"They said, 'Seelig, you're not fighting tonight,' " recalled Greta Seelig, Eric's widow (the boxer died in 1984). "[They] said that if you don't leave this country in an hour, you and your parents will be dead."
With that, Eric Seelig fled to France — with none of the money he'd accumulated through his years in the ring. But there, he won five out of seven fights until he had to flee the Nazis again.
After a brief stop in Cuba, he settled in upstate New York, and began to establish himself as a serious contender in his new country. Overall, he recorded 41 wins, 15 losses and seven draws, according to boxrec.com.
Seelig's tenacious path to success was honored late last month by the American Association for the Improvement of Boxing — a nonprofit group that raises awareness about boxing safety, accountability and stricter regulations — at a dinner reception at Bally's hotel and casino in Atlantic City, N.J. Greta Seelig and her son Mac Seelig accepted the Rocky Marciano AAIB champions award in the athlete's honor.
"To continue fighting after being interrupted in his career, and to come back and still get to be the sixth-rated boxer — he's a testament to humanity," said Paul C. Vegliante, a board member with the AAIB, referring to Seelig's reaching sixth in Ring Magazine's rankings, a publication that's well-respected in the sport.
The celebratory event, which also featured a golf outing earlier in the day, attracted retired and semi-retired fighters like Bobby Czyz, Iran Barkley and Vito Antuofermo, as well as former New York Yankees catcher Rick Cerone.
"It was great that he got honored after being kicked out of Germany," declared 1988 middleweight champion Barkley, who noted that he'd read about Jewish fighters such as Seelig and Benny Leonard, a lightweight legend of the early 20th century.
AAIB chairman and co-founder Steve Acunto sparred with Seelig back in the day, and remembers him as a hard puncher and a determined battler.
"I met him at Stillman's gym [in New York City] when I was training, and I took a liking to him," recalled Acunto. "Eric was tough — and his story is one of bravery, of working under adversity."
Greta Seelig was also an athlete persecuted under Hitler's rule, as she was prevented from competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where she was set to run in the hurdles competition. She, too, left Germany.
Religion in the House
The couple met and married in the United States, living first in New York and then moving to Atlantic City.
Greta Seelig also noted that she showed the previously unreligous boxer how to be a more observant Jew.
"I was the one who brought religion into the house, and he adored that," she said. "For instance, I eat kosher, and he gradually went into that mode and he loved it."
In his career, Seelig got as far as a shot at the National Boxing Association middleweight title against champion Al Hostak in 1939, but was knocked out, and thus never became an American champion.
He has been inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, but Germany has not restored recognition of his titles.
Greta Seelig has fought for years to reinstate them.
"They had such denials and such lies," she said. "He became ill, and I said it's not worth aggravating myself about it."
After his boxing career ended, the family ran a chicken farm for a time, then Seelig opened a boxing gym, where he was able to train young fighters.
"He would take children from the street and teach them how to defend themselves," remembered his wife fondly. "He was extremely strict, but they adored him."