I am very fortunate that people I know recommend books to me and as a result, I read all sorts of different genres. My law partner and friend, Danny Gottesman, recommended The Berlin Boxing Club, a book I would not have read without the recommendation. This work of historical fiction was published in 2011 and is considered teenage literature, but as Danny pointed out, and as is frequently the case with young adult literature, the novel works on many levels.
The story begins in 1934 in Berlin as Hitler is on the rise. Karl Stern, a secular Jew who does not consider himself Jewish and who does not look Jewish, is in high school. In the first chapter, entitled “How I became Jewish”, Karl is tracked down in the stairwell by three Hitler youth (the Wolf Pack) and badly beaten. “I stood in the stairwell wondering how the Wolf Pack had found out about my background.” And just like that, Karl, who never considered himself Jewish, realizes that indeed he is.
That evening Karl must attend his father’s art gallery exhibit. Business had been falling off for his father and the family is hopeful for some sales. The famous boxer, Max Schmeling, is friendly with Karl’s father and attends the exhibit. Schmeling purchases a painting and wants a second painting which is a portrait of Schmeling. Noticing that Karl has been beaten he offers free boxing lessons in exchange for the portrait. Although the family is in desperate need of cash, the exchange is made.
Schmeling gives Karl some strengthening suggestions and then goes on a worldwide boxing tour. Karl does not hear from Schmeling for quite some time. In the meantime, Karl is working out every day, shoveling coal into the furnace of the basement of his apartment building and sketching cartoons. Karl begins a relationship with Greta, who lives in his building and is Catholic. The custodian of the building catches them in an embrace.
The situation at school and around the country is getting worse. Karl’s father is having difficulty selling art and is conducting clandestine activities on the side. Karl helps with deliveries and meets the “Countess”, a transsexual whose activities are also outlawed in Nazi Germany.
About six months after the art exhibition, Schmeling shows up and invites Karl to train at the Berlin Boxing Club. Karl goes to the club and begins training with adult boxers. The club is run by a man known as Worjyk and Karl is befriended by a man named Neblig, who speaks with a stutter and provides maintenance to the club. Nobody at the Berlin Boxing Club knows that Karl is Jewish and over time, Karl becomes an excellent fighter.
Unfortunately, the conditions in Germany continue to deteriorate. Karl is expelled from his school for being Jewish and the family (including younger sister Hildy) are evicted from their apartment due to Karl’s relationship with an Aryan. The family takes up residence in the gallery as they are unable to rent anywhere else. The Nazis begin rioting and beating Jews.
Schmeling, who has defeated Joe Louis in America, is considered a national hero and is frequently seen with high ranking officials of the Nazi party, including Hitler. Ultimately, Schmeling loses to Joe Louis and his status in Germany is diminished.
Karl enters the youth boxing championship and is assigned to box one of the boys from the Wolf Pack. Karl is in the process of handily defeating his opponent when someone tells the referee that Karl is Jewish. Karl is immediately disqualified and prohibited from fighting in the tournament. He does not return to the Berlin Boxing Club.
The Nazis raid the Gallery and Karl’s father is hurt. He is taken to a hospital and both of Karl’s parents a disappear. Karl goes to the Countess for help, and she takes him and Hildy into her apartment. Karl has written Schmeling numerous letters requesting assistance and Schmeling does not respond. Ultimately, Karl shows up at Schmeling’s hotel apartment and Schmeling agrees to help. Karl and Hildy move in with him. They are able to locate Karl’s mother and Schmeling finances Karl and Hildy’s transport to America. Their mother chooses to stay behind to search for their father.
There is a lot going on in this book. Karl wonders, right along with the reader, whether Schmeling would have assisted if Karl had not so aggressively sought his aid. Schmeling tries to explain the complexity of his situation and why he has been seen with high ranking Nazis.
The novel is written in a deceptively straight forward style, emphasizing how a life can change in a moment. The rise of hatred and the ease with which seemingly normal citizens accept, participate in or simply ignore the hatred is chilling. The story is a gut punch. And Danny was correct, the novel works on many different levels.
The novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.