Johann Trollmann: Sinti Roma Boxer Who Fought Against Nazi Germany

Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann

By Alastair Watt

Boxing often divides opinion. Some see it as an artform and an exhibition of strength and skill, while its critics view it as a chauvinist display of brutality.

Regardless of your feelings on the sport, the story of Johann Trollmann is one of heroic tragedy.

Born in Hannover in 1907, Trollmann was raised as one of eleven in a Sinti family in the old town of the German city.

Friederike Trollmann, mother of Johann

From the age of eight Trollmann was showing great talent in the ring and his reputation would go from strength to strength in his teens when he practiced with the BC Heros Hannover and BC Sparta Hannover-Linden.

Noted for his speed, agility and surprising power Trollmann became known as “Rukeli” which stemmed from the Romani word for tree ‘ruk’.

Trollmann in boxing action in the late 1920s

Opponents were unable to shake “Rukeli” during his days as an amateur as he won four regional championships and a North German championship.

In 1928, Trollmann seemed destined to represent Germany at the Olympic Games in Stockholm but officials refused his participation on the grounds of his supposedly “yellow, non-German style.”

This was to be his first but by no means last encounter with racism.

Rukeli in the gym

With typical tenacity and determination, Trollmann turned professional two years later in Berlin as he now had a point to prove to the German boxing authorities.

Very quickly his dynamic approach and technical talent saw Rukeli win swathes of admirers, many of whom were female.

In 1932 Trollmann fought an amazing 32 times but while his box-office appeal grew he began to draw unwanted attention from fascist media who labeled him “the gypsy in the ring.”

After Jews were officially banned from the sport, the light heavyweight title was made vacant by Jewish boxer Erich Seelig who had fled the country.

Suddenly, albeit in sad circumstances, Trollmann had a shot at glory as he was paired with Adolf Witt on 9 June 1933 in a contest for the unoccupied belt.

The fight was politically charged, with Witt playing the role of the Aryan who would supposedly make light work of his Sinti opponent. However, the “Tree” was not going to be chopped down easily.

Indeed Trollmann dominated the fight for six rounds before the chairman of the boxing authority, by now a member of Hitler’s party, ordered that the judges call a “no decision.”

Uproar followed among the large crowd of knowledgeable boxing fans to such an extent that the authorities had to revoke their decision and declare Trollmann champion.

This dramatic success saw an emotional Trollmann shed tears of both sadness and joy in the ring. While naturally, he was overjoyed with winning the title he had also lost his father William (pictured above) to a fatal stomach illness earlier that year.

Hitler was known to be an admirer of boxing and was keen to see his idea of the master race being superior to all others, especially Jews, Roma and Sinti, so the sight of Trollmann succeeding agitated the German leader.

Predictably, Trollmann’s reign was short-lived. One week later he was notified that he would be stripped of his belt for what boxing authorities claimed to be “disgraceful behavior” and “bad boxing”.

The following month, having been warned to change his flamboyant style and told not “to dance like a gypsy”, Trollmann dyed his hair blonde and used flour to whiten his body before taking to the ring and losing  against Gustav Eder.

It was a courageous show of defiance against the Nazi regime that would be his last act in German professional boxing.

As the Nazi regime exerted their authority more and more vigorously, the Sinti were given equal status to Jews in 1938 with sterilization the only way of avoiding being sentenced to a concentration camp.

Fearful for his life, Trollmann opted for sterilization and divorced his non-Sinti wife in order to protect her and their daughter.

Trollmann (2nd from left) in Hannover before the war

Having served time in a Labour camp, he was called up to the German army in 1939 and served in several countries before being discharged for racial reasons in 1942.

That summer, Trollmann was arrested in his home town of Hannover and transported to the KZ Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg.

Here he was soon recognized by an SS boxing referee and ordered to help train the German soldiers despite long days of excruciating labor rendering Trollmann a frail shadow of his former self.

After other prisoners conspired to fake Trollmann’s death, he was transported to Wittenberge in 1943 but soon his boxing fame brought more sinister attention.

This time he was forced to fight one of the camp’s highest ranking officers, Emil Cornelius, and despite years of brutal treatment under the Nazis, Trollmann won.

It was to be Rukeli’s last stand as a fighter. In an act of cowardly revenge, Cornelius murdered Trollmann in front of other prisoners during forced labor duties.

Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann died on 9th March 1944 at the age of just 36. One of his younger brothers Henry had also been killed four months earlier at Auschwitz. Overcome with grief, their mother Friedirike died in 1946 in Hannover.

Trollmann’s brother Heinrich (Henry) who was also killed in the Holocaust

His younger brother Albert “Benny” Trollmann, who was also a keen boxer and learned much from Johann, died of a stomach illness in 1991 at the age of 78 in Hannover.

Seventy years after winning the title, his surviving family members including his daughter Rita Vowe and great nephew Manuel Trollmann were given his championship belt and he has been posthumously listed officially as a German champion at light heavyweight.

Manuel Trollmann (Johann’s great nephew) and Rita Vowe (Johann’s daughter) in Hannover at the 9841 sculpture

In the summer of 2011 a temporary memorial was erected in his honour in Hannover and Berlin. It was named 9841, Trollmann’s prisoner number at Neuengamme.

Sculpture 9841 in Viktoria Park, Berlin fittingly beneath the trees.

The artists (The Bewegung Nurr and Florian Gopfert) said that the sloped sculpture aimed to represent the struggle which the great boxer faced with such dignity throughout his career and in his later life against the discrimination and terror of the Nazi regime.

The Romedia Foundation will soon launch “The Requiem for Auschwitz” as part of a large-scale European project to raise awareness and change attitudes toward the plight of Roma in the genocide.

The goal of this multi-faceted effort is to use tools of education and culture to reconnect Roma and Sinti populations of Europe to the legacy of the Holocaust and thereby foster greater understanding and tolerance toward them and help them address the challenges they face today.

The international partners for the project are the ALFA Foundation/International Gypsy Festival (Holland), Romano Kher National Centre (Romania) for Roma Culture, Philarmonischer Verein der Sinti und Roma (Germany), Slovo 21 (Czech Republic), Roma People Association (Poland) and the Romedia Foundation (Hungary).

More details can be found here – http://www.requiemforauschwitz.eu/