Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Boxer by Reinhard Kleist

Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer – The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft tells the extraordinary and heartbreaking story of Hertzko “Harry” Haft, a Polish Jew who survived the German death camps in Poland.

At only 16 years of age, Hertzko Haft is deported by the Nazis and eventually taken to Jaworzno, part of the Auschwitz concentration camp. What follows is a story that defies belief so that at first you might think it fictitious. In the camp, Haft becomes a boxer for the entertainment of the staff and their families. Being made to leave Auschwitz in one of the infamous death marches when the Russian Red Army approaches, he is able to flee his tormentors. After the war has ended, he emigrates to the US to become a somewhat successful professional boxer until he loses a fight against Rocky Marciano, the Italian-American boxing legend who would eventually become the world heavyweight champ.

This is a story of survival. Haft encounters anti-Semitism from very early on in his life, but he immediately realizes that things will worsen dramatically for the Jews when the Germans invade Poland and reach his hometown in late autumn 1939. During the early days of the German occupation, Haft tries to help his family survive by smuggling goods into the ghetto. Then, in Auschwitz, survival becomes an issue of even greater importance. Hertzko does jobs for a high-ranking SS-officer who has ulterior motives in protecting him. However, this helps him stay alive and saves him from the abuse of the Kapos, the prisoners turned overseers employed by the SS. One of these jobs is to become a boxer for the entertainment of the guards and other members of the SS and their families in the camps. 
Kleist like to work with contrasts: the first deportations from Belchatow - driving downhill, into the darkness, with telephone poles that more and more resemble crosses

In contrast to this: his departure to America later on in the book. He leaves the "darkness" behind him and sails (notice the slightly upward direction of the ship) towards a seemingly brighter future
Also later on, when Haft escapes the Nazis and then has gone to the US, survival is his main concern – by whatever means possible. 

However, The Boxer’s story of survival is inseparable from the love story between Hertzko and Leah Pablanski, a girl from his hometown that Haft falls in love with as a teenager and who he loses sight of when he is taken away to the concentration camp. As it turns out, hoping to find Leah again is actually what keeps Hertzko alive and makes him do what he has to in order to survive.
Hertzko and Leah, who he wants to marry

Based on a book by Haft's son Alan, The Boxer then is a multi-layered story about love, hope and survival, but also darker aspects of human life. In addition, it deals with the relationship between Alan and his father who is often abusive and shows outbursts of violent temper towards his family.

One example of the aforementioned darker aspects in the book are the boxing matches. Haft knows that the prisoners he defeats in his fights will have lost their last chance of survival. In fact, one opponent is shot right in front of him after a fight. But the circumstances of living in the camps leave little room for ethical concerns if one wants to stay alive. Kleist picks up on this issue again later on in the book when Hertzko meets one of the Kapos (a former Jewish friend of his) back in his hometown and confronts him. That Kleist does not judge Haft’s behaviour in the camp – something that we readers from the safety of our armchairs are often prone to do – is made clear in these scenes.
an example of the atrocities committed by the Germans in the ghettos
I honestly do not believe that there is a graphic novelist out there right now who is better at biographical comics than Kleist. From Cash - I see a darkness to Castro and now The Boxer, Kleist has shown again and again that he is able to get to the heart of his protagonists' stories without ever losing sight of the narrative aspects of great storytelling. While biographical works by necessity have to span decades worth of events, facts and developments, he manages to focus on the most relevant ones and is able to connect these and turn them into a coherent whole that does not look like a series of snapshots or becomes episodical – a problem that many other biographical comics suffer from.
"If you want to survive, you have to learn how to howl with the wolves," the SS- officer tells Hertzko a few pages earlier. Here, he seems to have managed to do just that as his fight is accompanied by German shepherds that look more like their wild relatives than domesticated dogs.

Kleist also has a talent for choosing quotes to introduce his biographical works that fit the stories like a glove. In this case, it is a quote by Haft himself: "After everything I've gone through, what is a man with a boxing glove going to do to me?" This quote is at the same time defeatist and optimistic and so exactly mirrors Haft's life which is tragic yet life-affirming.

Mention has to be made as well of Kleist’s artistic style. His expressionistic way of drawing is particularly fitting when he depicts the crematories in the death camps, where flames, darkness, smoke and human faces meld and seem to lose coherence in the face of the unbelievably atrocious events.

Despite all the horrific experiences Haft has made while being in the camp and on the death marches (and Kleist by no means belittles the crimes committed there), it is a scene at the end of the book that is a real punch to the gut. I don't want to spoil the book here. You'll know what I mean when you read it. I honestly had to suppress tears at the end. It is a very rare thing that a book touches me as emotionally as this.

The Boxer will be published by SelfMadeHero in March ($22.95/£14.99ISBN 13: 978-1906838775)

Also check out Kleist's Castro


  1. Great review! I am very eager to get my hands on this book in the US! Thank you for posting about it!

    1. Cheers. For some reason it'll only be out mid-April in the US, a whole month after the UK date. Anyway, it's well worth the wait (in the meantime you can check out Kleist's Castro, if you haven't done so yet;-)