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Dr. Candida Rifkind, University of Winnipeg

Guest Post: Jessica Fontaine Reviews Reinhard Kleist's The Boxer

Fists of Violence and Loss: A Review of Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer

Jessica Fontaine, Research Assistant

Reinhard Kleist, who published the graphic biography Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness in 2009, delves further into the dark recesses of a man’s nightmares and memories in his 2014 offering, The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft. His illustrative style of stark black and white images works well to both shadow and expose the violence and loss held within Haft’s story of survival.   

In The Boxer, Kleist adapts Alan Haft’s account of his father’s experiences as a Polish-Jewish fighter forced to fight for the entertainment of Nazi soldiers within concentration camps. Haft first published his father’s story in the prose biography, Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano

The relationship between father and son frames the narrative, which opens in America with Alan describing his father as “the toughest guy in the world.”  It’s a statement made in fear, not pride.  Harry Haft first appears as a raging brute with hands always fisted.  Like Spiegelman’s Maus, Kleist’s comic does the heavy work of creating an understandable subject of the father, who has been rendered unknowable to his son through the unthinkable and unbearable trauma of the Holocaust.  As the story shifts back to Poland in 1939, it transfers to Harry’s perspective, allowing both Alan and the reader into the haunting memories of Harry.

As a result, trauma informs every page.  It manifests not only in the panels referencing the mass murder of the Jewish people, but in the physical body of Harry Haft, who must violently battle for his life.  Throughout, Kleist transforms Harry from the curly-haired, teenage runt of the family into an angular, starving prisoner fighting for his life, and finally into a robust, underdog, New York boxer.  However, his eyes and hands never escape everything he has seen and done.  The consistent depictions of his dark, furrowed brow and closed fists draw attention to the inescapability of the trauma of the Holocaust.  Although Harry’s determination and fortitude allow him to survive, his survival comes at a deep cost, which Kleist makes clear during ruptures of Harry’s image. 

Harry’s perpetual glare breaks in moments of wide-eyed horror, such as when he realizes that the concentration camp opponents he defeats will pay for their losses with their lives.  Therefore, in every fight, Harry encloses power and vulnerability in each fist.  Every punch destroys as much as it saves.  The pain of this paradox persists with Harry long after he is physically free from the camps.  

In the New York flash-bulb spectacle of Harry’s match with the undefeated Rocky Marciano, the boxing gloves disappear from his hands and he is once again bare-fisted and exposed. The spectators transform into Nazi officers and he hears wolf-like dogs barking for blood within the crowd’s cheers.  Harry appears to himself and the reader as a skeleton-like figure, trapped within the fighting cage.  Harry’s body consistently remains the prisoner of both the violence he rendered and the violence enacted upon him.

An appendix at the end of the comic highlights the prevalence of boxing within concentration camps.  The information makes it clear that although Haft’s recollections of locations and times contain factual errors, forcing already imprisoned and desperate men to fight for spectacle existed among the many horrors inflicted within the camps. 

Kleist’s comic strips away the spectacle and resists a redemption narrative often found in Hollywood boxing pics and Holocaust films alike.  Instead, The Boxer bestows empathy upon Harry.  In doing so, it resists cutting off history and past.  Kleist’s Boxer serves as a dark reminder of the human losses of the Holocaust, including those carried within survivors.

 In May, 2014, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival hosted a conversation between Reinhard Kleist and Alan Scott Haft that you can watch here.