The Berlin Boxing Club
By: Robert Sharenow
Published By: Harper Teen
Page Count: 416
Release Date: April 26, 2011
Source: Goldberg McDuffie Communications
Audience: Young Adult
The Berlin Boxing Club isn't a book I would have picked up on my own. However, when this request came through and I noticed that it was set in Nazi era Germany, I thought I would give it a try. I am always on the lookout for historical fiction that I can use in my classroom. Also, I often find it difficult to find books that will appeal to the boys in my classroom. Boxing is one of those things that will certainly appeal to boys, but might turn female readers off. However, I caution you to not let the boxing aspect keep you from reading this one. The Berlin Boxing Club is about so much more than boxing - it is about the triumph of the human spirit and perseverance in spite of prejudice. There is much that readers of both genders can gain from reading this book. Karl's emotions seep through the page and capture your attention from the beginning - this is a beautifully written historical piece that should be at the top of your reading list.
The Berlin Boxing Club is a famous gym where boxers come together to train. Often the great Max Schmeling graces the club with his presence when he is living in Berlin. Max Schmeling is a real figure from German history. Many Americans who are interested in U.S. History will probably remember him from his two fights with Joe Louis. My students and I watched some video clips of the Schmeling and Louis fights this past school year and talked about all of the symbolism behind their epic bouts as well as the propaganda that sprang up as a result. Many of my male students were fascinated and I wish that I had been able to offer this book as a reading suggestion at that time.
To most Germans, Max Schmeling is a national hero and young boys every where want to be just like him, but it is Karl Stern who will come closer to that dream than any other German youngster. Karl's father, a local art gallery owner, is friends with the great Schmeling, who attends a fateful gallery event. In exchange for a painting, Max agrees to give Karl boxing lessons and says he has the makings of a great fighter. Karl's life will change forever with that one deal between his father and the boxer.
In addition to the boxing aspects of the book, Karl's family is Jewish. As Hitler rises to power, Karl and his family must learn how to survive in Nazi Germany. It was interesting for me as a reader to watch as Karl and his sister, Hildy, struggled with their Jewishness and how as time progressed things got worse for them. In the beginning of the book, Karl, who takes after his Dutch non-Jewish grandfather, is able to keep his true ethnicity a secret. However, Hildy is not able to hide the fact that she is a Jew. This often causes tension between the siblings. Hildy's treatment is much worse and begins much sooner.
The Berlin Boxing Club is an excellent addition to the young adult literature concerning Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Robert Sharenow does an excellent job of balancing the historical aspects of the time period with the day to day struggles of Karl. The novel is a triumph and one I highly recommend to all readers particularly those who enjoy historical fiction and young adult literature. The Berlin Boxing Club is well researched and will keep you rooting for Karl to triumph. I can easily say that this is one of the best books I have read this year.
One Last Gripe: I didn't like that the ending didn't provide me with any closure about Karl's parents.
My Favorite Thing About This Book: Watching history unfold through Karl's eyes
First Sentence: As Herr Boch finished the last lecture of the school year, I sketched one final caricature of him into the margins of my notebook.
Favorite Character: Karl Stern
Least Favorite Character: Gertz Diener
Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Naziera Berlin, it doesn't matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn't practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn't accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.
So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl's father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.
But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max's fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero's sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm's way?