The role of sport in KL Auschwitz

In Auschwitz, sport played an important and dual function. On one hand, it provided the prisoners with entertainment in their free time – in the evenings or on Sundays. On the other hand, it provided entertainment for the Kapos and SS-men. Sport was also an excellent tool for punishing and torture.

Millions of people of various nations went to Auschwitz. Some of them were athletes, both professional, including Olympians or national champions, and those who had not yet managed to prove themselves. Their careers were interrupted or irretrievably canceled. There were footballers, boxers, fencers, wrestlers, and skiers. The latter were often political prisoners who, due to their skills and practiced sports, could help in crossing the border: people, money, or even weapons.

The prisoners even built a football field behind the hospital barracks to play football. The playing field and also one of the matches was described by Tadeusz Borowski, inmate number 119198, in his war story „People who were walking”. Sometimes a net was placed between the blocks and volleyball was played. There was also a sort of athletics competition in which prisoners and German officers competed. Mind games, such as bridge and chess, were also played in Auschwitz. Even the camp chess has survived to this day.

One of the most popular sports in the camp was boxing. The clashes organized by the SS-men and kapos were quite a profitable undertaking for them. Before each fight, they made bets and organized games with heavy alcohol drinks. The athletes themselves could also count on additional benefits, such as bigger food rations or better treatment. But unfortunately, only those who won. The losers, often severely beaten, were left to die. The pre-war Polish vice-champion of bantamweight scales – Tadeusz „Teddy” Pietrzykowski, one of the first prisoners, was well-known in this sport. His most famous fight was with Walter Düning. The Pole knocked down a few kilos of the German champion, heavier than himself, with a knockout. In his memoirs, he said that it was his greatest achievement. Unfortunately, the sport was not a pleasant pastime for everyone, thanks to which it was possible to break away from the reality of the camp for a moment or to gain even a slim chance of survival.

Other prisoners-athletes were forced to box, such as Antoni Czortek, another famous Polish athlete. The SS-men used sports to oppress KL Auschwitz prisoners. A few minute squats, forced bathing in a fire pool, if a prisoner was noticed at least one louse, most often resulted in death by drowning or all-day long marches were the order of the day and constituted the so-called indirect extermination of camp prisoners. The „sport” imposed by the Nazis was to be devastating not only physically, but above all mentally. Memories of one of the prisoners have been preserved, who says that they jumped for so long that he must have fainted because at some point he lost consciousness. After the war, the phenomenon of devastating torture using physical exercise was called „pseudosport”.

Athletes who won against Germany in pre-war times could also count on more severe treatment. They include a Polish runner, Józef Noja, or the aforementioned Antoni Czortek, who took over the ring from Pietrzykowski.
Summing up, it can be said that sport played an entertaining role in the camp. On one hand, it was a variety to the daily torment of the camp for prisoners and a chance to survive in devastating and inhuman conditions. On the other hand, it was an instrument of torture in the hands of the sadistic Nazis. A tool that effectively destroys prisoners both physically and mentally, often leading to death.

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