History as a Boxing MatchThe Boxer: the true story of a holocaust survivor as a graphic novel
Reinhard Kleist’s latest graphic novel about Jewish boxer Hertzko Haft and his incredible real-life story is awe-inspiring. During WWII, Haft took part in fights organized by the SS in the death camps, and went on to become a professional fighter in the USA. Read More
I hate Reinhard Kleist.
Just when I thought his boxer was teaching me to be tough, he threw a combination to my gut and a killer hook straight at my face. I have to confess, he squeezed out a couple of tears.
“The Boxer” is the German artist's latest graphic novel. It tells the real life story of Hertzko Haft, a Polish man who literally fought his way through life right up to his death; whose scars were nothing if not open wounds until the end; a Jewish man who was in his teens when Nazi troops invaded his country in 1939; who survived the death camps and went on to become a professional fighter in the USA.
Black is the future
Damn Kleist. Black and white illustrations have a powerful and essential dramatic quality. He knows this and uses it impeccably. He knows that the fires that consume humanity are not red or orange or yellow, but black. The sky over a death camp is not blue, it’s black. Rain over a death march: black. The morbid visions of unforgiving nightmares cannot be portrayed in a joyful, innocent, polychromatic way.
“The Boxer” now joins the impressive list of Kleist’s works, which includes “Johnny Cash, I See a Darkness” (2006) and “Castro” (2010), among others.
His new protagonist Hertzko Haft comes from a working class family, impoverished even more by the war and the Nazi persecution of their creed. He is eventually separated from his family and begins his long, painful journey. Life has already taught him some hard lessons: He knows how to take and throw punches, but in the camps he comes to know a cruelty that bends his spirit to the breaking point.
Still in his teens, Hertzko manages to survive precisely because he excels at throwing punches. The SS officers stage boxing fights among the prisoners, the last-man-standing-wins type of fights, which more often than not mean death for the loser. Hertzko is undefeated: “I never thought about the men being killed. Only about surviving”, he tells us.
After the war, Haft migrates to New York where he pursues a somewhat successful boxing career in the hopes of gaining a level of fame that might enable him to reach the one objective in his life that has fuelled his stubbornness to survive: to regain a lost promise of happiness. This proves to be his toughest fight, and goes on for decades.
Reinhard Kleist's “The Boxer” is a necessary and pertinent reflection on the only outcome that can be expected when violence and abuse are disguised as political philosophy, on the legacy of fascism. Going through this story, it’s impossible not to ask how many lives were destroyed decades later by an endless spiral of resentment and violence.
But it's not a pamphlet, for it uses characters who are not idealised heroes, and villains to expose the violence of hate and poverty, and the dark feelings that drive history, regardless of the direction it takes. We all need to take a careful look at history through stories like Haft's, especially when the 21st century is insisting on trying to look like the 20th.
Damn Kleist. He carries you through the fight, sets you up... and then with a haymaker sends you down to the canvas.
About the book
Based on the book “Harry Haft: Auschwitz Survivor, Challenger of Rocky Marciano” published by the boxer's son Alan Scott Haft in 2002, the graphic novel was first published in 2011 in the pages of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It was published by Carlsen the following year, is now one of the company's bestsellers, and a Portuguese version was published in Brazil in 2013. The English version was launched by London-based editors SelfMadeHero in March 2014.