"The Boxer" A graphic novel by Reinhard Kliest
With their regular write-ups in the New York Times Book Review and other publications of note, it is more than safe to say that graphic novels have long entered the cannon of what we’ve long defined as literature. The public is officially hip not just to old-school luminaries like Art Spiegelman and Daniel Clowes, but to a host of more conventional “comic book” artists and writers including bestsellers like Alan Moore (Watchmen) or the endless talent forever working and shaping the vast universes at Marvel, DC, and smaller presses. But no matter how evokative the art or how sharp the writing, the best graphic novels demonstrate that one medium cannot overpower the other. Reinhard Kliest’s The Boxer (2014) deserves attention not for its pound-for-pound (and far more entertaining) re-telling of Alan Scott Haft’s awkwardly-titled Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz and Challenger of Rocky Marciano chronicling the life of his father*, but for its inky horrors conjured in the menacing chiaroscuros of stark black and white.
Kleist is a Berliner who has created graphic novels on Castro, Somali runner Samia Yusuf Omar, and singers Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, and Elvis. His art is the stuff of jarring contrasts - the severe use of pen and brush building in tension as it runs concomitant with Haft's terrifying ordeal. A staggering economy of marks and minimal extraneous detail captures the camps through emaciated prisoners with shaved heads and pleading-eyes drawn in thin, warbly pen and SS German Shepherds baring white fangs set against ink-black gums. Bounding lines and ebony swaths render visual the base tension between beauty and terror which together collude to ensnare the reader.
Haft came from the small Polish textile-production town of Belchatow, home to an even ratio of Jews to Gentiles at the time of his birth in 1925. He began working when he was five, carrying geese to the market to be sold, and both his son’s book and The Boxer take the time to address Harry’s later regret at never having considered the lives of the terrified birds he lead to slaughter.
The youngest of eight children, Hertzko (also called Herschel and dubbed Harry upon his arrival in the US) was 14 years-old when the Nazis marched into Belchatow in 1935. Amid the Reich’s ever-growing presence, Hertzko was too occupied slugging the neighborhood kids - and teachers - who called him a Christ-killer. He was also in hot pursuit of Leah Pablanski, to whom he lost his virginity against a bucolic backdrop beside a meandering river just days before his deportation. The Germans had begun their strike on Belchatow in earnest: picking Jews off the street at random for labor, destroying businesses and synagogues, freezing bank accounts, issuing travel bans, and setting curfews. Next came the bombing of the city center, then the deportations…
When Harry’s older brother Aria was made to report to the SS-run fire brigade, Harry took his place in line. The guards caught on and, as Aria fled, they took Harry, but not before first slamming his fingers in a door to show they meant business. His fingers remained crooked and deformed for the rest of his life.
Having been something of a small-time hood as a kid, Harry struck up an “understanding” with the civilian foreman in a camp near the city of Poznen. He’d steal soldiers’ rations off rail cars (invariably cigars and cigarettes) in exchange for food and gentler treatment. His deportation to Auschwitz by way of Lotze is accompanied through vivid descriptions and mercifully obscured imagery of overcrowded cattle cars filled with human waste, dead and dying bodies - the occasional act of cannibalism. While deportation cost Harry his “protected” status, it was soon reinstated steeling confiscated diamonds for a hi-ranking SS soldier named Schneider. Noting Herschel’s fearlessness in standing up to the camp "policemen" (Jews who volunteered to oversee the work of other Jews only to devolve into cruel slave-drivers themselves), the soldier had a proposition for the emaciated Haft that he guaranteed would get him out of the camps alive.
The abhorrent spectacle of fights for the entertainment of the troops was not uncommon, and in an afterward to Kleist’s book, German boxing writer Martin Krauss notes that many Jews were kept fit for work in arms factories (requiring stored manpower) as well as for sport. The Queensberry Rules were non-existant in the roped-off patch of dirt in which Harry found himself, and when a gloveless, wasted prisoner was brought into the ring, the two were ordered to fight until “one of [them] can’t fight any longer.” If his opponent wasn’t completely dead (and Harry never lost), a gunshot rang out to announce the final fate of the felled participant. When a celebrated French fighter was brought in from Berlin accompanied by Nazi dignitaries, a ring was constructed for a more formal bout. When Harry emerged victorious, the same familiar report of an SS rifle was heard.
"The man hadn't volunteered. Now I knew what was meant by "when one of you can't fight any longer."
Despite the protection he received, Auschwitz was the same hell to Harry as it was to its other occupants, and Harry came within inches of death on numerous occasions, each time invoking Schneider’s name to help him. He was marched to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where, among the thousands of Jews comprising the march, only a few hundred survived. Next he was moved to a plane factory in Amberg that was soon abandoned and bombed by the Germans. The destination of his final march remains unknown, and as Harry made a run for it, he escaped. His friend, with whom he made the dash, was not so lucky. Harry wandered for days before coming across an SS officer bathing in a lake, his uniform and pistol sitting on the shore. Harry showed no compunction firing several bullets in the bather before donning his SS garb to hide in plain sight. It wasn’t until he ran into a group of the allied forces that he learned the war had finally ended.
“They tried to finish me in Germany and I’m still here.”
But he did not leave Germany right away. The allies set him up in a large, ornate house confiscated from a high-ranking Nazi official (“…some SS big-shot. He’s in jail now”). An American soldier told Harry that they while they were forbidden to fraternize with the enemy, they need women. So began Haft’s stint running a brothel out of the house, donned in a white-tuxedo. When the US Military announced a Jewish boxing championship they were holding, Harry saw an opening to garner the clout to be sent to America. While he again took the honors, steamship tickets were not easy to come by, and Harry returned briefly to Belchatow to seek out Leah, but to no avail. There was an impromptu reunion with the petty criminal Mischa, one of the Jewish “policemen” who took particular pleasure in administering beatings on his old neighbor back in Auschwitz. After bloodying him with his fists, Harry pulled out a revolver and squeezed the trigger to a series of three clicks. Aiming the gun away, the next shot discharged. “Next time you won’t be so lucky”. With Leah having long since moved away, there was nothing to keep Harry in Belchatow - or even Germany.
The third act opens as the 23 year-old debarks the Marine Marlin at Coney Island, where a distant relative - Uncle Samuel - awaits. While the two were on good terms, Harry was booted from the house when Samuel heard of his aspirations to pursue prizefighting. A visit from the real-life gangster Frank Palermo (who controlled much of the mid-century New York boxing scene) didn’t help Harry’s cause, and he was soon paired with manager Harry Mandell (drawn with the same bleary-eyed dissipation as the Drunken Bakers in the British humor magazine Viz). From here, much of the book chronicles the lead-up to Haft’s fight with Marciano. In no uncertain terms, Palermo told Haft that he was to go down in the first. That’s non-negotiable.
Left to Right: Blinky Palermo, Mandell, and Viz's Drunken Bakers.
Haft’s 21 had professional fights in America and, while he was a bruiser of the first order, he was also a careless fighter - poor defense and undisciplined, his wild swings compensated for by an iron chin and sheer punching-power (a trainer Stillman’s gym remarked, “He could really mete it out”). He remained an undercard (“the bottom of the boxing world,” as he described it), when Mandell secured him his most famous bout. Kliest reimagines Palermo visiting Haft in his locker room before the Marciano fight to remind him that he’d be wise to take a swim in the first. Harry respoonds, “They tried to finish me in Germany and I’m still here.” Kayoed in the third, Harry knew that Palermo’s boys were going to come after him , and so left the game, working in a hat factory and as a store assistant. To his dying day he insisted the Marciano fight was rigged - a highly unlikely assertion and one that led to many a back-and-forth with customers at the corner grocery store he later opened in Brooklyn. His singular hope was that Leah might see his name in the papers and seek him out. Though it never happened, he did manage to track her down in Miami. Wasted from the cancer that had already consumed her, she and Harry spoke in the back yard for several hours. It was the only time the young Alan had seen his father cry. It took him forty more years to write his father’s memoirs.
Alan Scott Haft’s book about his father, Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz and Challenger of Rocky Marciano.
Although Alan Haft’s book is secondary to our examination of Kliest’s graphic novel, the son’s emphasis this father’s bout with the Marciano feels overblown. For Marciano, Haft was just cannon-fodder that posed no threat to his unbroken record. Instead, it is Harry’s unorthodox introduction to boxing in the camps that forms the real story here, where truth is stranger - and infinitely more gruesome - than fiction. This is where Kleist’s bleak, stark imagery succeeds over Haft Jr.’s rather rote account . Having lifted the story directly from Haft the younger, the two books overlap to paint the final (and only) word on a fighter that, had the cagey, menacing ex-pug not related his story to his son, would have been lost to public memory as surely as if he had perished in the camps.
*Excepting the titular bout of his memoir, there is no extant footage of Haft, who would have fallen into obscurity had it not been for his son’s transcription of his father’s memories shortly before Haft’s death at 82 in 2007.