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The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft Paperback – April 29, 2014
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The author of previous graphic biographies of Johnny Cash and Fidel Castro, Kleist recounts another true story of a turbulent life with this portrayal of Harry Haft, a Polish Jew who literally fought his way to survival in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Taking note of his strength and resilience, the guards enter him in boxing matches set up for the amusement of the SS officers. Haft defeats every opponent before escaping from a death march as the Soviet Red Army approaches. Immigrating to the U.S. after the war, he embarks on a professional boxing career, culminating in a match with future heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. While Haft’s bouts in Auschwitz were driven by a desire to continue living, his American fights were motivated by hope of achieving fame so that the fiancée he lost in Poland would hear of his success. Kleist’s expressive, inky brushwork powerfully conveys Haft’s harrowing story. Although Haft might not be as famous as Kleist’s previous subjects, his tale of survival by any means is equally enthralling. --Gordon Flagg
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The postscript about other "undesirables" forced to fight in concentration camps for the amusement of the Third Reich was illuminating, as well. Hopefully more books on this neglected subject will come to light in the future. The work done by the artist and writer here is unpleasant at times, but also unquestionably necessary.
During his time at Auschwitz, an SS officer noticed Haft’s strength and toughness and made him take part in life or death boxing matches for the SS’s entertainment. Haft was put in a makeshift ring and forced to fight up to 20 nearly dead fellow prisoners at a time who were then executed after being beaten; if Haft lost, he would be executed.
Somehow Haft managed to survive these numerous trials and, in the closing stages of the war, during a retreat from the advancing Allied armies, he was able to break free of the death march and escape. He was picked up by some American GIs and, shortly after the war ended, was able to emigrate to America where he decided to become a professional boxer. His career would peak in 1949 when he fought Rocky Marciano, but threw the fight due to pressure from Marciano’s mob connections who told him they’d kill him if he beat the future heavyweight champion.
But underneath it all, what kept Haft going through everything was the love of his fiancée Leah whom he didn’t see for years once the Nazis took him prisoner. The only thing he knew about her was that she’d left Europe and was probably in America. His prime motivation for becoming a famous boxer was in the hope that she’d see his picture in the paper and contact him so they could be reunited and married. And though they finally met many years later in Florida, long after both had married other people and started families of their own, the experience was bittersweet as he found her dying of cancer. But they did meet again.
Haft’s incredible story was told to his son, Alan, decades after all of this happened in his book “Harry Haft: Auschwitz Survivor, Challenger of Rocky Marciano” which was adapted into this graphic novel by Reinhard Kleist. And it’s a truly incredible story filled with so many shocking moments. When Haft makes a break for freedom from the death march, his companion is shot and killed and falls on him. The Nazis – luckily in a hurry – declare both dead and move on. When Haft picks himself up and moves on, he kills an SS officer bathing in a nearby river and takes his outfit. He’s taken in by an elderly German couple believing he’s a Nazi officer until they realise he’s not and attempt to alert the Nazis - Haft has to kill them both to survive.
The passages in Auschwitz are of course the bleakest. Kleist draws the book in black and white, using inks to great effect, like in the passages where Haft is shovelling corpses into the giant ovens. Those panels are so dark, both literally and figuratively, and so brutally depicted, it’s hard to read. To think Haft was a kid forced to do these horrible things goes some way to understanding his desperate actions to escape the Nazis and his distant and troubled state of mind for the rest of his life.
Like when he’s boxing professionally in America, Kleist shows moments in the ring when Haft flashes back to Auschwitz and he’s seeing emaciated Jewish prisoners coming at him instead of professional boxers. Those memories were a part of what drove him in his fights and what haunted him in his life. Haft’s nightmarish experiences don’t excuse the physical abuse and hair-trigger temper his family had to endure after he’d left boxing behind but it goes some way to understanding how he became the hard man he was.
The Boxer is a difficult book to read but only because of the subject matter - it is written and drawn beautifully. Kleist doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the concentration camp where skeletal prisoners would murder and eat fellow prisoners in the night to stave away the hunger pangs and the blase savagery with which the Nazis showed to the Jews. Kleist’s writing is perfectly measured, knowing when to narrate events to the reader, how to let the dialogue in a scene tell you about the characters, and when to say nothing at all and let the pictures play out everything you need to know.
The book is drawn in remarkably black and white inks and Kleist’s ability to perfectly capture characters’ facial expressions is uncanny. Kleist’s strong narrative sense of how to build up an emotional scene is evident in Haft’s final fight against Marciano as the panels flash from the present to the past: the fight in the present to the memories of the laughing SS officers, the German Shepherds savagely barking, the looming threat of death if he lost - it’s an extremely powerful moment. As is in the final scene between Haft and his son Alan, when Haft breaks down, gets out of the car and stands away from his son crying and smoking, cars driving by them on the highway showing how Haft’s unable to move forward with his life compared to the rest of the world and the inability he had to be close to others.
The Boxer is a book that will leave you emotionally drained by the end but is a work of art everyone who enjoys literature should read. Books that provoke strong reactions like this should never be missed, whether the subject matter is hard to see at times or not - it’s written and drawn too well to deny. Reinhard Kleist has created a true masterpiece in The Boxer which is sure to be a future classic of the genre, up there with Maus as a celebrated and essential graphic novel about World War 2.