The most meaningful impacts can be small-scale

The impact on one Roma man of Rainer Schulze’s research was worth far more than any amount of academic praise

December 3, 2015
Boxer's fist punching heavy bag

While the impact agenda encourages us to make as big a splash with our research as possible, a recent incident brought home to me that small-scale effects can sometimes be the most meaningful.

I was at the Roma Pride parade in Budapest on 17 October. About 1,000 Roma and their supporters were marching through the streets. One young man was carrying a placard with a photograph I recognised immediately as being of the German Sinto boxer Rukeli (or Johann) Trollmann.

I was amazed that anyone knew who he was – he is virtually unknown, even in Germany. The young man told me that he had come across him on a British website and found the story so inspiring that he wanted other Roma to know about it, too. It turned out that he was referring to one of the life stories I had written earlier this year for the UK Holocaust Memorial Day Trust on Roma persecution during the Nazi period.

As well as being a formidable boxer with his own “dancing” style, Hanover-born Trollmann was also something of a heart-throb. In 1929 he turned professional, and was about to reach the peak of his career when the Nazis came to power.

On 9 June 1933, he fought against Adolf Witt for the German light-heavyweight title. He was on course to win when the Nazi chairman of the boxing authority intervened, ordering the judges not to award the title. The audience was so outraged that Trollmann had to be hastily crowned champion after all – only to be stripped of the title a few days later on account of “bad boxing”.

A new bout was scheduled for the following month, and Trollmann was ordered to fight in the “German style”. He knew that he was meant to lose because he was a Sinto, and reacted by doing something amazing. He entered the ring with his face and body powdered with flour and his hair dyed blond: a caricature of an Aryan. Then he just stood still and took his opponent’s blows until he was knocked out in the fifth round.

This act of personal defiance was the end of Trollmann’s boxing career. He was twice sent to labour camps and, in 1938, agreed to be sterilised. He divorced his non-Sinti wife to protect her and his daughter.

Following the outbreak of war in 1939, he was drafted into the German army, but was dishonourably discharged in 1942 for racial reasons and soon afterwards arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured and transported to the Neuengamme concentration camp. The commandant recognised him and ordered him to train the camp’s SS men at night, after punishing 12-hour shifts of forced labour.

The camp’s underground committee of prisoners faked his death, provided him with a false identity and managed to get him transferred to a satellite camp. But here, too, he was recognised and, in March 1944, beaten to death by another prisoner whom he had defeated in a boxing match set up by the camp officers. It was not until 2003 that the German Boxing Association recognised Trollmann as the winner of the 1933 championship fight.

The young man in Budapest clearly regarded Trollmann as a role model and hoped to encourage the embattled Roma communities in Hungary and elsewhere to emulate the example Trollmann had set in 1933 by standing up as proud Roma to those who persecute them.

In any official assessment of the “impact” or “benefit” of academic research this would not count for much: the “reach” or “significance” of this one individual learning experience would be unlikely to be rated highly. Yet what could be more important than a young person from the disadvantaged Hungarian Roma community reclaiming part of his history and taking pride in it?

My accidental encounter in Budapest left me with a far greater sense of pride and achievement than would any amount of praise for a specialised article that, at best, perhaps 10 other academics will read.

Rainer Schulze is professor of modern European history at the University of Essex and is currently working on a book on the Holocaust in postwar collective memory for Bloomsbury.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Punching above its weight

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