On July 18, 1949, boxer Harry Haft entered the ring against undefeated heavyweight Rocky Marciano. Things weren’t looking good for Haft before the fight even began. He’d lost five of his previous six bouts. Meanwhile, Marciano had notched 16 knockouts in 17 professional fights — though the general feeling among the boxing press was that he’d recently faced a string of subpar opponents to pad his record.
Thus, the crowd at the Rhode Island Auditorium that night in Providence was sparse — fewer than 1,700 spectators in a venue that could hold 5,300. Though the fight progressed somewhat evenly for the first two rounds, Marciano beat Haft in the third.
Harry Haft would never fight again. Marciano would go on to trounce the great Joe Louis and eventually become the heavyweight champ. To the punters that night in Providence, it might’ve seemed like the worst night of Haft’s life. But it wasn’t even close.
Born Hertzka Haft in 1925 in Belchatów, Poland, Harry was sent to the Nazi death camps one month shy of his 16th birthday. At Auschwitz, he’d been forced to fight other prisoners — fellow Jews — for the amusement of the Nazi officers. These brutal bare-knuckle bloodbaths continued until one fighter could no longer stand. Defeat in the ring typically resulted in execution.
Haft faced three to four opponents every Sunday for several months. The Nazi officers nicknamed him “The Jew Animal.” And though Haft may not have technically killed anyone in the ring himself, he won all of his fights. Haft’s son, Alan, estimates that as many as 76 men were executed by the Nazis after losing to Harry. “I got that figure from a newspaper,” he says. “And out of the 76, he would’ve had to have known some of them, because when they rounded people up [to send to the camps], they rounded you up with people from your hometown.”
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Harry Haft lived the rest of his long life riddled with guilt. “When he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, he was asked if he had any regrets,” Alan recalls. “And he looked at his fists — these giant fists with broken knuckles — and he said his regrets were the lives that passed through his hands.”
Alan Haft wrote a book about his father. Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano was published in 2006. A few years later, his book was adapted into a graphic novel by German cartoonist Reinhard Kleist. Then Hollywood came calling, optioning Haft’s story for the big screen. In 2019, Rain Man director Barry Levinson finished shooting a movie about Haft, starring Ben Foster as the boxer-survivor. As of this writing, the film is in postproduction and expected to be released this year.
Sending his fellow prisoners to their deaths was just one of the horrific experiences Haft had in the camps. When he wasn’t fighting, the guards had him shoveling corpses into the ovens for cremation. After being moved to a concentration camp in Flossenbürg, Germany, he and his brother Peretz spent a series of harrowing nights locked in a barracks while starving prisoners began murdering and cannibalizing each other to stay alive.
“The filmmakers were toying with the idea of including the cannibalism in the movie, but they didn’t have the courage to do it,” Alan says of the upcoming film. “I thought it was important [to include] because only recently have Holocaust survivors come forward to speak about the cannibalism. That was such a taboo subject; you didn’t talk about it. But my father wanted to make it known that this is what people resort to when they’re starved and put into extreme circumstances. It’s a total breakdown of civilization at that point.”
Harry escaped the Nazis during a death march in April of 1945, when the tide of the war was turning in favor of the Allies. “He killed a German officer to get his uniform, and then he killed many people at farmhouses he stopped at along the way. He described it all very casually,” Alan says.
“At the time, you’re talking about a Holocaust survivor who’s got PTSD talking to a second-generation Holocaust survivor who’s got PTSD from having survived growing up with him,” Alan says of the interviews he conducted with his father in 2003 that provided the basis for the book.
“I grew up in the United States in the 1950s with a father who couldn’t speak much English, couldn’t read and write, who you couldn’t really talk to because he might explode at any time,” he adds. “He had psychotic episodes that could end in violence. One time he broke every window in the house. And I couldn’t object to anything, otherwise I’d get beaten. So it was crazy.”
Harry Haft died in 2007. “I wrote the book while my father was still alive, so I was a little bit gentler than I might have been had I wrote it when he was gone,” Alan explains. “I can tell you that I see the world a little differently now. My father’s life was almost hard to believe. He was difficult to live with, but I always ask myself if I had to live his experiences and grow up in the times he grew up in, what kind of person would I have become?”