Mauthausen had a fearsome reputation for being the toughest concentration camp in Hitler’s Third Reich. But Bydgoszcz boxer Edward Rinke was tougher
When Edward Rinke stepped into the ring at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, his chances didn’t look good.
Malnourished, diseased and underweight, he was going up against an Aryan beast named Polzer.
A kapo at the camp who was infamous for his brutality and the cruelty he metered out to prisoners, Polzer was bigger, stronger and, as a competent middle-weight slugger, had beaten every other prisoner who had taken him on in the ring.
He was regarded as invincible, to the delight of the SS monsters who organised the bouts for entertainment. But then Polzer met Rinke.
Edward Rinke will be posthumously honoured today by his boxing club in his hometown of Bydgoszcz.
The boxer, who died in 1999, is being honoured for his achievements in the sport over his whole lifetime. But it was three astonishing bouts that took place in the spring and summer of 1943 in Mauthausen, known as the toughest camp in the Third Reich, that sealed his place forever in the pantheon of Holocaust boxing legends.
When the fly-weight reached the notorious concentration camp in Upper Austria in 1943, he had already fought 85 bouts in his career. In those fights he had competed for sporting honour and pre-war Polish titles.
His next eight fights would be the most important of his life. He would fight just to stay alive, for an extra bowl of watery soup and to raise the spirits of the thousands of Poles and other prisoners held in a camp the SS called ‘the bonegrinder’.
To survive Mauthausen, prisoners needed to have an edge: access to extra food, an opportunity to steal, an easier job or something to trade. Rinke’s edge was that he could box.
The SS guards loved to watch fights, which were organised at weekends, and they were always on the lookout for fresh talent among the prisoners to add extra interest to their entertainment.
For Rinke, the chance to box in the camp came when he was just minutes away from death. Anna Rinke, Edward’s grand-daughter, told TFN: “He was standing in line to the gas chamber. He knew he was going to die.
“But one of the other prisoners who knew the boxing scene in Poland recognised him. He knew that he was a good boxer.
“He pulled him out of the line and told him straight – fight in the ring, if you win you’ll live, if you die you’ll go up in smoke.
“Those were the rules. It was the way it was. He had no say in it.”
He was moved to block 7, where the block leader was an Austrian named Unek who organised boxing and football matches for the entertainment of the SS.
After a few sparring rounds in which Rinke showed that he really could box, he was released from the gruelling job of breaking stones in the quarry and given lighter duties in the boiler house. He had three weeks to prepare for his first fight, but after more than 3 years in various German prisons, he was severely malnourished and in no condition to fight.
However, one of the advantages of boxing in Mauthausen was better food rations. Rinke also received scraps of food from fellow prisoners, who were hopeful of seeing him win after seeing his skills in sparring bouts.
When they found out who Rinke’s opponent in his first fight was, their hopes of seeing the Pole win must have shrunk.
Rinke’s path to Mauthausen had not been straightforward as he had been held in several other German prisons due charges that he had been involved in what German propaganda called Bloody Sunday.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Bydgoszcz had a large German minority, which had formed militias to help the Germans take control of the city, which they later named Bromberg.
When the Polish army withdrew from the city, these militias opened fire, prompting a reaction from the Polish population of the city. The resulting deaths of some German residents was used to justify the mass murder of as many as 3000 Poles by Einsatzgruppen, Waffen SS and Wehrmacht.
Anna Rinke explains what happened later to her grandfather: “His neighbours at the start of the war were a German family named Ummerle.
“Local Germans stored weapons in the yard in the building where they all lived.
“My grandfather noticed and reported it somewhere. I don’t know where. When Margarette Ummerle found out, she denounced him to the German authorities saying that he had taken part in Bloody Sunday.
“She even testified in court against him. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. It could have been worse. They could have sentenced him to death.”
He was initially sent to a prison in Szczecin and later to Wejherowo. Anna shows a letter written in black ink on Nazi-era prison notepaper.
“He must have been in Wejherowo for at least two years because I have a letter he sent to his family in which he wrote that it was his second Christmas without them. It’s the only thing of his that I still have.”
When Rinke and Polzer faced each across the ring the difference in the men’s stature could not be greater. “He must have weighed about 45 kilograms max. He was no more than about 175 cm, he wasn’t a tall man.
“Polzer on the other hand was a well built, well fed strong man. He could have weighed 100 kilos,” Anna says.
The fight was the eighth and last bout of a spring Sunday evening in 1943 and the one that everyone was waiting for.
The ring was situated at the bottom of a gorge with banks rising on each side. Some sources say that as many as 30,000 prisoners were present to see the fight.
“When I went out into the ring, I saw an arrogant boxer with an insolent face in front of me,” Edward Rinke recalled years later.
“He was confident for the first round while I learned how he boxed. Then the cheering voices of my colleagues reached me.
“They were screaming ‘hit him!’ while being careful not to use insulting words. And I hit him. For myself and for others, for
thousands of murdered people, for his insolent face,” Rinke added.
The first fight ended in an unfair draw as the SS referee did not allow Rinke to knock Polzer out.
Rinke loved boxing and it was his life-long passion, although he started quite late as a sixteen year old.
“He started as a sprinter,” Anna Rinke explains. “He held the 200m record for the Kujawy voivodship. He later trained in athletics, but it wasn’t enough for him. Maybe there wasn’t enough adrenaline. So, he ended up in the ring.”
Success came quickly. First with local victories and then in 1936 when he reached the semi-finals of the Polish championships.
Following the draw against Polzer, a rematch took place a couple of weeks later, which Rinke won. The defeated kapo went away to lick his wounds and eventually came up with a plan designed to ensure his victory.
He challenged Rinke to a third bout but instead of 4 rounds of two minutes, he proposed four rounds of three minutes, feeling confident that his advantage in stamina would seal victory.
Rinke accepted the challenge but called Polzer’s bluff and raised the stakes to six rounds of three minutes.
The fight was even but the SS judges gave the victory unanimously to Polzer, provoking whistles from the crowd.
Unexpectedly, the camp commandant Frans Ziereis stood up and shouted: “You idiots! It’s obvious that the Pole won the fight!”.
Ziereis was a monster who had sent thousands to their deaths. It is said that he gave his son 50 Jews on his eleventh birthday so that he could use them for live target practice.
Rinke’s victory electrified the prisoner population. “I beat him, even though he weighed much more than me. I beat him because I wanted to satisfy and give comfort to all my supporters in the camp – the undernourished, maltreated,’ Rinke later said.
He added: “It was the only thing that sustained them - every Saturday, every Sunday, when we had a football or boxing competition. The next day – on Monday, when they had to go to do heavy work again, to the quarries – it gave them satisfaction that Poland was still alive in the camp.”
Rinke's victory also brought material benefits. After each victory, extra portions of soup were brought to the Polish blocks.
Rinke fought in Mauthausen five more times before the camp was liberated by the US Army in May 1945. He was offered the chance to go to America, but he returned to Bydgoszcz.
He worked in a printing works and boxed until 1950. After that he trained younger boxers, including Olympic medal winners Henryk Niedźwiedzki and Jerzy Adamski.
Throughout his career he had 138 fights, including 85 until spring 1939 and 8 in Mauthausen. Out of these, he won 98 drew 10 and lost 30.
Edward Rinke was awarded the Silver Cross of Merit, the Gold Honorary Badge of the Polish Boxing Association. Every year in Bydgoszcz a youth boxing tournament is held in his honour.
On January 25, Anna Rinke will collect a commemorative medal honouring her grandfather from the Pomerania-Kujawy Seniors Boxing Club in Bydgoszcz.