The Boxer of Auschwitz: Fight or Be Killed.
Harry Haft’s shocking true story, portrayed in HBO’s new Holocaust film, The Survivor.
Harry Haft’s real-life story is shocking and little known. He was imprisoned in Jaworzno, a concentration camp that was part of the vast Auschwitz complex, and was forced to box his fellow inmates. The loser of each fight was murdered by Nazi guards, who enjoyed watching this macabre spectacle.
Harry was forced to fight in 76 matches. The horror of his experiences never left him. His story is portrayed in HBO’s new film, The Survivor, directed by Academy Award-winner Barry Levinson and starring Ben Foster, who visited Auschwitz and lost 30 lbs. to prepare for the role.
Typical Jewish Childhood
Harry (Hershel) was born in 1925 into an impoverished Jewish family in the Polish town of Belchatow, near the German border, the youngest of eight children. Belchatow’s population was half Jewish at the time, and the Haft family was surrounded by Jewish neighbors and friends who helped and supported them. Harry’s father Moishe was a peddler who died when Harry was just three years old. Desperately poor, he and his siblings all had to work. Harry had his first job at the age of five, delivering birds from the town’s kosher butcher to customers.
Antisemitism was part of the fabric of the town. Alan Scott Haft, Harry’s son, recalls that teachers in the local public school Harry attended openly favored the Christian pupils, beating and belittling Jewish students for even the slightest mistake. Jews were also attacked by their non-Jewish peers, who imbibed intense antisemitism from sermons in their family churches and homes.
The harshness of his childhood made Harry a fighter. “There were gangs who terrorized the Jewish children,” Alan Scott Haft described in his book about his father Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano (Syracuse University Press: 2006). “Harry understood early that he needed to fight and get a reputation as a fighter so that he would not be their victim.”
Belchatow fell into German hands on October 5, 1939, just weeks after the outbreak of World War II. Belchatow had a large population of ethnic Germans who spoke German at home and attended Lutheran churches in the town. These “Folk Germans” welcomed their new overlords with open arms. For the Jews of Belchatow, their nightmare was just beginning.
Based on his father’s testimony Alan Scott Haft said, “Jews were systematically picked off the streets for forced labor. They were allowed to walk only in the middle of the road. Synagogues were destroyed, and all Jews were made to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing. Jewish bank accounts were frozen. Jews were forbidden to travel and subjected to a curfew.” Both the occupying Nazis and local residents were encouraged to torture local Jews.
Layb Podlovsky, a survivor from the town, wrote an extensive account of what went on in Belchatow. Early in the occupation:
…the Jews were driven out of their homes and forced to do the most difficult and demeaning tasks. Horrible scenes took place in the Jewish quarters. The bonfire was already burning in New Market Square, and groups of Jews, who were continually bringing Torah scrolls and holy books, were forced to throw them on the first while singing and reciting prayers. And anyone who wanted to (could) beat the Jews; 10-11 year old little German boys tugged at elderly Jews and beat them…”
In March 1941, the Nazis created a Jewish ghetto in Belchatow, forcing Jews from Belchatow and other nearby towns into a cramped, unsanitary section comprising just a few overcrowded streets. Jews were transported to nearby towns to perform forced slave labor, returning to the ghetto at night.
For Harry and his family, the Belchatow Jewish ghetto offered a chance to help others. Harry’s brother Aria started a local smuggling business, and Harry and his brothers worked as smugglers, bringing goods across the border from nearby Germany. For the first time in their lives, Harry’s family was relatively prosperous. Even amidst the terror and misery of the ghetto, Harry’s mother, Hynda, was determined to do all she could to take care of her fellow Jews.
Ben Foster portrays Harry Haft in HBO’s The Survivor
“During this time Hynda was now in a position to help others. Relatives and friends who were hungry or needy were taken in. Harry’s mother sent provisions to cousins who were unable to come in person, and she returned many past favors from neighbors by giving them money.” (Quoted in Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano).
Deportation to Auschwitz
The Nazis began killing more and more Jews in the Belchatow ghetto. During the Purim holiday of 1942, ten Jews were publicly hanged in the ghetto by their Nazi overlords. In August 1942, the Belchatow ghetto was liquidated. The remaining Jews were forced into the ghetto’s synagogue. Several hundred were transferred to the ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz. Thousands remained in the synagogue for three days with no food. On August 14, 1942, nearly all the remaining residents of the Belchatow ghetto were sent to the Chelmno Death Camp where they were murdered.
Harry witnessed the ghetto’s liquidation. He’d been arrested much earlier, and had worked with other Jews as a slave laborer. But in 1942, with the help of a sympathetic foreman, he managed to briefly escape and go back home to see what was happening to his family and the town’s other Jews.
Alan Scott Haft described what happened next. “To Harry’s surprise, the Jewish quarter was practically deserted. It looked as if everyone had been evacuated and only the sick remained, dying in the streets of starvation…” Harry went to the home of his sister Brandel, who had just had her first baby.
Two German trucks overloaded with people passed them on their left. A third truck was being filled with people right in front of Brandel’s house. The Germans were cleaning out the neighborhood right in front of Harry’s eyes… soldiers strong-armed his sister and her husband out of their house and onto the crowded truck. He heard pleading and screaming, and Brandel was crying out to someone as the truck started moving. The next thing Harry saw was a soldier coming out of the house with a baby in his arms running toward the truck. The soldier tossed the newborn toward Brandel’s outstretched arms, but he missed, and the baby crashed to the ground. Another soldier, without hesitation, pulled out a revolver, and shots rang out. The baby’s body was left in the gutter…
Soon after that terrible night, Harry was sent to the Stzelin concentration camp. A month later, he was transferred from there to Auschwitz, and then to the Jaworzno labor camp, a sub-camp of the vast Auschwitz complex. Harry and other Jewish slave laborers toiled in nearby coal mines, working with their bare hands in primitive and dangerous conditions.
In Auschwitz, a high-ranking SS officer named Dietrich Schneider noticed Harry and took steps to befriend him. Schneider first helped Harry after a terrible occurrence: Harry was briefly forced to work in the Auschwitz crematoriums, throwing the bodies of dead Jews into the flames. One day he was forced to throw the body of a Jewish man into the fire, only to realize at the last moment that the man was still alive. After this harrowing incident, Harry refused to work anymore; he didn’t care if the guards shot him. Instead of killing him, Schneider helped Harry, transferring him to a different work detail.
Schneider followed Harry to the Jaworzno work camp and asked him to make a bizarre deal: If Schneider helped Harry to survive, would Harry do all he could to help Schneider avoid justice if Germany lost the war? Harry agreed.
Entertaining Nazis by Fighting
At first, Schneider seemed to honor his end of the bargain by providing Harry with extra food rations. But one day he showed his true colors as a sadistic Nazi. “Now you are a big, strong Jew, my friend, and I am going to make you an entertainer,” he told Harry. “You are going to entertain my friends the other officers and soldiers.” Schneider explained the rules: each Sunday, Harry was to fight fellow Jews in front of the officers’ quarters in back-to-back boxing matches. Boxing gloves were not allowed, though Harry was given a pair of plain leather gloves to wear. Schneider assured Harry that the Jews he’d fight had volunteered to try their luck against him. The boxing matches would end when one man gave up, Schneider explained.
If Harry had any illusions that Schneider was a decent man, that first fight removed any vestiges of hope that the Nazis were capable of decency.
The first opponent was brought into the ring. Harry was shocked by his appearance. He saw before him a half-dead skeleton of a man. It became clear to him at that moment that there would be nothing fair about this match. Harry was eighteen years old, big and strong. Schneider had kept him well fed, not overworked or tortured. Harry looked across the ring and saw the fear on the face of his challenger, and he knew that this man had not volunteered. Harry remembered Schneider’s words about how the fight would end when one man was unable to continue, and now he understood what that meant. (Quoted in Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano).
That first day, Harry fought five Jews and easily won each of the matches. The SS guards screamed anti-Jewish slurs throughout the fights as Schneider sat on a grand, throne-like chair, enjoying himself immensely.
Though Schneider offered Harry whisky as a reward for fighting, Harry turned it down, disgusted. He realized that if he threw a match he’d be risking death. As Harry later explained in an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he realized that the losers faced certain death: “As a youngster in school I was already training to be a boxer. I was very powerful. But in Jaworzno, the fight was to the finish. The loser wound up in the hospital and if he didn’t get well after a few days he went out on the next transport to Auschwitz.”
The SS guards began calling Harry the “Jew Animal of Jaworzno”. He won 75 matches over the course of several months. Then one day, he was ordered to fight a real challenger. Schneider told him how important this match was to him; he had bet a substantial amount of money on Harry. When Harry arrived at the makeshift boxing ring, he saw a Jewish man in his 20s who’d been the heavyweight champion of France before the war.
It was the toughest fight Harry had ever had. In the end, covered with blood, he knocked out his strong French competitor. After SS guards carried off the French fighter, Harry heard two gunshots ring out.
By now, Soviet forces were closing in on Auschwitz. The Nazis tried to cover up the magnitude of their crimes, destroying the gas chambers and other buildings and forcing tens of thousands of Jews to leave Auschwitz and its many sub-camps, leading them on death marches or transporting them by freight cars to other camps such as Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Mauthausen. Harry was forced on one of the marches: “12,000 people were marched to GrosRozen and 190 survived,” he told the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We marched for a week.”
Harry wound up in the Flossenberg concentration camp, where conditions were abysmal. American forces were closing in on the camp, and the Nazi guards announced yet another death march to remove Jews from the camp. Harry and a friend decided to plan an audacious escape. “We are dead men if we don’t get out of here,” he told his friend. They made a run for it, tearing across the lush German countryside. Nazis shot after them and followed them, but Harry and his friend had made it. They were free. They managed to hide in the forest and small towns for several more weeks, until the end of the war.
Life After Wartime
Harry Haft was forever scarred by the Holocaust. After the war, he lived in displaced persons camps. In 1947 the US Army in Munich organized an Amateur Jewish Heavyweight Championship boxing match. Harry was the top winner and became a local celebrity. He appealed to US Gen. Lucius Clay for help in immigrating to America, and in 1948 Gen. Clay arranged for Harry to start a new life in the United States.
Harry and his wife Miriam
Settling with a cousin in New Jersey, Harry worked as a boxer for a time. He had a middling career, and his final fight was against future heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano in 1949. Harry blamed his defeat on the Mafia: “In my days though, the Mafia controlled the boxing game and you did as you were told.”
Harry gave up boxing and settled down, building the beautiful family life that had once seemed like an impossible dream. He married Miriam Wofsoniker and they had three children together. Harry worked in various jobs in New York, including running a fruit and vegetable store in Brooklyn and driving a cab. When he was asked in 1990 what he was most proud of in life, he replied, “My wife and children.”
Despite the love and success he found, Harry suffered his entire life. Each night he had terrible nightmares, reliving his experiences during the Holocaust in vivid detail.
Harry Haft passed away in 2007 at the age of 82. The Survivor will help spread his remarkable story to a wider audience at long last.
The Survivor premiers on HBO April 27, 2022, World Holocaust Remembrance Day.