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I have to admit the story behind this article generates mixed emotions and shows us just how so-called sporting events and the people who participate in them can be abused by evil, totalitarian states.
This year Reinhard Kleist, a well-known and respected German cartoon-based story-teller published his book “Der Boxer. Die Wahre Geschichte des Hertzko Haft” (The Boxer. The True Story of Hertzko Haft). The publisher is Carlsen Verlag, Hamburg. The book captures in a very graphic ‘comic like’ format the story of a Polish Jew called Hertzko Haft who was forced by his prison guards in Auschwitz to provide them with entertainment by boxing his fellow inmates.
The original story in text format was published in May 2006 in the USA by Haft’s son Alan Scott Haft under the title Harry Haft: Auschwitz Survivor, Challenger of Rocky Marciano. or in German under the title “Eines Tages werde ich alles erzählen” (One day I will tell all) published in 2009 by Die Werkstatt Verlag, Göttingen.
The former boxer told his story as a kind of final confession to his son shortly before his death in 2007.
Hertzko Haft was born in 1925 in Belchatow, a small polish town south of Lodz. In September 1943 he was imprisoned in Jawornzno an external section of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Here to satisfy their perverse desire for ‘entertainment’ the prison officers forced him to fight with other Jews in bare-knuckle bouts. These fights never ended on points, they continued until one of the boxers could no longer stand. His opponents were able to put up little serious resistance to the man the guards called the ‘Jewish Beast’. All of them will have been subjected to hard labour in the camp, starvation and regular beatings from the guards.
Haft received special rations and was given relatively light duties in Auschwitz. Clearly he could never consider himself the ‘winner’ in such contests but if he were to survive in the camp he had little choice but to beat his opponents to the ground. The winner of each bout was able to live one more day, the runner-up was presented with the gas chamber. Haft knew well what this meant having spent some of his internment working in the crematorium. In his cartoons Kleist tries to capture the brutality of Haft’s existence. By using hand drawn pictures he has tried to reconstruct some of the horror of the crematorium and the life in the concentration camp – things which were never captured on film. The story describes how Haft discovered that another inmate came across the body of his own wife while working in the crematorium – he had to cremate her with his bare hands. It also describes the tragedy of human cannibalism among some inmates.
Against the Auschwitz inmates Haft fought 75 times: obviously never losing a bout. In fight number 76 the odds were not quite stacked so heavily in his favour. This was with a French inmate from a prison camp near Berlin. Apparently the generals there had heard about Haft and wanted to set ‘their’ man against him. Although the Polish boxer managed to win it was a close match and he came away with injuries and was badly bleeding. He described to his son that as he was drawn into the celebrations with his own ecstatic guards he could hear two pistol shots being fired in the back ground. He never heard of the Frenchman again.
In the Spring of 1945 Haft managed to escape while he was being transported to another concentration camp. While on the run he killed an SS officer and stole his uniform. He drifted for weeks from village to village in the German officer’s clothes. He brutally killed an elderly couple who had provided him with shelter because he feared they would give him away.
Eventually he was captured by American Officers. They had taken over a former Jewish Villa, previously occupied by the Nazis, in the town of Straubing. The GI’s gave Haft a special task; his role was to help them establish in the villa a GI brothel populated by accommodating German ladies.
The realisation that all of his family, except for one brother, had been killed in the concentration camps drove Haft to find a new life in the USA. There he quickly fell into the hands of unscrupulous boxing managers and speculators who put him back into the ring. He managed to fight his way through to a bout with the famous Rocky Marciano, which he lost. Following this he disappeared from the boxing scene and worked out the rest of his life selling fruit in Brooklyn.
Although Reinhard Kleist’s cartoon-book is published in German his use of graphic pictures helps to present the images of Haft’s tragic life in a way that is not restricted by the limitations of the written word. The book is priced at under 20 euros (black and white, hardback) and you should be able to find it through the usual vendors.
I have taken the information in this review from a number of German language sources but if you are interested in reading more there are some good links here, here and here. Clearly much of the factual basis for this story relies on the memory of an old man who had many painful experiences to deal with as he tried to recall his life’s story to his son. You may wonder what the man looked like. Although no films have been found of his concentration camp fights I have included below a film from the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archives which was produced shortly after the second World war. This shows a Jewish boxing tournament which took place in January 1947 in Munich. Haft can be seen towards the end of the film and finally receiving the heavy weight winner’s trophy (The film lasts 11 minutes and is in Yiddish).