Reinhard Kleist Interview:
Harry Haft - The Boxer
After American music legend Johnny Cash and Communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Reinhard Kleist turns to Polish Jewish boxer and Holocaust survivor Harry Haft (above) in the latest of his compelling graphic biographies which reveal the secrets of extraordinary 20th century lives. For the launch of The Boxer, translated into English by SelfMadeHero, the German artist came from Berlin to the Goethe Institut in London for an interview with me and shared his fascination with documenting complex personalities in comics.
What sparked your interest in the Jewish boxer Harry Haft?
I discovered the book his story when I was researching an illustration assignment around the Holocaust for the Suddeutscher Zeitung. So I went to my favourite bookstore to order some books and saw on the shelf the German edition of his biography, written by his eldest son Alan Scott Haft, entitled in German Someday I am going to tell you everything. I bought and read it and got really attracted to the story. At first I didn’t want to do because the main character Harry Haft is not a very likeable person and because it’s divided into two parts. The first part is his survival of the concentration camps, and second part his career as boxer in America. But it kept buzzing in my head and these two parts are what interested me and I found that the big connection between them was the love story between Harry and Leah, teenage sweethearts separated by the war.
Harry Haft died in 2007. How much help did you get from his son, Alan?
We had a very intense exchange of e-mails and he sent me me photos of a tour he made in Poland and across Europe following his father’s footsteps. He also sent me a package full of amazing original photos. There’s no photo of Harry, or Hertzko in Polish, from before the war when he was kid. The earliest photos are from 1948. So I had to work out how to show him younger. I tried depicting him with this boxer’s nose but he didn’t have this as a child! I needed a simple scheme of his face so you recognise him in every panel. He had lots of curly hair but that was shaved off in the camp, so his nose becomes an identifier. The line of his eyebrows became the feature that makes him recognisable, it shows his energetic and determined character.
The story starts in a small town in Poland. Harry as a boy was not very well educated and got into trouble for beating up a teacher. He meets this young girl Leah and they fall in love. There’s a nice scene in the biography where they kissed, he was 16 and she was a little older, and they pledged themselves to each other. Then he was captured by the Nazis. The prisoners were put into this old fire department building. It still exists today. An SS officer questions him and tortures him by putting his hand between the door and slamming it.
Then Harry took this odyssey to working camps in Lodz, Poland. He was deported to Auschwitz. Some pages from a scene were very difficult to put into images. He had to work in a crematorium, very horrible, he wrote the scene quite briefly in the book. I tried to work out how to depict it in the book without looking too sensational. I wanted to do it visually, I made the ‘camera’ blurry, so I am not showing every detail, I just go a bit abstract and expressionist. There was another book on Auschwitz that was a bit too precisely drawn, and that can be deadening.
On one particularly disturbing silent page, you hint at what some concentration camp prisoners may have resorted to eating in order to survive.
In the original biography, Harry’s description of this is more elaborate. I did some research, I was not sure what could I do with this story, so I showed it from far away, like a shadow play, you are left to imagine this horrible scene.
How did Harry start boxing in the concentration camps?
As a prisoner, Harry was helped by an SS officer who picked him as a boxer for the entertainment of his fellow Nazis. Harry fought against other prisoners, knowing the loser would die in the gas chamber. He was suffering from this, but he wanted to survive and to protect his brother. Harry was called ‘The Fat Jew’ by the other prisoners, because he was given enough to eat.
And these are your development sketches for that SS officer.
Yes, Harry called him by the made-up name Schneider, because ddn’t remember the SS officer’s name any more. There was one in the camp who organised the fights. He’s an opportunist and not into the Nazi ethos, he just wants to save his own skin. But he knows he is doomed if they lose, because the SS officers’ blood type was tattooed onto their arm, to identify they have been in the SS.
Tell me about this photo of Harry boxing.
It’s from an event in Munich shortly after the war. These 1949 championships were organised by the Allies for Jewish sportsmen and this is the boxing event. Harry is in the middle, he is holding this cup and a little statue, the first prize he won. You can see the movie on YouTube on this boxing event, it’s the only film if him that survives. Harry and the other boxers have lousy techniques but they have a lot of energy. Harry wasn’t properly trained, not when he was a prisoner in the concentration camps, only later in America. You can see the Jewish star sewn onto his boxer shorts. A lot of Jewish boxers did that after 1945, because they were proud to be Jewish fighters. Harry did this through his whole career. General Lucius Clay gave prize - he was popular in West Berlin because he was as airlift organiser. The statue is obviously not really for a boxing event. It was stolen from a house and used as the first prize. It’s the only belonging that Harry took with him when he moved from Europe to America.
What drives Harry to leave Germany for America?
He finds out that Leah moved there and wants to find her. Unable to trace her, he decides to train for the first time as a professional boxer to get his name in the newspapers so that Leah would contact him. As a Jewish sportsman, he fights with the Star of David sewn on his shorts. His last fight against the champion Rocky Marciano was out of his league but he hoped Leah would hear about it. Harry described how during his boxing matches he had flashbacks to his fights in the camps, which I show through subjective images of the SS officers’ dogs and his victims.
Did you believe everything Harry told about himself?
Not entirely. For 50 years Harry didn’t say a word to anybody and during this time memories change and he probably embroidered his story to put himself in a better light. For example, I doubted that a Mafia threat lay behind his losing his fight with Rocky Marciano. I thought this guy who threatened him - Harry called him Frank Palermo - was too Mafioso to be true. But I found out he was real, he looked even better in reality, his nickname was Blinky Palermo. And there are stories that Marciano’s entourage were fixing matches.
Why was Harry’s fight with Rocky Marciano not filmed?
For Rocky it was not a big event and Harry did not have a big name. For Harry, though, it was a make-or-break moment, his best chance of attracting Leah’s attention.
Harry’s son also generously lent you a photo of Harry with another woman, his future wife.
Yes, this is a photo from 1962, showing him with his wife at the Iceland Supper Club in Brooklyn. It was taken on his first date with his future wife when he spent all his money to invite her to a fancy restaurant.
Unlike your Cash and Castro books, The Boxer was initially serialised in a newspaper.
Yes it was first developed for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung or FAZ, so it had typical wide strip format. It ran four days a week and I worked well in advance. I couldn’t do it week by week, I would die! I said I would need around 100 episodes, in the end it came to 111.
The cartoonist Flix had done a strip series for FAZ and the readers communicated and sent him lots of responses. But there were only five comments about The Boxer: two said hope they hope it’s better than the last one; two said we don’t like it because it’s not funny; and one liked it. I wanted to have more interaction with the readers. But after the story was over, several wrote personal, touching intense emails to me. They needed to read the whole thing before responding.
For the book, some pages were easy, putting two half pages into one whole page. For others I had to find some linking scene or image to make it read smoothly. So I had to change the strips to fit the format and layout for the book. I had to do three months of extra images and new scenes so it flows well.
I’m particularly impressed by your brushwork in The Boxer, it’s very vital drawing.
Every book looks a bit different, I change style to fit the story. This looks a bit like Will Eisner, because it was done for a newspaper and is set in the Forties, so I was drawn in that direction. Eisner drew a lot of stories about Brooklyn.
How did you prepare, so you could draw the boxing matches convincingly?
I am not a fan of boxing so I did sketching from photos and I went to boxing schools in Berlin and did some sketches. At the beginning they are always moving and their moves repeat, it was really interesting. What I saw in the training school came into this, the little details make the story more real, from observation. These young kids training, 15-year-old Turkish guys, saw my drawings and said “Hey, that’s cool, that’s me!”
Who will be the subjects of your next biographies?
I am writing about Samia Yusuf Omar, a Somali sportswoman. She ran the slowest ever Olympics 200 metres sprint in Beijing. She was thin, in a baggy T-shirt, and when she came last, she got the biggest applause. Samia wanted to compete in the London Olympics, but war and corruption in her homeland prevented her training. She tried to reach Italy to train, but died on a boat crossing the Mediterranean. I really admire that she had such a strong will to follow her dream. Right now I’m preparing a biography of Nick Cave. We met last year and he likes the idea. It’s interesting to have his input, he has completely different ideas.
What are the disadvantages and advantages of comics when crafting a biography?
In a comic you can step back and forth and jump into different realities. There are no disadvantages, a comic can do everything.Posted: July 6, 2014
Part of this Interview appeared in Comic Heroes Magazine No. 23, 2014.