Like many people of Romani descent, Rukeli was sent to a concentration camp, where he was assigned prisoner number 9841.

Aware of his celebrity status, Rukeli attempted to keep a low profile during his internment at Neuengamme, both for himself and his family. Yet, his good looks and status followed him wherever he went. His celebrity status caused him a host of problems status, especially when he was sentenced to a work camp. A German official recognized him and recruited him to train some of his soldiers, to which Trollmann reluctantly complied. Working hard labor during the day and training others during the night, Rukeli's health quickly declined.

After undergoing forced sterilization and the atrocities of war, Trollmann had one final match. He faced a Kapo prisoner in a boxing match - and won - despite illness, malnutrition, and work weariness. He was later killed by the same prisoner, beaten to death with a shovel after a double-shift of manual labor.

A memorial plague dedicated to Rukeli and his contribution to the Romani resistance during Nazi occupation.
A memorial plague dedicated to Rukeli and his contribution to the Romani resistance during Nazi occupation.

Trollman's Boxing Style

Johann Trollmann received much negative feedback from his traditional German opponents regarding his unique fighting style which earned him the nickname "the Gypsy in the ring." His swift, graceful movements reminded many of his fans of a dancer, and allowed him to escape blows and return them faster than his opponents.

A memorial for Johann Trollmann, entitled "9841," designed to show the disadvantages he faced as a Sinti both in and out of the ring.
A memorial for Johann Trollmann, entitled "9841," designed to show the disadvantages he faced as a Sinti both in and out of the ring. | Source

Remembering Johann Trollmann's Life

Rukeli is remembered as both a professional boxer whose career ended prematurely and a Romani man who fought back. His legacy was memorialized many ways, like in the statue "9841" (shown above) that showcases the unfairness he faced in the ring.

A German docu-drama of Johann Trollmann's life, entitled "Gibsy."
A German docu-drama of Johann Trollmann's life, entitled "Gibsy." | Source

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