Johann Trollmann and Romani Resistance to the Nazis
By Jud Niremberg
Admittedly, this is not the sort of book I thought I’d ever review for this blog. It is historical nonfiction, mostly about a marginalized ethnic group during World War II and the Holocaust, told primarily through the story of one main “character,” an actual professional boxer named Johann Trollmann (“Rukeli”). When I was asked to review the book, my history degree was used by the author as the bait. Because I genuinely do enjoy history and learning about groups of people and athletes in different time periods, I found myself intrigued by the topic.
Prior to reading this book, I read a historical fiction novel which is very popular at the moment among women’s book clubs: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. That book is about two sisters and their respective involvement in the French Resistance during World War II. I enjoyed the book because it told the story of two very different women who used their individual, but definitively feminine, strengths to participate in the resistance during a time when many women were nothing but offspring producers, cooks and maids, and sexual property for men. As a woman, I understand the marginalization of women in history and certainly during times of war. Men are the ones depicted in history as brave and heroic, while women kept house and kept quiet. Reality is that wasn’t the case, and as time has gone by, more stories (whether fiction or nonfiction) have been written about the brave and heroic contributions of women that went unreported and undocumented in official accounts.
As Caucasian and with an ethnic make-up consisting of a few different nationalities – like many Americans descended from European immigrants - I oftentimes do not think much further beyond what the history books and photographs and officially approved stories on display tell us about the truth of historical events. And I know better. I look for the little things, the untold twinkle in someone’s eye or the subtle nuance in language. I, like probably most people, do not think much about the other ethnic groups and subcultures who were slaughtered, right alongside of the Jews, in Nazi camps. When I think of the Holocaust, I think of six million Jews who lost their lives.
Sports are the great metaphors for life. Boxing, perhaps more than most, is a standard bearer for individual triumph and individual defeat. A less brutish sport that does the same is golf. Both take a tremendous amount of discipline and physical training to be a professional. But the triumph is really the one within the individual mind. You use your brain to actually win these sports.
This book takes the history of Johann Trollmann, a “Gypsy” professional boxer, and his fight for inclusion – as a minority ethnicity - in the professional boxing world at a time when one’s race alone could disqualify him from participation. It follows his relative brief personal history of rise to dominance to destruction and then to his ultimate demise. I cannot say that Trollmann was ever defeated because I am a staunch believer that Hemingway was right in The Old Man and the Sea: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Intertwined, and sometimes lost, within the larger story of the Roma and Sinti ethnicities’ (AKA “Gypsies”) plight during World War II and the Holocaust and their continued struggle for inclusion in even the most basic of human dignities (for example, having their group recognized and honored properly in Holocaust museums and memorials), Jud Niremberg takes the life and career and death of Trollmann and parallels it with what was going on within the Roma and Sinti overall at the time. The book is very well researched and the author is clearly very passionate about giving a voice to an entire race and its subsequent sub-races which has been largely ignored and pushed aside for its bulk of its entire existence. He is right when he says that Gypsies are bogged down with unfortunate stereotypes. I, too, am guilty of thinking of Gypsies as those who migrate from here to there and steal things. A section of my hometown was called “Gypsy Town,” and while during my childhood, there weren’t classic Gypsies living there anymore, there was an attitude about the conniving and thievery that happened there.
As an outside and almost casual observer of culture wars and racial tension in the United States, I find value and substance in both sides of the coin. Continuing to highlight minority contributions based upon their ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender keeps us entrenched in giving attention to the very things that are not supposed to really matter. You’re gay and you served your country? Does your sexual orientation actually have anything to do with that? Of course it doesn’t, so why should we care that you’re gay and served your country? However, not highlighting these things – at least in their infancy - keeps their very contributions marginalized and out of the history books and museums. In fact, there was a time when if an openly gay person did something heroic, it would be purposely kept out of the history books. That is a fact. Showing that someone who is not in the majority also does the same exact things as everyone else shows our collective humanity…while we are not all the same, we are also not so different at the end of the day.
The lesson here is that as individuals, we want to be judged – be seen - based upon our character and not the color of our skin. But in order to be judged - in order to be seen - we feel like we have to point it out to the masses. “I’m here and I did this great thing too! My gender did not matter! I was what mattered.”
There is pride within the groups that we are born into. There is pride in groups that we choose to belong to. But there is also shame assigned by ignorance and fear and then inherited by those who actually did nothing shameful. It is by the telling of the small stories within the big ones that make history and our connection to it as human beings real, truthful and honorable. We are all a part of great history and we are all a part of tragic and horrible history.
Perhaps the best summary of the entire book is within this one quote: “Acts of heroism during Europe’s darkest moments were not rare. It is the awareness of these acts that is lacking.”
I highly recommend Johann Trollmann and Romani Resistance to the Nazis by Jud Niremberg to anyone who has an interest in history overall – and in particular, smaller and marginalized racial groups. I learned so much about Romani culture, their contributions during World War II, and sadly, their continued fight for inclusion overall in the larger story.
To purchase this book, go to Amazon