‘The Revenant’ talks about Harry Haft’s boxing dilemma in Auschwitz

Among the lesser known atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II were boxing matches, in which emaciated Jewish inmates were forced to fight each other to the death for the amusement of German SS officers.

Like gladiator fights in the Roman Empire, they could go on indefinitely until one bare-fisted fighter left another bloodied and unconscious, so weakened that he was useless as a slave and was taken to a gas chamber or crematorium or shot on place. spot. While the officers cheer on the winner, his prize may be an extra portion of food so that he has the strength to fight again.

Whatever satisfaction the conqueror felt in easing his hunger pangs, he had to wrestle with his guilt for doing the order of his tormentor by brutally killing another person, usually another Jew. However, like the protagonist of Sophie’s Choice, he faced an impossible dilemma: if he had lost, he would most likely have been killed.

New film, “Survivor” Directed by Barry Levinson and starring Ben Foster, the film, which opens Wednesday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on HBO and HBO Max, tells the story of one of those boxers: Harry Haft, an illiterate bully from a Polish industrial city near Łódź. , and one of eight siblings. He survived most of the war, beating opponent after opponent, 75 fights in total, at the Auschwitz mining camp.

After the war, Haft took the skills gained in the camps to America. He hoped that newspaper articles about his professional boxing matches would be read by the fiancée whose disappearance haunted him, or by siblings and other relatives he could not find.

The highlight of his two-year career was a 1949 match in Providence, Rhode Island against Rocky Marciano, who was on his way to becoming world heavyweight champion, the only one at that time to retire undefeated. Haft, 24, clad in purple Everlast trunks embroidered with a Star of David, held out until the third round, when Marciano’s flurry of punches leveled him to the ground. Haft later claimed he quit the fight after three gunmen came into his dressing room and threatened his life.

However, he was never able to contain his anger at everything he had endured, including the death of his mother and six of his siblings. The short-tempered Haft beat and kicked the eldest of his two sons for minor infractions, verbally attacked his wife and daughter, and often threatened to kill himself if things went wrong, as his eldest son Alan Scott Haft said. in a video call. When his daughter Helen decided to marry a non-Jew, he broke the windows in his house.

“I’ve had my fair share of beatings,” said Haft, now 71. “My sister has had her fair share of abuse. My mother apologized for everything, saying, “That’s his past.” Who wanted to hear about his past!”

The Holocaust darkened the lives of several members of the creative team behind the film based on Alan’s father biography 2006, including two actresses, grandchildren of the survivors, and screenwriter Justine Jewel Gillmer, whose maternal grandmother served in the Danish underground that saved most of the country’s Jews. Matti Leshem, one of the producers and the man credited with bringing Haft’s story to life on screen, is the son of a Czech who forged documents during the war that were used to give Jews a Christian identity. The father could not persuade his mother and sister to run away, and they died in Auschwitz and Terezin.

“He only told me this story once,” Leshem said in an interview. “You can understand why I wanted to make a film. Harry Haft was the most extreme example of someone who had to create a morally bankrupt life for himself or die. His post-traumatic stress disorder is not surprising.”

Levinson, the Oscar-winning director of Rain Man, Wag the Dog and other films, said he was drawn to Gillmer’s script because of its recollection of the time his great-uncle Simcha was imprisoned. on a cot in Levinson’s bedroom for two weeks. At 6, he was too young to be told that Simcha had survived the concentration camps, or to understand what that meant.

“Every night he woke up and screamed in a language I didn’t understand, over and over again,” Levinson recalled in a telephone interview. “They didn’t call these nightmares post-traumatic stress disorder. They brushed them aside, saying that “the past is the past.” But some people are harassed and can’t get past, and this affects their relationship with others.”

In The Revenant, he says, he wanted to explore how experiences like war or a concentration camp color the rest of one’s life.

The film’s star Ben Foster is not a descendant of the survivor; his grandmother immigrated here in the 1920s to escape the Ukrainian pogroms. Nevertheless, he took it upon himself to capture Haft’s controversial character so strongly that he underwent a striking physical transformation. He dropped 62 pounds in five months to play the bony but still muscular camp inmate, and then put all that weight back on and more to be true to the physique of the chubby, middle-aged Haft, who for most of his working life owned fruit and vegetable stores in Brooklyn.

“While the topic of concentration camp boxers is obscure, it was so cinematically gripping that three other films were made based on the lives of men who boxed to survive,” said Rich Brownstein, author of the book. recent book evaluating 400 Holocaust films. The first to hit the screens in 1989 was Triumph of the Spirit, in which Willem Dafoe played the Jew Salamo Arush, who was the Greek middleweight champion before the war and fought 200 fights in Auschwitz.

The Revenant takes a few artistic liberties. Haft became the protégé of an SS officer named Schneider, who hoped that Haft would vouch for his goodwill in the event of an Allied victory. The film shows Haft killing Schneider after escaping a harrowing march between camps as Allied soldiers approached. But he didn’t kill Schneider. He killed an unnamed SS man to put on his uniform as a disguise. He also killed a couple of farmers who he feared might turn him in.

Harry Haft had been trying to get Alan to write down his story ever since he was in college, and in the end he insisted on it. In 2003, he visited his son in Tampa and, in two days, recounted his story on 20 cassettes, which became the main source for the 2006 book. His father, he said, hoped that his son, having appreciated the cruelty of his life and the impossible choices he faced, would understand why Haft suffered so much.

“He wanted to apologize for being such a bad father,” Alan said.

His father also did not get rid of the guilt for what he did to his opponents, being a boxer in concentration camps. Alan recalled that in 2007, a few months before Harry died of lung cancer at the age of 82, he was accepted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. The journalist asked him if he had any regrets. He looked down at his clenched fists and said, “I regret the lives that have passed through those hands.”