Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft

The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft
Written and Illustrated by Reinhard Kleist
Self Made Hero Publishing

The Boxer tells the story of Hertzko "Harry" Haft, who survived the concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Poland by participating in brutal boxing matches, and went on to fight Rocky Marciano. For those with an interest in history and graphic memoir/non-fiction, this is a compelling, essential read.

The story begins in Miami, 1963. A middle-aged man in a car with his son; the son reaches for the radio and the father sternly tells him "no music". The first person narration (from the son) describes what a difficult father this man is. They pull over as the man is crying. The father says "one day, I'll tell you everything".

The story then jumps back to Poland, 1939, and focuses on a young man named Hertzko Haft, the youngest of eight children.  He is the man we saw initially driving the car in Miami. Now, in 1939, he and his brothers are engaged in a smuggling operation to sell food to Jews living in Nazi-occupied Poland. He is the youngest and smallest, so he works as runner and lookout. This is a very difficult time; the Germans are on their way into the town, and are welcomed by many non-Jews. Hertzko and his family are Jewish, and so their life goes from bad to worse.   Hertzko is hurt on a run smuggling food, but through this he meets Leah, with whom he quickly falls in love and plans to marry.

One day, when he learns that his brother has planned to register for work duty with the Nazis, Hertzko goes to stop him. Before he knows it, Hertzko has been loaded on a train being taken to a work camp.  Hertzko arrives and is put to work, living in hard conditions. He gains the favor of the foreman as Hertzko has a talent for smuggling and sneaking around, but as we soon learn, the Germans are on a path of destruction, and nothing Hertzko cares about is safe.

Before long, Hertzko and the other men are loaded on another train and this time are taken to another camp. At this camp, everything has changed. The men's heads are shaved, numbers are carved into their arms, and they all wear the identical uniform of concentration camp prisoner.  Hertzko does what he must to survive, and anyone who knows the horror of the Nazi death camps should prepare themselves for gruesome moments. Later a Nazi captain approaches Hertzko about entering into boxing matches. Hertzko can see that his opponents are poor, starving men, but he doesn't care. He fights them and beats them without regret or sympathy. Hertzko fights a number of these bouts, winning regardless of the opponent. He does what he must to survive.

The war turns against the Germans, and then the camp prisoners are taken on an extended death march. Eventually Hertzko escapes; at one point he kills a German officer and takes his uniform. He finds shelter in the home of a elderly German-sympathizing couple whom eventually discover that Hertzko is not really a German. He does what he must to survive.

Once the war ends, things get better for Hertzko. For a short time, he ends up living in a large house where he operates a bordello. He also begins fighting again. He wins a local championship and then decides to make his way to America, where he has an uncle.  He is in America now, and he's no longer Hertzko, he's Harry Haft.

After coming to America, Harry decides to become a professional boxer, and despite some early struggles, has some success. As he fights and wins matches, Harry flashes back to his fights in the concentration camp. Eventually he is scheduled to fight the young (future champion) Rocky Marciano. It seems clear that nobody expects Harry to win this fight. Harry gives it his all, but Marciano is a better fighter. After this fight, Haft's career as a boxer is over.  Harry finds work as a grocer, meets a girl and marries.

The story ends close to where it began, in 1963. We can see the man into which Harry has turned. He hasn't changed, but only hardened over the years. To his son Alan's surprise, Harry announces that the family is taking a trip down to Miami for a vacation. All along, Harry has never give up on finding Leah again, and enlists his son's help (as Harry can still barely read or write) calling all of the Lieberman's in the phone book to ask for Leah.  Their final reunion is touching and sad, because they've both lived lives apart, separated by German's atrocities. Harry has an emotional reunion with her, and the story ends with Harry telling his son that "one day, I'll tell you everything". Forty years later, he did.

This is a powerful, moving work, and a great example of using the graphic medium to tell a difficult story. Kleist paints a compelling portrait of Haft from the very beginning. Bookending a story with scenes from later in life is a fairly common trope (in both literature and film such as Saving Private Ryan), but here it is used quite effectively. Who is this hard man who pulls over to the side of the road and breaks down, crying? As the story moves back in time, Kleist makes clear that as the youngest and smallest of eight children, Haft has a chip on his shoulder from the very beginning.  This attitude, and his willingness to do anything to survive are attributes that help him get through the most horrific of situations; whether as a smuggler, a scavenger of jewelry, or a brutal fighter. However, what's also clear is that Haft's personality and mindset, his willingness to do absolutely anything he can to survive, are not without tremendous personal cost. At the end of it, when all of the fighting (either during the war or after) is done, he is broken. The storytelling is clear and straightforward. The only place where this is slightly confusing is that the introductory and end scenes (set in 1963) are narrated by Harry's son Aaron, whereas the rest of the story is narrated by Harry.

Kleist's artistic storytelling in this work is stellar. Here he uses a black and white, stylized, angular (oddly evocative of legendary New Yorker cartoonist Al Hirschfeld) art style that truly conveys the horrors which Haft encountered in his life. Kleist pulls no punches in depicting the horrors of life during the war; while violence in this story is not graphic, it is visceral and effective. The facial acting of the characters in the story is first-rate and often unsettling. We see on Harry's face the lines of age well before he becomes an old man - his life and circumstances aged him quickly. The hollowed-out faces of the concentration camp prisoners, and Leah's face as she is dying of cancer are images not easily forgotten.

There's heavy use of blacks in this art style, and for the most part the portrayal is fairly "realistic" except in a few key moments, where Kleist uses just a few scenes to powerfully convey emotion. First, when Harry ends up in the concentration camp and is overwhelmed with the reality of his job (cleaning out the ovens where people are burned) and his circumstances, he is completely overwhelmed. In that moment, there appears to be almost an explosion of light and heat around Harry, as the magnitude of this situation is too much for even this hard young man. Later, as Harry fights opponents in America, we see through his eyes the opponents he fought in those brutal matches back in the concentration camp. Harry is still there, still fighting those battles.  The brutality of Harry's boxing matches, particularly his final match against Marciano, is effectively rendered.  In a few places in the concentration camp, the art is slightly hard to follow; in a scene where several people are talking, it's not easy to distinguish who is Harry and who is his brother. However, this feels like a deliberate choice more than an oversight. For the people in the camps - heads shaved, identical uniforms, numbers burned into them - all of their individuality was taken away from them. The lack of individuation makes sense under the circumstances.

This is a great work, in the tradition of Maus and Persepolis, that effectively uses the graphic medium to provide insight into a challenging man who survived unimaginable circumstances.


Harry Haft, in his fighting days

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