Holocaust History and Visualizing Trauma in Reinhard Kleist's The Boxer
Review by Jamie Michaels, Project GraphicBio Research Fellow 2017-18
Reinhard Kleist brings the gritty, horrific world of combat sport in the German death camps to life in The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft. Originally serialized in Germany by Frankfurter Allgmeine Zeitung, The Boxer brings intimate, accessible, and sickening Holocaust history to a new generation of German readers, and following numerous international awards and translations, to a global audience.
This graphic biography draws heavily from Alan Scott Haft’s biography of his father, and fittingly opens in a prologue between the two of them, with Harry proclaiming, “One day I’ll tell you everything.” The first part of the story takes the reader on the harrowing journey from the Jewish Ghetto in Nazi occupied Bełchatów to Auschwitz, and the inhumanity of the Nazi death camps. A young Haft is marked out as a survivor by Schneider, a member of the SS who recruits him to box in illicit death matches for the entertainment of the Nazi guards.
Haft survives through his tenacity, willpower, and implicitly at the expense of the lives of the men he defeats in the ring. During a forced death march towards the end of the war Haft escapes. Surviving the Holocaust, he despondently searches for friends and family in the ruins of a newly liberated Europe. With only his brother Peretz surviving, Haft is forced to find a degree of meaning in simply existing, winning the 1946 Jewish Boxing Championship purely to show the world he is still alive.
The book’s second act takes place in New York City, where a recently immigrated Haft decides to resume boxing with the goal of being world champion. His intentions are based on the hope that Leah, his prewar love, has also survived and will see his name in the paper, leading to the reunification of the lost lovers. The strength of part one is it is impossible-to-put-down pacing. Kleist takes the reader on a sprint through history, and the stakes of life-and-death give the text a constant tension. The second act of The Boxer slows its tempo, thematically mirroring the search for meaning in a post Holocaust world, with varying degrees of success.
In some places, the work stumbles as Kleist struggles to draw meaning and clear-cut narrative arcs for the reader. In the first depiction of professional boxing, the artwork alternates between the present and the past with illustrations moving between boxing in-the-ring, and the life-or-death struggle in the camps (Fig. 1)
This juxtaposition, although creating the potential for readerly participation, can be awkward. Is Haft holding back, remembering the fate of those he defeated at Auschwitz? Is he motivated to fight harder, drawing strength from having survived impossible odds? These are big questions without overt answers. Initially this device works well— allowing for reader interpretation in the gutter between the panels. However, these mechanics become increasingly problematic as we move to the culmination of Haft’s career and his defeat by Rocky Mariano.
Kleist shows a defeated Haft slumped against the ropes, and this image is juxtaposed by the following panel where he is dressed as an Auschwitz prisoner sprawled across the ground before a cheering crowd. The text below the image of the defeated Haft reads, “the crowd knows full well that Haft entered a fight he could only lose” (160). Kleist clearly wants to indicate the impossibility of overcoming the trauma of lived experiences.
However, the writing takes the reader out of the immediacy of the narrative and the writer peeks out from behind the panel images, coming across as over-indulgent, even exploitative of the source material. This is not to say that temporal juxtapositions are an ineffective way to represent trauma; in fact, the pages have the potential to be evocative. My critique is rather that, in presenting this work as the “True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft,” Kleist is faced with the dilemma of elasticity of representation, how far a writer can fictionalize, infer from, or stretch his source material before the suspension of disbelief snaps.
This is an especially precarious question for graphic biographies representing real experiences of the Holocaust. Harry Haft was a very closed person, and representing his story as truthful requires walking a narrow edge between facts to create a narrative arc. That Haft felt the emotional weight of the Holocaust while boxing and this led to his defeat by Marciano seems unlikely, thus making the role of the writer feel more prominent. For me, this resulted in breaking the genuine feel of the narrative, and calling the authenticity of the rest of the work into question. It also begs the questions, why now? why in this fight?, especially when contrasted with past panels where Haft overcame opponents, even though similar panel juxtapositions representing traumatic memory propelled his success. The incongruous use of these temporal juxtapositions removed me, as a reader from what, until this point had been a completely immersive story.
Despite stumbling in how to best represent past trauma affecting an uncertain present, The Boxer is still an immersive, tightly written biography of a man whose story deserves to be told. As both the writer and illustrator, Kleist’s artwork comes across as natural, seamlessly fitting the story. Strong line work, gritty details, and partially-completed backdrops all lend themselves to focusing the reader on particular points in the panels. If a camp guard is drawn faceless, it is because he is unknown to Haft –a backdrop to inhumane times. If a boxing foe is rendered in blood-spattered detailed line work, it’s because for Haft, and therefore the reader, that moment in time is all-encompassing.
Although in some instances the choices of representation are problematic, Kleist takes artistic risks in bringing Harry Haft’s story to life, and most of them pay off. A horrific history rendered in a stylistically effective way, The Boxer is a must read for anyone searching for a human window into the terrors of the Holocaust, and the multigenerational struggle for normalcy that followed it.
Haft, Alan Scott. Harry Haft: Auschwitz Survivor, Challenger of Rocky Marciano. Syracuse University Press, 2006.
Kleist, Reinhard. The Boxer. Translated by Michael Waaler, Self Made Hero, 2014.
Suggested Further Materials
Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Harvard University Press, 2016.
Jacobson, Sid and Erni Colón. Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. Hill and Wang, 2010.
Rothberg, Michael. Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Penguin Books, 2003.
Victor Young Perez. Directed by Jacques Ouaniche, Océan Films, 2013.