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Rights in the ring: Boxing takes centre stage at Museum

News release details

Family of Nazi-persecuted Romani boxer, Sikh fighter who resisted religious discrimination headline panel discussion

Johann "Rukeli" Trollmann was a star boxer in Germany who protested against the Nazi vision of a racially pure Aryan fighter by arriving at a 1933 championship fight with his hair dyed blonde and his body powdered white. Not permitted to box in his usual "un-German" dancing style, he was knocked out in the fifth round. 

His defiant performance made him a hero to the persecuted Romani people (once known by the derogatory term "Gypsies"), but ruined his boxing career. He was later sent to a Nazi concentration camp where he was eventually beaten to death. Trollmann's story is featured in the Museum's Examining the Holocaust gallery.

Pardeep Singh Nagra, the 1999 Ontario light flyweight boxing champion, was barred from competing in the Canadian championships because he refused to shave his beard, a mandatory article of his Sikh faith. The courts ruled in his favour, calling on the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association to end religious discrimination and uphold the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Nagra now manages the Employment Equity Office of the Toronto District School Board and sits on the Community Engagement Council for the 2015 PanAm Games.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will host a panel discussion on Sunday, May 24 with Nagra and a member of Trollmann's family, who is visiting from Germany. Representatives from Winnipeg's Pan Am Place and Pan Am Boxing will also be present. The panel, being held during the Year of Sport in Canada, will explore the ways that sport can empower people to take action for human rights, and become a platform for resistance, education and change. The panel will be followed by a question-and-answer session.


What: Panel discussion about boxing and human rights
When: Sunday, May 24, 2015, 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Where: Bonnie & John Buhler Hall, CMHR (85 Israel Asper Way)
Cost: Free (Regular fees apply for admission to Museum's galleries
)

The Trollmann family – which has developed a children's book about Rukeli's story – will also conduct a special program for selected students in the Museum on Tuesday, May 26 at 10 a.m. Media are welcome to attend. 

More information about Trollmann and Nagra is attached.


Backgrounder

The story of Johann Trollmann is presented via digital display and video in the Museum's Examining the Holocaust gallery in a section that explores abuse of state power as one of the pillars of genocide. The Nazis envisioned a "racially pure" Germany, persecuted those who did not fit this vision, and punished those who resisted.

When Trollmann, a Sinti Romani boxer, competed in the 1933 light-heavyweight boxing championship, his Aryan opponent was declared the winner despite Trollmann's obvious superiority. When his fans protested, Trollmann was declared the winner, but later stripped of the title. 

His unique "dancing" style of boxing was called un-German and "Gypsy" by the Nazis, who ordered him to fight in the traditional German style for his next fight. Trollmann arrived for the match with his hair dyed blonde and his body powdered white in imitation of the Nazi ideal of a German fighter. Unable to fight in his usual "un-German" style, he was knocked out after five rounds. This defiant performance made him a hero to the Romani people but ruined his fighting career.

Trollmann was sent to a labour camp in 1938, and then called up into the German armed forces where he was wounded on the Eastern Front. In 1942, the Nazis issued a decree that Sinti and Roma people be excluded from the armed forces for racist policy reasons. Trollmann was arrested, forced into hard labour during the day and boxing matches against Nazi personnel at night. He was also challenged to fights by other prisoners, one of whom beat him to death in 1944.

In 2003, the German boxing federation officially recognized Trollmann as the winner of the 1933 championship and presented the prize belt to his family. The family in Germany has formed the Rukeli Trollmann Association to support young people in ethnic minority groups who are talented in sports, music and art. The Association also organizes programs and events to encourage education and awareness about the human rights lessons of Trollmann's story. They have also produced a children's book.

Pardeep Singh Nagra made international headlines when he won the right to compete at the Canadian boxing championships without having to shave his beard, a mandatory article of faith for Sikhs.

The Ontario light-flyweight boxing champion in 1999, Nagra had his sights set on qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. However, he was barred from fighting in the national finals because of his beard, until he took the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association to court. 

The court ruled that regulations disallowing boxers who have beards for religious reasons violated the Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Association then postponed Nagra's light flyweight division match rather than let him compete, but then relented as long as he put a hairnet over his beard. He ultimately did not qualify for the Sydney Olympics, but won an important victory for human rights.

Today, he is a rights activist, speaker, teacher and consultant specializing in equity and diversity. He manages the Employment Equity Office at the Toronto District School Board and sits on the Community Engagement Council for the 2015 PanAm Games. 

He is also executive director of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada and has served with the Peel Regional Police, where he was named Auxiliary Constable of the Year. Nagra has also been recognized with the YMCA Peace Medal, the University of Toronto's Arbor Award, the Region of Peel Chair's Award for Community Service and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Media contacts

Maureen Fitzhenry