Karl Stern, a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy growing up in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, is left dumbstruck by the abrupt change of his country’s attitude toward the Jews. His story begins with the last day of school and a brutal and humiliating beating at the hands of three classmates, The Wolf Pack. Later that evening, as Karl and his sister, Hildy, tend to customers at his father’s struggling art gallery, he meets German heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling. He’s in awe. After seeing the damage to Karl’s face, Max offers boxing lessons in exchange for a piece of art. Karl’s father reluctantly agrees. Payment in boxing lessons, rather than money, won’t help feed the family, but a deal is a deal.
As Karl begins training, his life in Berlin becomes more and more complicated. He’s constantly on the lookout for The Wolf Pack and other anti-Semites, he clandestinely meets with a beautiful German girl from one of the apartments in his building, he trains with Max at the Berlin Boxing Club, and he assists his father in making “deliveries” for the gallery. The entire time, he must keep his Jewish ancestry a secret. Ironically, his looks more like he’s an Aryan than a Jew. His mother does as well. His father and sister possess strong Jewish features. More than anything, Karl wants to become a world boxing champion and disprove the stereotypes Hitler has spread about the Jews.
Robert Sharenow provides a gripping look at the rise of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a teenage boy. He begs readers to contemplate many difficult questions without providing clear-cut answers. I found The Berlin Boxing Club quite compelling and I plan to add it to my classroom library. This is a must-read for any teen who is interested in boxing, historical fiction, or the Holocaust.