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Wrestler, rescuer, diplomat, spy: Grandson unmasks his heroic Israeli patriarch

16 11 45

People thought twice about messing with the Unreich brothers in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. There were seven sons in the family, and six of them were wrestlers. Some won national and international titles.

Zalman, the sixth child, and fifth son in the family, was the Slovak wrestling champion (welterweight division) in 1927 and took first place in Greco-Roman wrestling (heavyweight division) in the 1935 Maccabiah Games. After immigrating to Palestine in the early 1930s, he was instrumental in developing the sport in the country.

Until recently, this was about all Zalman’s grandson David M. Baron knew about him. Unfortunately, Zalman (who Hebraized his last name to “On,” pronounced “ohn,” meaning strength) died in 1978 at age 66, when Baron was just a toddler. (Baron’s last name is an Anglicization of Bar-On, literally “son of strength” or “powerful,” which was adopted by Baron’s father when he moved to the United States.)

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To Baron’s amazement, a trove of materials On left behind revealed that his wrestling prowess was only part of his legacy. For much of his life, he used his skill and power — physical and otherwise — to help fellow Jews in danger. Many of these activities were done secretly and through back channels, so On rarely received recognition for them. Zalman Unreich wearing some of his wrestling medals c. early 1930s. He won the Slovak wrestling championship (welterweight division) in 1927, and first place in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 1935 Maccabiah Games (heavyweight division). (Courtesy of David Baron)

“Zalman was always a mystery — no one knew where he came from or what his next move might be; one moment he appeared to enter a room and the next nobody seemed to know where he went,” Baron said.

Baron, 44, turned his discoveries about On into a semi-fictional spy thriller titled, “The Undercover Wrestler: The Untold Story of an Undercover Hero of Israel.” Chapters spinning an espionage tale featuring a heroic On alternate with supporting historical and biographical information based on Baron’s research.

The book is accompanied by a website designed by Baron, who lives in the Baltimore area and is an IT manager at Johns Hopkins University and Health System. The website is full of archival photos and helpful contextual content Baron........

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