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28 November 2011 THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB by Robert Sharenow, HarperTeen, April 2011, 416p., ISBN: 978-0-06-157968-8

"All of Germany got swept up in Max Mania.  He flew home in grand style on the Hindenburg, the largest airship in the world and the pride of the Nazi fleet.  Thousands turned up to greet him when he landed in Frankfurt, and the event was covered on live radio.  Every newspaper and magazine featured photographs of Max and stories about the fight.  Almost instantly Max's name and face appeared on products all over Europe as he endorsed everything from his favorite brand of almonds to shirt collars to motor oil.  Max also acquired the rights to distribute the film of the Louis fight in Germany, and it quickly became the number one box office hit across the country under the title Max Schmeling's Victory--A German Victory."
Ten months ago, I wrote about a great new picture book for older readers, A NATION'S HOPE: THE STORY OF BOXING LEGEND JOE LOUIS.  That lyrical, true story is centered around the historic second boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.  In their first meeting two years earlier -- which led to the Max Mania described in THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB -- Schmeling scored an upset, knocking out Louis in twelve rounds.  But in Yankee Stadium, on June 22, 1938, Louis got even by disposing of Schmeling in the first round.
Having previously assumed that Max Schmeling was a racist Nazi pawn, it is a shock to learn from the author's note in THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB that Schmeling was no such thing.  In fact, he never joined the Nazi Party and he heroically rescued two Jewish boys on Kristallnacht. 
Thus it was that author Robert Sharenow was inspired to write a tale about a Jewish boy to whom Schmeling becomes a mentor.  That boy is Karl Stern. 
THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB is the story of how young Karl Stern, who does not "look" Jewish, and who has two parents who do not practice that religion, is nevertheless labeled as such and victimized by his Berlin schoolmates during the rise of the Nazi Party.  But because his art dealer father is old friends with Max Schmeling, it come to be, in the wake of being forcibly disrobed by schoolmates (to find evidence of his Jewishness), and then badly beaten up, that Karl is offered tutoring in boxing by Schmeling  -- at the Berlin Boxing Club -- in exchange for a piece of art (by a Jewish artist) that Max desires. 
Over several years, as Karl's skills steadily develop (both as a boxer and as an aspiring cartoonist), life otherwise becomes worse and worse for him and his family.  His little sister Hildy clearly has a Jewish "look," and so is singled out by her schoolmates.  The family business is failing, thanks to art censorship and laws enacted against Jewish artists and businesses.  Then, being defined as Jewish results in Karl being expelled from school, losing his sympathetic and beautiful non-Jewish girlfriend, and his family being evicted from their longtime apartment.
All through these horrors, it is the discipline resulting from the endurance and skill training dictated by Schmeling that keeps Karl believing in his ability to develop fearlessness rather than simply becoming a passive victim of the Nazi atrocities.
THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB is an excellent and exciting sports story that ties right into all the same old bullying issues and hate mongering we are still dealing with today.  It is essential that adolescents have the opportunity to define themselves rather than being defined -- and defiled -- by others. 
This great historical fiction sports story also enlightened me about Max Schmeling not being a two-dimensional, dumb Nazi shill. 
Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/

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