Berlin, 1935-1938. Fourteen year old Karl Stern doesn’t look Jewish, and he doesn’t feel Jewish. His family has never been religious, and Karl’s name doesn’t give him away either. However, Germany is slowly but surely becoming a place where it doesn’t matter what you think or believe or feel: being Jewish is like being a rotten apple. And, according to Nazi propaganda, the rot will come out and become apparent for all to see.
So, Karl is one of those “self-loathing” Jews who denies his heritage and just wants to fit in. He wishes he could join the Hitler Youth like all of the other boys in his school. He wishes he weren’t Jewish. The problem with reading these Holocaust and pre-Holocaust novels is that one knows the ending. Karl won’t be able to hide from his Jewish background for long. His family isn’t safe in Germany no matter how much his father thinks that Nazism is a passing political phase. The Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht and Dachau and the entire Holocaust itself are coming, impending doom hanging over the events of any novel set in pre-war Germany, especially any novel involving a Jewish protagonist.
Yet, The Berlin Boxing Club held several surprises and revelations for me. I didn’t know much about German heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling who stars in this novel as Karl’s mentor. As Karl learns to box from the champ, he “comes of age”, and he learns to respect his own father, an intellectual and an art dealer with his own secret past. Over the course of the novel, Max Schmeling, the hero of Aryan racial superiority, has two fights with black American heavyweight champion, Joe Louis. I had a vague memory of the matches, but I didn’t remember who won.
I learned about Schmelling, about the culture and atmosphere of pre-war Berlin, about the art scene in Berlin at that time, about boxing, and most of all, about how complicated people can be. Schmeling hobnobs with the Nazi elite, including Hitler himself, and yet Schmeling’s manager is Jewish.
Karl feels the contradictions and conflicts of the time within himself. He’s an artist and a fighter. He loves his intellectual father, but he identifies with the more physical men at the Berlin Boxing Club. He despises and fears homosexuals, but it is a homosexual friend who rescues him and his sister on Kristallnacht. He admires and is grateful to Max Schmeling, but he doesn’t know if he can really trust him.
I would recommend this book for older teens. Some of the scenes and characters are too mature for younger readers. As I think about it, the book would make a good movie, but it would definitely be rated at least PG-13, probably R.