Sunday, February 19, 2006

Barney Ross and Menachem Begin

A new book about the famous boxer Barney Ross has just been published written by Douglas Century.

The NYT Book Review section has this to say:-

Perhaps the greatest of the 30's crop of Jewish boxers was a fighter out of the Maxwell Street area of Chicago, born Dov-Ber Rasofsky, better known by his nom de guerre, Barney Ross. The 19-year-old Rasofsky-Ross won the Chicago and Intercity Golden Gloves championships in 1929 and turned pro that same year, just as the Roaring Twenties came to a screeching halt, soon to be replaced by bread lines and Bonus Army camps. Fighting to exorcise "the bitterness and hatred inside me" that resulted from the murder of his father in a grocery store holdup, Ross embodied the hopes and dreams of his Jewish followers, who were also battling with bitterness against the forces trying to keep them imprisoned in their ghettos.

Into this vacuum came three little men who stood taller than their actual heights: Tony Canzoneri, Jimmy McLarnin and Barney Ross. They also stood for something more, ethnic identification: Canzoneri was Italian; McLarnin, Irish; and Ross, Jewish. Together these three would be the tonic the sport needed; as Century makes clear, their ring wars, in effect, were wars for ethnic turf...

...Ross next determined to challenge the welterweight champion, McLarnin, who was known as the Hebrew Scourge and the Jew Beater for taking on, and taking out, the best of the ghetto heroes.

In as thrilling a fight as New York had seen in many a year, Ross threw both caution and punches to the wind. Discarding the efficient, careful style that had served him so well in his previous 57 fights, he matched McLarnin punch for punch. Time and again he got away with it. He also got away with a split decision and the welterweight championship. Twice more these two greats were to battle for the ethnic turf of New York. And when the final tally had been made, it read: two victories for Ross, one for McLarnin and three for boxing.

Ross would go on to fight 18 more times, his final bout coming in 1938 against the perpetual motion machine called Henry Armstrong. For 15 rounds, Ross exhibited an infinite capacity for pain, absorbing everything Armstrong had to offer. He was badly beaten, and as he left the ring the sportswriter Grantland Rice asked, "Why didn't you quit?" A defiant former titleholder answered, "A champ's got the right to choose the way he goes out."

And, if you know me, there's another angle.

Here's a bit from the letter of his niece:-

Thanks to research by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, we know that upon Uncle Barney's return to the United States in 1944, he became active in the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, also known as the Bergson group. The Emergency Committee used full-page newspaper ads, public rallies, and Capitol Hill lobbying to pressure the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from Hitler.

Uncle Barney was also active in another of the Bergson committees, the American League for a Free Palestine, which sought to rally American support for the creation of a Jewish state. He spoke at its rallies and chaired its George Washington Legion, which recruited American volunteers to aid the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Jewish underground militia (headed by Menachem Begin) that was fighting the British in Mandatory Palestine. The Legion was patterned on the famous Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which had recruited Americans to fight against Franco in the 1930's Spanish Civil War.

One of the Bergson group's newspaper ads featured a photo of Uncle Barney with this message from the boxing champ: "There is no such thing as a former fighter. We must all continue the fight."

Barney Ross fought the good fight, inside and outside the ring. He fought for America in World War II, and he fought for the Jewish people in his efforts on behalf of Holocaust rescue and Jewish statehood. That is a powerful and inspiring example for today's Jewish athletes to follow.

Audrey Cantor
Chicago, IL

P.S. The Washington Post has this I thought should be added:

Violence was strictly verboten in the family of Reb Yitchak (Itchik) Rasofsky, "a Talmudic scholar and Hebrew teacher in Brest-Litovsk, then a thriving center for Jewish commerce, culture, and scholarship on the border between Belorussia and Poland." It remained verboten after the family moved to the United States -- first New York, then Chicago -- after the pogroms of 1903. As his third son, Dov-Ber, recalled many years later, his father said: "The religious man prizes learning above everything else. Let the atheists be the fighters, the trumbeniks , the murderers -- we are the scholars."

Dov-Ber -- Beryl, as he was called -- remembered those words, but he scarcely lived up to them. In Chicago, he was strictly "a street tough -- a trumbenik " -- and by the time he was 15, he had found his way to a professional fight club on the South Side. He was raw but supremely gifted. Soon he changed his name to Barney Ross, and by the time he was in his twenties, he was "celebrated . . . as the world's lightweight, junior-welterweight, and welterweight champion."...

...As a youth, he had witnessed the murder of his father on the street outside the little store he ran and thereafter was consumed by rage. "The bitterness and hatred inside me made me a much tougher fighter," he said. "Every opponent in a street fight seemed to remind me of Pa's murderers and so I seemed to find extra strength in fighting them, or kicking them in the groin and making them scream in agony." He took that rage into the ring, combined with a fierce desire to make enough money to support his mother and reunite his family, which had been scattered after his father's death.

And Dr. Rafael Medoff of the David Wyman Institute, a friend, adds this:-

In 1947, a group of St. Louis Jewish gangsters associated with reputed mob boss Mickey Cohen agreed to hold a fundraiser for the American League for a Free Palestine, on one condition--that the League provide Ross as the keynote speaker. In their eyes, the former boxer was the living symbol of Jewish toughness. League officials later estimated that thanks to Ross, the event brought in more than $100,000 for the cause of Jewish statehood.

No comments: