The tragic fate of Gypsy Trollmann
by Tobias Hanich - It was the 17th December 2003 when a big unjust was set right. Then a process ended, with handing over the German lightheavyweight belt of 1933 to the last relatives of a certain Johann Willhelm Trollmann. Ten years before, in 1993, this process started with the accommodation of Trollmann into the list of German champions.
Article posted on 26.01.2010
The credentials for this were won by Johann Trollmann, who fought under the names “Gypsy” or “Rukelie”, sixty respectively seventy years before these events. In this time German boxing was a mirror image of German society. Just six month he won the title the Nazis seized power and the changes were felt quickly by the people - and the boxer.
Jewish fighters lost their titles and one of the victims of these politics was Erich Seelig, who was known as one of the biggest German boxing talents and held both, the German middle and lightheavyweight title. Shortly after he had to vacate his titles and lost his boxing license, Seelig was also forced to emigrate. Running from the Gestapo he first fled to Belgium, then to France, Cuba and finally to the United States. There he continued his boxing career and went as far as being the number seven middleweight in the world in 1935, according to the Ring magazine. The fates of Seelig and Trollmann were closely connected at the time. Not only was Seelig holding the titles in both weightclasses Trollmann fought at, but he also was Rukelie’s trainer..
Trollmann was born 12.27.1907 in Hannover into a family of eleven. They were of Sinti heritage but abandoned the nomad lifestyle long ago and assimilated themselves to German society. He was called “Rukeli” which means sapling in their old language because he looked like one when he was little, a nickname that stuck with him all his live. He started boxing career as a boy at the local boxing club Heros Hannover and was a successful amateur, winning four regional championships, a north-German championship and took part in the German championships. These credentials nearly made it possible for him to take part in the Olympic Games of Stockholm in 1928 but there he faced discrimination the first time when he was denied his place for being a Sinti. Instead a boxer from Hamburg called Cunow took his place - a fighter who already was beaten a few times by Trollmann. As an explanation the officials told him his style was yellow and “not German”. One year later Trollmann moved to Berlin and turned pro as a middleweight. Despite being a small middleweight he fought regularly at lightheavyweight using his speed advantage to outbox his bigger opponents. Rukelie made a name for himself pretty fast but couldn't land a title fight. This changed when Seelig was forced to vacate his titles.
Due to Trollmann's credentials the Nazis had no choice but to let him fight for the vacated title. As an opponent they chose Adolf Witt, a tough brawler with a big right hand, bulkier, heavier and stronger than Trollmann. These two already fought each other before, with both winning one and one bout being a draw.
Johann Willhelm Trollmann was the total opposite of Witt. Where Witt was crude and clumsy, Trollmann was smooth and fluent. Where Witt relied on his strength and power, Trollmann used his quick hands and feet to outbox his opponents. With his hands at his waist he used quick and elegant upper body movement as his defense. Another major weapon in his arsenal was his dancing footwork which he used to frustrate his opponents. He was also a great showman who clowned his opponents and talked with the spectators in the first few rows during his fights.
Does there ring a bell? People who saw him would later compare his style to that of a young heavyweight who dubbed himself “the Greatest” Muhammad Ali. In Germany back in the day this flamboyant style had its own name. It was called “The dance of Trollmann”.
Another similarity between these two fighters was that Rukelie was what Ali claimed to be: pretty. With black curly hair, dark dreamy eyes and a light-brown complexion, he was the kind of adventurous exotic men who were the desire of the women back then. It's said that every time he fought the numbers of women watching his fights doubled.
His style, his good looks and his showmanship made him a boxing star in his day. In the 1930s people went to boxing like they go to the cinema nowadays. There were numerous small rings with around 3,000 seats in all bigger cities giving plenty of boxers work. Alone in 1932 Trollmann fought 19 times and sold out the halls every time.
So, these two different fighters, Witt and Trollmann, met each other in the ring of the Bockbraurei in Berlin at the 9th June of 1933. Many prominent people were ringside, among them the president of the “BdB” (Bund deutscher Boxer, the German national boxing organization) Georg Radamm who happened to be also the head of the local branch of the Nazi party NSDAP. The atmosphere was tense when the fighters had their walk-in. Everybody expected a hard fought battle and Witt seemed to be the favorite because he was much bigger than his opponent, weighing in at 171 ½ pounds while Trollmann just reached 156 ¾ pounds.
Trollmann himself didn´t care about the weight discrepancy and it was obvious from the opening bell that Witt stood no chance. Trollmann danced his dance and Witt was never in a position to catch him. Witt just stumbled clumsily after him while Trollmann used his jab, fast hands and feet to bust him up and build up a comfortable lead on the cards. Until the 6th round when Radamm told the referees to announce the fight a no contest when it’s over. After 12 rounds Trollmann looked as fresh and pretty as before the firs while Witt’s face was busted up and disfigured with cuts. The winner was obvious or so the crowd thought. And when the decision of the fight being a no contest was announced hell broke loose. The spectators started to boo the Nazi officials, protested the decision, insulting and threatening them. Fired on by Rukelie’s corner-men a riot wasn’t out of question. And so, the Nazis saw no other possibility then to declare Trollmann the winner and new German lightheavyweight champion.
It was the biggest moment of Trollmann´s life, the time when it seemed that he had overcome all adversities and discrimination he suffered - but not for long.
Eight days after he won the title he got a letter from the “BdB” in which it was stated that he was stripped of the title due to his “disgraceful behavior” (he shed some tears after winning the title) and “bad boxing”. The leading German boxing magazine “Boxsport” approved of the decision, writing “running and winning isn't what a champ is supposed to do”.
Additionally to that they made him take a fight against future European champion Gustav Eder who was a huge puncher and a Nazi-idol. Trollmann was forced to abandon his usual style, or he his boxing license would be revoked, and had to go toe to toe with his in this superior opponent. But Trollmann wasn't afraid and he was a showman. When he got into the ring people hold their breath. Rukelie wasn't looking his usual self. His hair was dyed blond; his skin was covered with powder making it appear totally white. He looked like a caricature of an Aryan and it was obvious that he was asking the silent question: “do I now look German enough?” and made fun of the Nazi ideology. He fought brave; holding his own but in the end he had to succumb to the much harder punches of his opponent and was KOed in the fifth round by Eder.
This was basically the end of his boxing career. He still fought in some fights but he never was allowed to use his style and when he was winning despite these adversities a Nazi official would come to his corner in-between rounds and tell him: “Lay down, gypsy! Or we come for you and your family.” In this time he hardly could feed his family. The days of prospering were over and his former fans now became his fiercest antagonists and wouldn’t come to his fights anymore. He had to look out for other possibilities to make money and took part at show-fights at carnivals. This was forbidden by the rules of the “BdB” and when he was caught in 1935 his boxing license was revoked. Shortly after that he got himself divorced so that his children could take on another name and would at least have a chance in their lives. In 1938 a new law was announced which made the Sinti equal to Jews and the only chance to escape the concentration camps was to have oneself sterilized, Trollmann was one of the many victims of this politics.
Despite all these crimes he was forced to join the Wehrmacht in 1939 and later would fight on the Eastern front against the Red Army. When he went home for vacation in 1942 the Gestapo came for him despite the sterilization and he was taken to the concentration camp Neuengamme near Hamburg, prisoner number 721/1943.
When the SS-guards of the KZ found out that he was professional fighter, they started a cruel game. The malnourished and starved Trollmann was given old boxing gloves and had him fight the wardens or other prisoners while being spurred on with “Come on, Gypsy, defend yourself”. Each time Trollmann was KOed he got an extra-portion of food, so that the beating could continue longer. This treatment was part of his live in the concentration camp up to the day of his death.
There are several different reports on Rukelie Trollmann's death. In the official documents it was announced he died by a circulatory failure in 1943, a reason with which the Nazis often hided their murders in concentration camps. Trollmann’s relatives on the other hand said he was shot by the SS wardens in 1943. Both stories are false.
The journalist and author Roger Repplinger (“Leg dich, Zigeuner. Die Geschichte von Johann Trollmann und Tull Harder”) just recently was able to find out the real circumstances of his death, which were even more tragic. It was in 1944 when Rukelie had to fight his last fight. His opponent was a prisoner like him. But he was different. He was a “Kapo”, a prisoner who collaborated and spied for the Nazis. His name was Emil Cornelius. And so Trollmann went out for his last dance and he did well knocking Cornelius down, humiliating him in front of his friends of the SS. This sent Cornelius into a rage, in which he picked up a club and beat Trollmann to death with it while the SS-guards were watching, laughing and mocking Rukelie.
Since that day more than sixty years have passed and finally he does not get redemption but at least recognition. His family got his title, he got accommodated to the list of German champs, the press talks about him, there is a street named after him in Hannover and in Hamburg in front of the “Rote Flora” in which he made many fights a stumbling stone with his name keeps the people reminding of his tragic fate, so that it may never repeat itself.
previous article: News: Sadam Ali; Eric Fields; Maureen Shea
next article: UK Boxing: Lenny Daws; Erick Ochieng; Judgement Day III
Boxing Forum | Boxing | Bet On This Fight | Back To Top