Johann Trollmann was born as son of a German Sinte family on the 27th of December 1907 in the small town of Wilsche, near Gifhorn. Because his upright build resembled the form of an even, beautifully grown tree, his parents Wilhelm and Friederike gave him the name “Rukeli”. In Romany, the language of the Sinte, “Ruk” means tree.
The boy grew up with eight siblings in poor circumstances in the historic district of Hannover. Early on, he exhibited his great talent for boxing and with only eight years, he entered the ring for the first time to exert a sport which was officially forbidden up to the end of the German empire. Soon, he won the championship of the Southern counties and in 1922, he became member of the boxing club BC Heros Hannover. This club belonged to the German National Association of Amateur Boxers (DRfAB), founded in 1920. In his youth, Johann Trollmann won the regional championships four times and also participated in the German Championship as an amateur boxer.
The sport of boxing, so far having been dismissed as being “proletarian”, became highly popular in the 1920s and soon was licensed as an officially acknowledged sport. To the same time boxing was well fancied in the cultural scene of the Weimar Republic. Hundreds came to popular matches. In these years, Trollmann became an adept middleweight boxer who was fast and versatile, but still a hard puncher. His style was spectacular and went down well with the public. In January of 1929, he transferred to one of the famous worker’s sports club of Hannover called BC Sparta Linden, after he had not been nominated for the Olympic Games of 1928 in Amsterdam. On absurd grounds it had been stated that his efforts were inadequate; it seem more probable that the National Olympic team rejected being represented by a Sinte. Along with his growing reputation, the German sports press gave Johann Trollmann the byname “Gypsy” and more than often he was vilified in racist terms as the “dancing gypsy” who boxed in a “non-German” way.
The exclusion from the Olympic nomination led him to become a professional boxer in June 1929. Under the guidance of the Berlin manager Ernst Zirzow, Trollmann fought successfully also as a professional and soon acquired renown in the capital. Alone in 1930, he boxed in 13 matches and travelled through the whole republic. But his success increased even more: In 1932, Trollmann fought only against the best, boxing in the classes of welter weight as well as middle and cruiser weight. Also international opponents were amongst them. Boxing in Germany could not ignore Johann Trollmann anymore.
Due to the National Socialists taking over power in January 1933, sport in Germany and thus Trollmann’s life changed abruptly. The Nazis started misusing boxing for their own aims, as “fighting” always had been one of their main issues. Boxing was renamed into “German Pugilism” and was to play a decisive role in the physical education of the Third Reich. The boxing clubs in Germany were centralised and Aryanised. With this political offensive within sports, aiming at the creation of an able-bodied “racial corpus”, the expulsion and persecution of non-Aryan athletes began long before the commencement of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Exclusion and persecution also affected Erich Seelig, who dominated the weight class of Trollmann as German Middleweight and Cruiserweight Champion. In the night before he was to defend his title, Seelig was threatened with death and he fled to France – as a Jew and as an exceptional sportsman his life was in exceptional danger in Germany.
Johann Trollmann did not flee – and the Nazi sport organs had a problem, as he was too popular and too successful to be quietly removed from boxing. It is certainly no coincidence that his biggest success as a boxer to the same time caused his downfall.
On the 9th of June 1933, Johann Trollmann competed with Adolf Witt in the National Cruiser Weight Championship in the Bockbier Brewery in Berlin and clearly outpointed him. For the Nazis his victory was a threat, as Trollmann dismantled the propagandistic image of the physically superior, Aryan supremacist and showed how artificial this belief was. Among the audience sat Georg Radamm, a fanatic Nazi and chairman of the “German Pugilism Association”, the newly created governing body of boxing. As soon as it became apparent how the fight would end, he issued instructions to the jury to rule it a draw. The jury did so. But the knowledgeable audience was not willing to participate in this ideological manipulation, having seen Trollmann as the predominant boxer over six rounds. After half an hour of loud protest and outspoken threats against the present Nazi functionaries, the laurel wreath was hung around Trollmann’s neck. Tears were running down the cheeks of the exhausted boxer – first due to anger over the denied victory and then feeling joy due to the late recognition of his championship title. This joy did not last very long. Only a week after the fight, Trollmann received a letter of the boxing association in which he was informed that the championship title in cruiser weight was being withdrawn, as both boxers had shown an “insufficient performance”. The title was not awarded. The tears, too, provoked malicious comments – a German man was expected not to be found guilty of such “pathetic behaviour”.
But also without the championship title, Trollmann remained darling of the public and a source of irritation for the Nazis. So his career should finally be ended and Trollmann be discredited as a boxer. Before the match against the well-known and hard-hitting welter weight Gustav Eder on the 21st of June 1933, he was advised that he would risk his boxing licence should he box “dancing like a gypsy”. He was expected to “fight like a German” and face the fight.
Trollmann, well aware of the hopelessness of his situation, entered the ring with his hair dyed blond and his skin powdered white. With this self-enactment as an Aryan fighter he unmistakably ridiculed the role given to him. To the same time, the fight was dominated by the submission to the rules of the Nazi functionaries: abandoning footwork so essential for his boxing style and without bobbing and weaving he faced the “German fight”. Foot-to-foot he statically stood in the middle of the ring to deliver and receive blows. After 5 rounds, he was knocked out. Thus, his fate was sealed and his career as a boxer finished. A defiant rebellion in the moment of ruin – Trollmann was celebrated as a hero by the German Sinte for this brave act of resistance.
In the following years, Johann Trollmann struggled along as a boxer on fairs, living in Hannover and Berlin. Here he met Olga Bilda, whom he married in June 1935 in the registry office of Berlin-Charlottenburg. The couple lived there in a street called Schlüterstraße 70. But due to later developments, their daughter Rita grew up without her father. The circumstances are not recorded, but it is fact that shortly after his marriage, he was committed to the notorious workhouse Rummelsburg. Evidently, the director filed an application for sterilisation for “Heinrich Trollmann” in July 1935. Johann often used the name of his brother and as the date of birth on the document is his and “prize fighter” is noted as his profession it can be assumed that the person indeed was Johann Trollmann. The enforced sterilisation took place in December 1935 – in Berlin about 20 000 people suffered such an enforced surgery.
The persecution of the Sinte increased after the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws on the 15th of September 1935. Not only the systematic exclusion and deprivation of rights for the Jewish population were defined, also Sinte were accused of having “non-Aryan” blood.
So the “Aryanisation” of living quarters affected Jews as well as Sinte. The latter were forced to give up their apartments and move to so called “Gypsy Camps”. In most cases, these were fenced camps of barracks on open fields without any sanitary facilities. Also members of the Trollmann family were arrested and confronted with the unanswerable question to either be sterilised or be transported to the camps.
In Septmber 1935, Johann Trollmann divorced his wife Olga, hoping to protect her and their daughter further persecution by this step. To this point of time, especially people categorised as “gypsy half-breeds” were in the focus of the racial researchers of the Nazis and the criminal investigation department of the Reich.
Due to the “Gypsy decree” the persecution of the Sinte increased even more. Himmler demanded to “deal with the Gypsy-question according to the character of their race” – the path to extermination now became clearly apparent.
Already in 1938, Trollmann had been deported to the work camp Hannover-Ahlem. After his release he lived in hideouts to avoid further arrests. In November 1939 he was conscripted by the Wehrmacht; Sinte were not yet expelled from fighting for the fatherland. After he was based in the infantry in Poland, Belgium and France, he was sent to the Eastern front in the spring of 1941, where he was wounded after the attack on the Soviet Union. To the same time the first mass shootings of Soviet Sinte and Roma took place. In 1942 the High Command of the Armed Forces which expelled Sinte and Roma from the Wehrmacht because of “reasons due to race”. Several members of his family were interned in work camps and were forced to do hard labour to this point of time.
In June 1942, Trollmann was arrested in Hannover and brought to the notorious “Gypsy Headquarter” in the centre of the town where he was severely maltreated. From there he was deported to the concentration camp Neuengamme near Hamburg in October of the same year. He received the prisoner number 9841 and had to carry out forced labour. But soon he was recognised by the former referee and current SS-man Albert Lütkemeyer, who induced Trollmann to box against SS-men every evening after work – even though he had lost about 30kg weight in the three months of his confinement. The illegal prisoners committee decided to give Trollmann a new identity to save him from the attention of the SS. Officially, Trolmann died on the 9th of February 1943 due to a cardio-vascular collapse. In reality, the dead person was a recently deceased prisoner, whose identity was passed on. To slip the attention, Trollmann was transported to the satellite camp Wittenberge.
Again, he could not escape his past as a boxer. He had to fight against the criminal Kapo Emil Cornelius, hated by the prisoners, the fight being organised by the camp eldest in the course of 1944. Trollmann did win the fight, but a short time later Cornelius took revenge for the defeat and let Trollmann work until he was completely fatigued in a work effort outside the camp. He then clubbed the exhausted man to death with a truncheon. Trollmanns death was reported to be an accident; his corpse was buried together with the many other dead bodies of the camp on the cemetery of Wittenberge.
But the prisoner Robert Landsberger, who was witness to the murder during the work effort, survived the concentration camp and gave evidence of the death of Trollmann after the camp was liberated. This evidence remained undiscovered for a long time in the archive of the memorial site Neuengamme.
In late 2003, the Professional Boxing Association handed over the championship belt for Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann, who now is listed officially as German Cruiser Weight Champion of 1933.