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Photo of Johann Rukeli Trollmann with His Teammates

Photograph of boxer Trollmann with his teammates in Northern Germany.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Shortly after the Nazi rise to power in early 1933, the new regime began to reshape German society to fit Nazi ideas about race and national unity. As the new regime redefined who could belong to the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"), the Nazis and their supporters targeted many groups they considered to be racial, social, or political outsiders. Roma and Sinti (“Gypsies”)1 faced escalating forms of discrimination and persecution.2 Roma and Sinti living under Nazi rule responded to this persecution in a variety of different ways. 

Johann Rukeli Trollmann was born into a German Sinti family in 1907 near Hanover, Germany. Although the name on his birth certificate was Johann, his family and those close to him always called him Rukeli—“ruk” means “tree” in the Sinte Romani language.3 He began boxing when he was young and won several amateur championships.

The featured photograph shows Trollmann with his teammates from the boxing club “Sparta” in 1929, more than three years before the Nazis came to power. He is the third man from the right. Trollmann’s first professional boxing match took place that year. He quickly became well known for his movement and his speed. Fans and supporters celebrated his unique style of “fist fencing” as he moved quickly in and out of range of his opponents in order to avoid counterattacks.4 Some observers criticized Trollmann for these tactics and ridiculed his boxing style as a “Zigeunertanz” (“Gypsy dance”). He was often called “Gipsy Trollmann” by the boxing press—which also published cartoons that distorted his facial features while portraying him as an arrogant and sneaky fighter. 

Only a few months after the Nazis took power in 1933, the new regime’s racial policies upended Trollman’s boxing career. Nazi theorists viewed boxing as an ideal sport to demonstrate the supposed racial superiority and natural dominance of so-called “Aryan” athletes.5 But the regime quickly banned Jewish fighters from training or competing with non-Jewish boxers. Nazi officials forced champion boxer Erich Seelig to flee Germany and stripped him of his middleweight and light-heavyweight titles because he was Jewish.6 In a bout to fill Seelig’s vacant light-heavyweight title, Rukeli Trollmann faced so-called “Aryan” boxer Adolf Witt in June 1933.7

Soon after the fight began, Trollmann began to dominate his opponent, but Nazi authorities would not allow the popular Sinti boxer to win the championship over a so-called “Aryan” fighter like Witt. The judges ruled the bout a “no decision” in which neither fighter was declared the winner. But loud protests from the angry crowd soon forced the judges to award Trollmann his rightful victory in order to prevent a riot. 

Days later, Trollmann received a letter informing him that he had been stripped of the title. He learned that his boxing license would also be revoked if he continued to fight like a “dancing Gypsy.” Trollmann complied, but he protested the demand at his next fight, mocking Nazi expectations of what an “Aryan” boxer should be. With his hair dyed blonde and his skin powdered white, Trollmann stood in the center of the ring and traded punches until he was knocked out in the fifth round. His professional career never recovered, and he lost his boxing license. Trollmann supported himself by fighting in unsanctioned boxing matches at fairs.

Trollmann’s promising boxing career was stopped by the Nazi rise to power, and he experienced further persecution under Nazi rule because he was Sinti. In 1935, he was targeted for forced sterilization—a medical procedure designed to make it biologically impossible to reproduce.8 He divorced his wife so that she and their daughter might change their last names and escape persecution for their connection to him. Trollmann was ultimately confined to the Neuengamme concentration camp, where guards made him box for their amusement. He was murdered by an embarrassed camp kapo after he defeated the man in a boxing match in 1944.

His athletic achievements were not celebrated for decades after his death, but the German Boxing Association finally recognized Trollmann as the 1933 German light-heavyweight champion in 2003.9

Roma are a European ethnic group whose ancestry can be traced to modern-day India and Pakistan. Many Romani groups refer to themselves by different names, such as Sinti, Kalderashi, or Lalleri. Sinti are Roma with historical roots in German-speaking lands.


In many languages, Roma are often referred to by exonyms (names or labels assigned to a group or place by outsiders). In English, this word is "Gypsy," which is generally considered derogatory.

Nazi ideology considered Roma and Sinti to be racial outsiders as well as social outsiders. Under Nazi rule, Romani people experienced escalating discrimination, exclusion, and persecution. To learn more, see the overview for the Experiencing History collection, Roma and Sinti in Nazi Germany.

It is common for Romani peoples to have official government names as well as personal names in the Romani language. Sinte Romani is the variant of the Romani language spoken by most Sinti people living in Germany.

Some boxing commentators have since credited Trollmann's groundbreaking style as a forerunner of the evasive style of Muhammad Ali in the 1960s.

 To learn more, see the related Experiencing History item, Program for the 1936 Schmeling-Louis Bout.

To learn more about the experiences of German Jewish athletes during the years of Nazi rule, see Arnd Krüger, "'Once the Olympics Are Through, We'll Beat up the Jew' German Jewish Sport 1898–1938 and the Anti-Semitic Discourse," Journal of Sport History 26, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 353–375.

Trollmann was still permitted to compete in 1933, because Nazi racial theories about Romani people were not yet clearly defined. These theories were developed over the years alongside increasingly radical and deadly anti-Romani policies. 

To learn more about Nazi sterilization policies, see the related Experiencing History collection, Targets of Eugenics.

To learn more about Trollmann's life, see Jud Nirenberg, Johann Trollman and Romani Resistance to the Nazis (Iowa City: Win By KO Publications, 2016). 

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Source Number 21742
Date Created
Photographer / Creator
Hanover, Germany
Still Image Type Photograph
How to Cite Museum Materials

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