The Champion of Auschwitz is the incredible true story of boxer, Tadeusz ‘Teddy’ Pietrzykowski and his time as Prisoner Number 77 in the Nazi concentration and extermination camp.
I visited Auschwitz as part of a school trip when I was 13-years-old. At any age it is hard to comprehend the horror of what happened there, but I remember standing in front of some personal effects on display in the left-over camp remains and feeling overwhelmed.
Visitors to the camp this year can see objects belonging to Tadeusz ‘Teddy’ Pietrzykowski, in a new exhibition, ‘Sports and sportspeople in KL Auschwitz’. On occupying Poland, the German Reich banned sporting institutions, believing they encouraged patriotism. The country’s sporting men and women, along with its intelligentsia, were among the first to be deported to Auschwitz. Teddy, a champion boxer from Warsaw, was one of them. His little-known story is one of extraordinary heroism in the face of unspeakable cruelty.
The Champion of Auschwitz is Maciej Barczewski’s dramatic portrayal of Teddy’s fight for survival as a prisoner of the Nazi regime. It is filmed in both Polish and German languages with English subtitles and captures the humanity of the prisoners to heart-wrenching effect, without a hint of sentimentality.
We first meet Teddy in 1940 as he arrives among the first transport of prisoners to the newly created concentration camp. The infamous sign above the gates Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free) gives no sense of the privations the prisoners will soon endure. No sooner have they entered the camps than the Nazi’s violence and cruelty begins – it is harrowing to watch.
Even sport is used as a form of torture, with prisoners, weakened by lack of food and basic necessities, forced to fight for the amusement of the guards. Here the stakes are higher than any trophy. Teddy, a bantamweight is forced to fight heavyweight German soldiers for his and other prisoners’ lives.
Even winning brings danger, as officers soon recognise Teddy’s victories are being viewed by fellow prisoners as a symbol of hope in the hell of the camps.
Actor, Piotr Głowacki captures the intensity of Teddy’s fight with passionate understatement that cannot fail but move.
While the sporting challenges drive the narrative, the central focus remains on the prisoners, the depravity of their living conditions, the fragility of their relationships, and their strength of will.
Teddy’s is an astonishing story and Barczewski’s film is powerful in its unflinching portrayal of his three years in the Nazi camps.
The only disappointment is not getting a fuller account what became of Teddy at the end, as is popular in many true story dramatisations. But it is a strength of the film that it leaves us wanting to find out more about Tadeusz ‘Teddy’ Pietrzykowski – the all-weight world champion of KL Auschwitz.
The Champion of Auschwitz will be available in UK Cinemas from 3 September 2021
Read our interview with Screen writer and Director Maciej Barczewski
Read our interview with actor Piotr Głowacki.