Holocaust boxers story tragic and moving, but book has daddy issues

It says a lot about Harry Haft’s life that being beaten to a pulp by Rocky Marciano probably wasn’t even on his personal top 1,000 of the most unpleasant things that happened to him.

Unless you’re a boxing historian, you’ve probably never heard of Haft, a Jewish pugilist from back when that was far from abnormal (one-third of American fighters in the first half of the century were entitled to wear the Star of David on their trunks.)

Haft was a big, strong Polish Jew without much in the way of style whose career lasted just under two years, during which time he racked up a 13-7 record. He retired immediately after the Marciano fight, ostensibly because mob heavies entered his training room just prior to the opening round and told him in no uncertain terms that he was to lose.

Whether this was the real reason Haft was knocked out in the third round on July 18, 1949 in Providence, R.I., is up for debate (Marciano, of course, is the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, so the vanquished Haft was in good company).

Haft’s most stunning victory, however, was just making it to the ring. His little-known story is retold in “Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano,” a biography penned by his oldest son, Alan Scott Haft.

Hertzka Haft (as he was known in Belchatow) has a Holocaust story that stands out from so many others because of the uniquely destructive psychological impact his horrific experiences inflicted upon him. Like so many other Jews of his generation, Haft was starved, tortured, worked half to death, and made to witness the casual murders of his closest friends and relatives. In this cruelest era of our cruel world that was, tragically, par for the course.

But Haft’s story grows worse. As a strong and angry young man, he served a special use for the Nazis. Just as many enterprising and heartless young men raise vicious dogs for sport, so a Nazi commandant trained and fattened the young Haft.

The guards gave him the nickname “The Jew Animal of Jaworzno,” which, when you think about it, reveals much more about his German tormenters than it does about him. He was made to box, bare-knuckled, for the entertainment of his captors. These were fights until one man couldn’t stand up, and Haft was well aware of what the Nazis would do to a Jew who couldn’t stand up.

Haft fought in many scores of fights. It was always the other man who couldn’t stand up.

Alan Scott Haft, a first-time author, retells his father’s tale in a straightforward and unadorned style. He has opted to stay out of the way of his father’s tragically engrossing tale and avoids the pitfalls of overwriting (for better and for worse). Like a young skier clinging to a towrope, he lets his father’s story guide him — and the reader — along.

Harry Haft remained closed-mouthed about his past for most of his life, and this book is the result of a two-day marathon interview in 2003 in which the boxer finally told his son his horrific life story. And, unfortunately, the limitations of such a first-person narrative are evident in the younger Haft’s prose.

Harry Haft is the invisible man in this story, a blank screen in which the inhuman events taking place around him are projected. We certainly see through his eyes, but we sure don’t know what was going on in his head. This book is, largely, a very long narrative about a man we don’t know at all. And, with the exception of a darkly gripping passage in which Harry Haft and his brother, Peretz, witness groups of starved Jews killing and cannibalizing their fellow inmates set against the ever-present rumble of approaching Russian artillery, Alan Scott Haft’s text is often not nearly visceral enough.

Because we learn nothing about Haft other than what happened to him during the Holocaust, his behavior afterward comes as a shock, and his son does not attempt to explain it. After escaping a death march, Haft somewhat needlessly murders several elderly German civilians. The book reports it, but does no more. We do not even know if Haft regrets killing these people.

When the towrope of Haft’s tale ends, Alan Scott Haft must ski on his own — and he’s shaky. As abruptly as his father hung up his gloves following the Marciano fight, the son switches the book over to his own story, writing about growing up in an abusive household and his father’s lifelong violent and suicidal behavior. The break from the lengthy narrative is jarring and, once again, we realize how little we’ve learned about Haft in this book.

In fact, Alan Scott Haft recalls a violent encounter with his octogenarian father “the last time I saw him,” which strongly implies that the old boxer is dead. Not so. He’s very much alive and living in Florida (in fact, his number is in the phone book), though he is battling cancer. This level of ambiguity, in a book published by a major university press no less, is shocking. You shouldn’t have to thumb through the White Pages to know if the subject of a biography is alive or dead.

For anyone with an interest in a uniquely disturbing Holocaust narrative, this book is worth reading. One wishes, however, that it were something more than a narrative.

“Harry Haft: Suvivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano” by Alan Scott Haft (172 pages, Syracuse University Press, $24.95).

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.