Sport After Auschwitz

Joseph D. Lewandowski
University of Central Missouri

Alan Scott Haft
Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano
172 pages, hardcover, ill
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2020
ISBN 978-0-8156-1119-6

In an oft-cited—and even more often misunderstood—formulation, the great German-Jewish philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno once claimed that, ‘…to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’ [‘nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch’]. What he meant was not that the act of writing poetry after 1945 was to be forever morally verboten, but rather that there could be no ‘after Auschwitz’: the shadow of the Shoah was—and remains—inescapable insofar as cultural production is concerned. For Adorno, the frame and filter of poetic creativity and, indeed, all forms of cultural production, had been ineluctably altered in a way that could be neither forgotten nor simply left behind. Adorno’s dictum about poetry, then, is in fact an argument about history: a certain mindfulness of the long and dark shadow of the Shoah is a prerequisite for those who endeavor to write poetry in the present.

Can a similar kind of claim be made about sport? Can we still play tennis, compete in track and field, or, of all things, engage in combat sports in the same way ‘after Auschwitz’? It is among the many virtues of Alan Scott Haft’s harrowing account of his father’s life before, during, and ‘after Auschwitz’ to raise such questions. Indeed, Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano, is an unparalleled work in the history, ethics, and sociology of sport; it is also a deeply personal attempt by the son of a Holocaust survivor to come to terms with the unbearable weight of the past and its effects on his childhood and adult life.

Recounted in lean and stark prose, the book presents the story of the birth, short-circuited youth, unspeakable torture, and improbable survival of Hertzka Haft. Born in Bełchatów, near Łódź, in 1925, Hertzka was one of over 3 million Jews living in Poland at the time. By the war’s end, he was one of very few to escape the slaughter of the Nazis and make a new life in America, where, with his name anglicized, he went on to become a professional boxer, and marry and have children, all the while remaining haunted by the brutality and inhumanity he suffered in Auschwitz and elsewhere at the hands of the Nazis.

On the contrary, the narrative is a painful yet measured biographical account of a man who endured the Shoah and went on to compete in the world of professional boxing in New York City in the 1940s, but whose capacity to care and love was undermined by the violence and cruelty of the Nazi regime.

Such a damaged life is not easily represented in any medium—there are moments and events in Hertzka’s life of such unimaginable horror that they would seem to overwhelm any attempt to capture them in prose. Alan Haft’s book, which is based on tape-recorded conversations of his father’s recollections long after the war, does not shy away from such a challenge. On the contrary, the narrative is a painful yet measured biographical account of a man who endured the Shoah and went on to compete in the world of professional boxing in New York City in the 1940s, but whose capacity to care and love was undermined by the violence and cruelty of the Nazi regime. Or, as Alan Haft himself admits in the book’s afterword: ‘I have spent my entire adult life trying to get my father to love me. The writing of this book was my last attempt. After learning firsthand what my father had to endure, I understand why he was who he was. I love him. And I forgive him’ (172).

The book begins with two indispensible forewords. The first, written by professor of history John Radzilowski, provides a concise and useful account of Jewish life in Poland in the first half of the 20th century. The second, authored by New York Veteran Boxer’s Association historian Mike Silver, describes the professional boxing scene in New York City during approximately the same period. Readers unfamiliar with either or both of these topics are certain to appreciate the social and historical contextualization of the narrative that is to follow.

The remainder of the book is divided into two sections: Part I: Nightmares; and Part II: Dreams. Such a division splits Harry’s life into the period before and during the Nazi terror, and his life ‘after’ the Shoah in New York City. Yet as the book develops it is evident that there can be no real escape from the horrific dehumanization that Harry suffers during the war.

Part I begins by recounting how, after his initial capture (at age 15) and imprisonment in slave labor camps in Poznan and Stezlin, the young Hertzka is transferred to Auschwitz. There, we learn that he is assigned the unspeakably gruesome task of loading naked and freshly gassed women, men, and children into the ovens. The experience marks a turning point in the narrative that comes to shape Harry’s life in Auschwitz and America. One day a fellow prisoner working alongside Harry finds his own wife lying among the bodies to be cremated. The man, understandably, goes mad, and refuses to work, whereupon he is summarily shot by his Nazi torturers. Harry and another prisoner are instructed to load the executed husband into the oven. When they do, Harry notices that the man’s eyes are open; he is not dead.

The trauma breaks the teenager, and he subsequently refuses to work in the crematorium. In Auschwitz, such a refusal would in all other cases inevitably result in execution, but, however improbably, Harry’s life is spared by a high-ranking German SS officer who comes to serve as his ‘benefactor’, intervening to exploit Harry for his own personal gain, first by placing him in the Sonderkommando to recover valuables from murdered prisoners at Auschwitz, and then by making him an ‘entertainer’ in coerced ‘boxing matches’ held in the slave labor coal mining Auschwitz sub-camp of Jaworzno.

Indeed, one of the core strengths of the first half of the book lies in its ability to make clear that, in any normative sense of the word, for imprisoned Jews and other inmates there was no combat ‘sport’ in Auschwitz, or any of the other camps.

It is in Jaworzno that Harry ‘boxes’ for the sadistic pleasure and wagers of Nazi officers and their entourages. Known as ‘The Jew Animal’, and, thanks to his association with the officer, given extra rations and lighter work details, every Sunday afternoon Harry is compelled to fight emaciated fellow prisoners, some of whom he knows and many of whom are surely near death. Alan Haft’s descriptions of this ‘entertainment’ are unsparing. Gloveless and unconstrained by rules, judges, weight classes, or any semblance of competition, skill, or sportsmanship, the ‘matches’ are in many ways akin to cock-fighting or dog-fighting. The Nazis staged these fights to the death (either in the ring or, more often than not, immediately thereafter when a combatant was unable to continue), and pitted, as Harry himself describes it, ‘half-dead skeletons’ against him with the explicit interest in watching one Jewish man beat another senseless with his bare hands. Harry fought seventy-five ‘matches’ as ‘The Jew Animal’ of Jaworzno.

Here it must be emphasized that it was fighting—and not the sport of boxing—that played a decisive role in Harry’s dehumanization, as readers attuned to the philosophy and sociology of sport will surely note. Indeed, one of the core strengths of the first half of the book lies in its ability to make clear that, in any normative sense of the word, for imprisoned Jews and other inmates there was no combat ‘sport’ in Auschwitz, or any of the other camps. Harry did not ‘box’ in Jaworzno: coercing sick, half-starved slaves to fight (or play football, for that matter) is not sport; rather, it is a kind of poorly veiled torture that robs individuals of their autonomy, dignity, and personhood, as Part I demonstrates. Under the guise of ‘sport’, the Nazis reduced Harry (and others like him) to something animal-like: stripped of his humanity, he served as an object of entertainment—an ethnicized animal with a thing-like status.

It was not until after the war that Harry was to become a boxer in the sense of a skilled athlete who willingly competes for a prize in accordance with shared and voluntary adherence to constitutive rules designed to produce fair competitions and mutual excellence. Indeed, while living in a displaced persons camp along the Czech-Austrian border, Harry comes to learn about a Jewish Boxing Championship tournament to be held in München in January of 1946. He trains hard for the contest, focusing for the first time in his life on honing his skills as a competitive athlete, and his dedication and athleticism are rewarded when he wins first place in the heavyweight division.

Part I of the book concludes with Alan Haft’s account of his father’s transformation from enslaved fighter (‘The Jew Animal’) to autonomous athlete (the boxer, Hertzka Haft). That transformation is effectively rendered in prose and, even more poignantly, in a photo of Harry posing ringside with other prize-winning boxers after the München tournament.

Award ceremony at the Jewish Boxing Championship in Germany in January of 1946. In the middle (without shirt) stands the heavyweight champion Hertzko Haft.

The image is at once inspiring and profoundly saddening. Trophy in hand, smilingly gently but with confidence, standing undefeated and dignified, the image of Hertzka (now twenty years old) has the air of invincibility not uncommon among young successful prizefighters. The photo projects the image of a triumphant survivor, but at what price? In lingering over the photo, one cannot help but wonder just what may have become of this promising young athlete had he not come of age in Auschwitz.

Not long after Harry’s victory in München he is approved for passage on a ship to New York. It is there, in the spring of 1946, that Part II of the narrative begins. And it is this second part of the book that tells the story of Harry’s life as a professional boxer, father, and, ultimately, operator of a fruit stand in Brooklyn. Where the first half of the book raises difficult questions about ethics and 20th century European history, the second half focuses more narrowly on the sociocultural aspects of immigrant life and professional boxing in mid-20th century America.

Indeed, as Part II makes clear, like many immigrants to the US, Harry faced discrimination and limited opportunities. Penniless and with only rudimentary English, Harry thus embarks on a career in professional boxing, hoping to earn a living and reasoning that, after all he has been through, ‘what harm can a man with gloves on his hands do to me?’ (107). Additionally, we come to learn that Harry has deeply personal motives to box professionally in the US—he imagines that Leah, a long-lost girlfriend from his youth in Bełchatów, might somehow have survived the camps and, however unlikely, see him on television or in the newspapers. Such a romantic motivation sets Harry apart from most boxers, whose interest in the sport is not merely employment (however meager) but also typically rooted in the pursuit of social recognition in contexts of disrespect and ethnoracial prejudice.

Of course that is not to say that Harry’s career as a boxer did not intersect with the legacy of ethnoracial identity and racism in America. In fact, one of the most striking historical and sociological aspects of Part II is Alan Haft’s account of Harry training in Harlem with ‘the schvartzes’ (118). For it was in an all Black gym on 125th Street that Harry, struggling in poverty, first found genuine human kindness and interracial friendship in America. At the gym, Coley Wallace, Golden Gloves heavyweight champion, takes Harry under his wing. Wallace serves as sparring partner and coach, working with Harry to teach him ring generalship and the craft of pugilism. But Wallace also becomes his friend—feeding Harry and giving him a place to sleep when he lacks the subway fare needed to return to his room in Brighton Beach; indeed, at the Coley residence Harry is welcomed like family. It was in no small way thanks to his time in Harlem that Harry won his first televised fight in the US by knockout.

In boxing parlance, Harry was primarily a ‘brawler’—a highly aggressive fighter who could punch, and could and willingly would, to his own detriment, take a punch (many punches, in fact).

Though Alan Haft opts to highlight Harry’s later fight with Rocky Marciano, it must be said that, sociologically speaking, the most compelling sections of Part II are contained in the chapter on Harlem and the role that ethnoracial relations and identities play in boxing. For not merely prejudice but also ethnoracial pride has a long history in the sport, and in this regard Harry was no exception. As Alan Haft reminds us, his father very much ‘wanted to be known as a Jewish fighter’ (113). Indeed, the purple boxing trunks Harry wore throughout his competitive career had a white Star of David stitched to them.

Badly mismanaged and, with the exception of his brief time in Harlem, poorly coached and cared for, Harry’s professional boxing career was not unlike those of many others in the sport—then and now. In boxing parlance, Harry was primarily a ‘brawler’—a highly aggressive fighter who could punch, and could and willingly would, to his own detriment, take a punch (many punches, in fact). Doubtless the legacy of the horrors of Jaworzno had indelibly shaped his boxing style. Like many brawlers, his style was marketable, but did not lend itself to a long or successful career in the sport. Yet if his purpose in boxing was to reunite with Leah, then he was successful, as the final chapter of the book recounts in heartbreaking detail.

In sum, Alan Haft has given us something we rarely find in a work on boxing. Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano is not merely a deeply personal biography about a boxer, but, more fundamentally, an historical and sociological account of the life of a boy, man, father, and prizefighter whose humanity was stripped away by the unthinkable depravity of the Nazis. Moreover, and to return to the questions with which this review began, Haft’s book offers us another way to think about sport and sport ethics ‘after Auschwitz’. For while one might argue that it is precisely a combat sport such as boxing, so seemingly ‘barbaric’, that should and must be abandoned today, that would be a mistake. For, at its best, it is in sport—understood in a normative sense as training and competitions voluntarily pursued in accordance with jointly shared rules, principles of fair play, respect for persons qua persons, and the mutual quest for excellence in mind and body—that we glimpse and experience, however imperfectly, some of what Nazi barbarism sought to destroy in the ‘entertainment’ of a place like Jaworzno. To be sure, Harry Haft’s life in boxing did not enable him to outrun the long shadow of the Shoah, but it did present him with a kind of reverse image of the dehumanization and immorality he endured under his Nazi torturers. It is precisely for this reason that, mindful of the atrocities of the past, even a sport such as boxing retains an attenuated power to disclose the possibilities of human goodness.

Copyright © Joseph D Lewandowski 2023

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