German artist Reinhard Kleist first came to international attention with his graphic novel “Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness,” which looked at the life and career of the legendary musician. His latest offering, “The Boxer,” is another biography but about a very different man with a very different life.
Hertzko “Harry” Haft was born in a small town in Poland, before being sent to Auschwitz during World War II. Forced to fight for the amusement of SS officers, Haft proved himself as a survivor. He survived the camp before eventually emigrating to the United States where he became a professional boxer after the War ended.
With “The Boxer” on sale now from Abrams in the U.S., CBR News spoke with Kleist’s about Haft’s story, boxing and what inspired him to craft his new graphic novel.
CBR News: First of all, who was Harry Haft?
Reinhard Kleist: Harry’s original name was Hertzko. He changed it when he came to America after WW II. Hertzko was born in a small town in Poland, and his family was Jewish and very poor. He did not have a proper education and could barely read and write. He was sixteen when the Germans arrested him and took him on a 4.5-year odyssey through several concentration camps. After the war he immigrated to America and made a short career as a professional boxer. His last fight was against Rocky Marciano.
What was it about his story that attracted you and made you want to tell his story?
I discovered the book while I did research for a series of illustrations about the Holocaust for a magazine. At first I did not want to do it because I felt that the main character was not sympathetic enough, and also that the structure of the narration was falling into two parts and it was hard to combine them to make a unique reading. But I couldn’t get this story out of my head and after a while I found out that these two points were the most fascinating parts of the storyline. The idea that Hertzko had to become as popular as possible as a professional boxer in order to get his name in the news so that his girlfriend, Leah, could find him, is the link that holds the story together.
Talk a little about structuring the book like you did, beginning and ending the book from the perspective of Haft’s son.
What binds the story together is the remarkable love story between Hertzko and his fiancee, Leah, who he was supposed to marry when the Germans arrested him. The final meeting of the two is a real climax and to show it from the perspective of the son made the moment more impressive.
What I also wanted to portray is the influence that this horrible fate had on Hertzko and how he was dealing with it, and how this affected the family. He didn’t speak to anybody about it but took out all his frustration and anger on his relatives. He was a very angry man and his son Alan was threatened a lot of times. He claimed that he didn’t have a nice childhood. What the Nazis did to Hertzko had a deep impact on the family.
How much research did you do for the book?
My sources were at first Alan Haft, who helped me a lot with answering my questions about details of the story. He also sent me a package of photos from his family albums. Then I spoke to the director of a memorial site in Germany, FlossenbÃ¼rg; I visited Auschwitz and another Memorial site near Berlin, Oranienburg; and of course I used the internet a lot and a library in Berlin, where I found a tremendous book about Auschwitz that were was helpful. But in a lot of cases I retreated from showing too many detailed pictures. I wanted to focus more on the character, the way his anger built up, his relationship to Schneider, what was going on in his head when he had to leave home. That sort of thing became more important than the settings.
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Martin Krauss, who’s a journalist, has a few pages of notes in the back of the book. Why did you want such notes in the book and do you think they help add context?
When I first saw the cover of the book in a store I wanted to know how concentration camps and boxing were connected, and while I did research I found out that Haft was not the only one who was used by the SS to fight against other prisoners in the camps. There were many more, whether they were sportsmen who where imprisoned, or people like Hertzko who had to learn boxing in the camps. I wanted the readers to know more about the other boxers too, and the reason why this sport, and other kinds of sports as well, got perverted by the Nazi guards in the camps.
In his notes in the back, Martin Krauss makes the observation that some of Haft’s stories about his life are incorrect or couldn’t be supported. How did that affect your approach to the book?
You have to know that Hertzko did not speak to anyone for more than fifty years about his past. In this time a lot can happen to your memories. So I had to be careful at times. But as for the events that were historically traceable, I found out that he was correct. Even the unbelievable story about him being threatened by the mafia was correct. This guy Frank Palermo really existed, his nickname was Blinky, and he was in the entourage of Marciano. Unfortunately I found a picture of him too late. He looked much more “Scorsese”-like than my imagination.
There was a scene during his escape from the death marches where he killed some people. No one will ever be able to verify these events. So in this case, I decided to leave one of the truly brutal killings out. It would have been too much. But nevertheless, it does not make him nicer.
Could you explain this a little because I don’t think it’s common knowledge in America, but when the war in Europe ended, there were displaced persons camps, or DP camps. Talk a little about what they were and how Haft ended up in one?
After the war millions of people lost their homes. My parents were one of them. In those camps people found shelter, something to eat, tried to get information about where to go, and to find out if their relatives were alive and where they were, or if they just had to start a new life after they lost everything. Hertzko arrived in one after he got almost arrested by the police for smuggling. He reached the camp for another reason: he wanted to hide himself. But in this camp he also heard about this championship in Munich, where he made the first prize in boxing and decided to go to America because it was the only place to go for a person like him, with no future in Europe. And he knew that Leah was there, too.
What’s next for you?
Right now I am working on a new graphic novel about a Somali sportswoman named Samia Yusuf Omar, who competed in the Olympic games 2008 in London. It’s actually a story about migration from Africa. But apart from dealing with this issue, it will be an attempt to portray one of the bravest people I have ever heard about, who risked her life to fulfill her dream: To run for her country. It will be published in a newspaper first, the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” just like “The Boxer,” and will appear as a book in Germany in the beginning of 2015. After that I will have the opportunity to do a comic book about a musician again.
As far as you know, will we be seeing any more of your work translated into English in the next few years? I know you have a few books some of us have never seen in the U.S.
I hope so! Although I must say that I am not very proud about my older works. A lot of them I would like to have locked away from the humble English-speaking world. Except for the “Berlinoir” book, which is several years old. It is about vampires ruling Berlin. But actually it doesn’t count. I re-edited it last year and retouched every single page.
“The Boxer” is on sale now.