Among the lesser-known atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II were boxing matches that forced emaciated Jewish inmates to fight to the death for the entertainment of German SS officers.
Like gladiator fights in the Roman Empire, these could go on forever until one bare-knuckle fighter left the other bloodied and unconscious, so weakened that he was useless as a slave and would be transported to a gas chamber or crematorium or shot on the spot. As the officers cheered the winner, his prize might be an extra spoonful of food so he could have the strength to fight again.
Whatever satisfaction the victor felt in assuaging his hunger pangs, he had to wrestle with his guilt for carrying out his executioner’s orders by brutally killing another person, usually another Jew. Yet, like the protagonist of “Sophie’s Choice”, he was faced with an impossible dilemma: if he lost, he would probably have been killed.
A new movie, “The survivor,” directed by Barry Levinson and starring Ben Foster, which opens Wednesday, the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day, on HBO and HBO Max, tells the story of one such boxer: Harry Haft, an illiterate hoodlum from a Polish industrial town near Lodz and one of eight siblings. He survived much of the war beating opponent after opponent, 75 fights in all, in a coal subcamp of Auschwitz.
After the war, Haft took the skills he had learned in the camps to America. He hoped that newspaper articles about his professional boxing matches might be read by a fiancée whose disappearance haunted him or by the siblings and other relatives he had been unable to find.
The highlight of his two-year career was a 1949 game in Providence, RI against Rocky Marciano, who was on his way to becoming world heavyweight champion, the only one at that time to retire undefeated. Haft, 24, wearing a purple Everlast jersey with a stitched Star of David, lasted until the third round when a flurry of blows from Marciano flattened him. Haft later claimed he started the fight after three armed mobsters came to his locker room and threatened him with death.
Yet he was never able to moderate the anger that consumed him for everything he had been through, including the death of his mother and five of his siblings. Angry, Haft slapped and kicked his eldest two sons for minor misconduct, verbally attacked his wife and daughter and frequently threatened to kill himself if things didn’t go his way, his son said. eldest son, Alan Scott Haft. in a video call. When his daughter, Hélène, decided to marry a gentile, he broke down the windows of her house.
“I’ve had my share of beatings,” said Haft, who is now 71. “My sister had her share of abuse. My mom excused it all, saying, ‘It’s her past. Who wanted to hear about her background!’
The Holocaust darkened the lives of several members of the creative team behind the film, which is based on Alan’s 2006 biography of his father, including two actresses who are grandchildren of survivors, and screenwriter, Justine Juel Gillmer, whose maternal grandmother served in the Danish underground that saved most of that country’s Jews. Matti Leshem, one of the producers and the man credited with bringing Haft’s story to the screen, is the son of a Czech who during the war forged documents used to endow Jews with Christian identities. Her father could not persuade her mother and sister to flee, and they perished at Auschwitz and Terezin.
“He only told me that story once,” Leshem said in an interview. “You can understand why I wanted to do the movie. Harry Haft was the most extreme example of someone who had to create a morally untenable life for himself or die. His PTSD 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 his memories of when his great-uncle , Simcha, was put up on a cot in Levinson’s bedroom for two weeks. At age 6, he was too young to be told that Simcha was a concentration camp survivor or to understand what it meant.
“Every night he would wake up screaming and screaming in a language I didn’t understand – over and over again,” Levinson recalled in a phone interview. “They didn’t call those nightmares PTSD. They dismissed them because “the past is the past”. But some people are haunted and cannot pass and this affects their relationships with those around them.
With “The Survivor,” he said, he wanted to explore how an experience like a war or a concentration camp colors the rest of one’s life.
The film’s star, Ben Foster, is not the descendant of a survivor; his grandmother immigrated here in the 1920s to escape pogroms in Ukraine. Nonetheless, he took his obligation to capture Haft’s confrontational character so intensely that he underwent a striking physical transformation. He lost 62 pounds in five months so he could play the skeletal but still nervous inmate of camp, then regain all that weight and more so he could be true to the physique of the chubby middle-aged Haft, who for most of his professional life owned fruit and vegetable stores in Brooklyn.
Although the subject of concentration camp boxers is obscure, it was so cinematically engrossing that there were three other films based on the lives of men who boxed to survive, said Rich Brownstein, author of a recent book that assesses 400 Holocaust films. The first, released in 1989, was “Triumph of the Spirit” starring Willem Dafoe as a Jew, Salamo Arouch, who before the war had been the Greek middleweight champion and had fought 200 fights in Auschwitz.
“The Survivor” takes some artistic liberties. Haft became the protege of an SS officer named Schneider, who hoped that Haft would vouch for his benevolence in the event of an Allied victory. The film depicts Haft killing Schneider after escaping a harrowing march between sides as Allied soldiers approach. But he didn’t kill Schneider. He killed an unnamed SS man to put on his uniform as a disguise. He also killed a farming couple whom he feared would turn him in.
Harry Haft had been trying since Alan’s college days to get Alan to write his story and he finally forced the issue. In 2003, he visited his son in Tampa and for two days told his story on 20 tapes, which became the essential source material for the 2006 book. His father, he says, hoped his son, in enjoying the brutality of his life and the impossible choices he faced, would understand why Haft had been so tormented.
“He wanted to apologize for being such a bad dad,” Alan said.
Nor had his father rid himself of guilt for what he had done to his opponents as a boxer in the concentration camps. Alan recalled that in 2007, a few months before Harry died of lung cancer at 82, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. A reporter asked him if he had any regrets. He looked at his gnarled fists and said, “My regrets are the lives that passed through these hands.”