Book Review: “Harry Haft,” by Alan Scott Haft
Published by Syracuse University Press, 172 pp. $21.00
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
For Ex-Cadets of a certain vintage, the Recruit Boxing Tournament was an important and memorable rite of passage during their first few months at the College. For many years it was a time-honoured tradition at RMC that new recruits would receive some introductory coaching in the fundamentals of the “sweet science”, following which they would be matched up by weight class with their peers and placed in the ring to slug it out.
I have to confess that when I was a recruit 45 years ago, I was spared this particular ordeal by virtue of having badly twisted my ankle about a month after I first arrived. Nonetheless, I took some small consolation and a considerable amount of pride in the fact that my fellow members of “N” Flight acquitted themselves very well: 12497 Chris Blodgett took first place in the middleweight category, and my roommate 12561 Rick Hodgson captured top honours in the Light Heavyweight division, and distinguished himself by earning the “Best Boxer” award. Another one of our heroes was 12522 Rich Cumyn, who very deservedly won the “Most Gentlemanly Boxer” award.
I would hazard a guess that for vast majority of Ex-Cadets who experienced it, the Recruit Boxing Tournament would be the first, last, and probably only time they would ever set foot inside a squared circle. Not so for Harry Haft, who perfected his pugilistic skills literally fighting for his life in the hellish environment of a Nazi death camp, and who later put his manly talents to use challenging some of the United States’ top professional fighters. In a book entitled Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano, Haft’s son Alan tells the story of his father’s remarkable, and oftentimes horrific life journey from occupied Poland to wartime extermination camp, and finally to a new life in postwar New York City, where he soon encountered new forms of treachery and evil that could be just as potentially lethal as those he had left behind.
Harry Haft was born Herzka Haft in the summer of 1925 in a small town of Belchatow, Poland. The youngest of eight children, Harry lost his father when he was a toddler, and he and his siblings were raised by their mother. Like many of the residents of their region, the Hafts were Jewish, and as Harry grew up he and his family had to endure not only the grinding poverty that was their lot in life, but also the discrimination and abuse that was directed towards them by their Christian neighbours. In school, Harry was frequently targeted for punishment, and he soon learned to use his fists to defend himself against the gangs of Polish toughs who delighted in tormenting the Jews. Even so, he did manage to find some joy in his life, notably with his girlfriend Leah, who he met as a teenager, and to who he would soon become betrothed.
Life had never been easy for the Jews of Poland, but their fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse in the fall of 1939 after Hitler’s armies stormed into the country. Harry, who was just 14 at the time, survived the way many others did, by smuggling goods across the border and living off the proceeds. For a brief period the Haft family enjoyed a newfound degree of prosperity, but all that changed when Harry and his elder brother complied with a German directive and reported to the local fire hall to register for work. Shortly thereafter Harry, by that time not quite 16 years of age, found himself in a slave labor camp in Eastern Poland. Little did he know it at the time, but he would spend the next five years as prisoner of the Germans, and would have numerous close calls with death before finally tasting freedom.
After several torturous months of servitude, Harry was eventually transported to Auschwitz, where he became prisoner number 144738, with the digits tattooed in green ink on his forearm. His first job in the camp involved duties that were unimaginably grotesque: as a member of the Sonderkommando, he was assigned to help throw the corpses of newly-murdered victims into the crematorium, where they would be burned. After a few days of this work the mental anguish became too much, and Harry broke down completely, and refused to work anymore. He was saved from almost certain death when he caught the eye of Schneider, a senior SS officer who had him moved to a warehouse where the belongings of newly arrived inmates were sorted. Harry’s covert assignment was to surreptitiously collect jewels and other valuables, which he stored in a whisky bottle, and passed on to Schneider.
The ruse worked for a time, until one day the contraband was discovered by guards, with the result that Harry received the beating of his life. Once again he was saved when Schneider intervened, and had him moved to nearby satellite camp of Jaworzno, where Harry was put to work in a coal mine. One afternoon, the SS officer arrived to inform Harry that henceforth he would now have a new assignment: entertaining the German guards by fighting other inmates in boxing bouts to be held on Sunday afternoons. Realizing that he had no other alternative if he wanted to survive, Harry did not hesitate to agree.
The weekend boxing matches quickly proved to be one-sided affairs. Harry by that time was comparatively strong and much better fed that other prisoners in the camp, and his opponents were a steady stream of weak and emaciated fellow inmates who had been induced to fight by the promise of extra rations. It posed little difficulty for Harry to put them away, though he learned to prolong the fights for the amusement of the onlookers. The only real test of his skills came when he was pitted against a recent arrival from France who reportedly had been an accomplished professional boxer before the war. Initially, the opponent proved difficult to land a punch on, but Harry finally managed to trap his adversary in a corner and unleashed a terrific pounding on him. The unlucky Frenchman was finally knocked unconscious and had to be carried out of the ring. Harry, who was badly dazed himself, later recalled hearing two gunshots ring out in the distance. After the fight, he never saw or heard of his opponent again.
By early 1945 the Third Reich was clinging desperately to its last hopes for survival, the Allies were closing in from all sides, and Harry had been moved to new camp in Bavaria, where he was put to work in a nearby Krupp factory. One morning, the prisoners were mustered and order to begin marching westward out of the camp, and Harry correctly surmised that they were embarking on a death trek. He managed to break away and fled into the neighboring forest, where at one point he surprised and killed a German soldier bathing in a stream, and exchanged his prison smock for the dead man’s uniform. After several weeks on the run, during which time he survived by pilfering food from German civilians, he finally surrendered to a U.S. Army patrol that happened to include a Jewish Private from Chicago. Speaking to his captor in Yiddish, he explained his story, and was soon offered safe custody.
Harry spent the next several months in a camp for displaced persons, hoping that he would eventually be able to emigrate to the United States. His lucky break came in January 1946, when he entered a Jewish Boxing Tournament organized in Munich by the U.S. Army. He triumphed over several opponents in hard fought bouts, and his victories in the ring caught the eye of the American General Lucius Clay, who presented him with a trophy at the end of the tournament. A few months later, Harry found himself aboard a ship en route to the States, and when he landed in New York, he initially found refuge with an uncle who was a distant relative.
With few skills and a limited command of English, at first Harry struggled to find meaningful employment in his new country. But once again fate intervened, and his luck changed when a local newspaper published a story about his boxing experience in Europe. Two days after the article ran, a local fight promoter named Frank Palermo showed up on Harry’s doorstep, offering to train him in preparation for the big leagues. Believing that Palermo’s proposition offered what might be his best shot for building a new life in America, just as he had done in the concentration camp Harry quickly said yes, and soon thereafter found himself working out at Stillman’s Gym, a well-known boxing hangout in Brooklyn.
Professional boxing was hugely popular in the United States in the late 1940’s, particularly as more and more households gained access to television. But as Harry would soon be destined to find out, the fight game was also a sordid world populated by all manner of shady characters, and heavily infiltrated by organized crime. His first three fights as a pro took place in August 1948, and in all three he handily trounced his opponents. Even so, they were small time bouts for which Harry was paid a pittance, and time went by he grew increasingly frustrated, feeling that he was training his heart out, yet barely managing to get by.
Seeking better opportunities, Harry eventually found himself at a gym in Harlem, where he immediately stood out as being the only white man in the club. Nonetheless, he was befriended by the gym’s owner, Bill Miller, and by Coley Wallace, a recent Golden Gloves champion who became Harry’s training partner. Finally, six weeks after his first pro fight, Harry finally got his chance to shine when in last September he was offered a televised bout at the Jamaica Arena in Queen’s. His opponent was Matt Mincey, a hulking brute who towered over Harry and outweighed him by 30 pounds. Even so, one the bell rang Mincey proved no match for his aggressive and nimble adversary, and Harry landed a knockout blow a few seconds into the sixth round. From that moment on, Harry was a known fighter, and one who was viewed as being a legitimate contender in the world of professional boxing.
Over the next several months Harry fought a number of other bouts, and by the summer of 1949 he had compiled a very respectable record of eleven wins and six losses. In June of that year, he was offered what would be destined to be the biggest opportunity of his pro boxing career when his manager, Harry Mandall, secured an upcoming bout with the legendary Rocky Marciano. The day of destiny would be July 18, 1949. Harry did not realize it at the time, but the fight with Marciano would also be destined to be the last of his pro boxing career.
Raised in Brooklyn as the son of Italian immigrants, at the time of the fight Rocky Marciano was two months’ shy of his 26th birthday. After wartime service with the U.S. Army he started his professional boxing career in 1947, and leading up to his fight with Harry Haft, Graziano had won all 16 of his previous bouts, all but one by knockout. During his time in the ring Graziano had already made a name for himself as a relentless battler who delivered a particularly devastating punch. As a testament to his rapidly growing stature as a fearsome fighting machine, only two of Graziano’s pervious opponents had ever managed to last more than three rounds with him.
In anticipation of the fight, Harry trained relentlessly, gong so far at one point as to consult a well-known hypnotist to help him overcome his anxiety about confronting Graziano. As a consequence of these efforts, when the big day finally came Harry arrived at the arena feeling confident that he was physically and mentally prepared for the contest that lay ahead.
What he was not prepared for, however, was a sudden and unannounced visit by three sinister characters moments before he was due to step in the ring. For fifteen minutes the hoodlums berated Harry and his manager, telling them that Harry had to go down in the first round, and warning that he would be killed if Graziano lost the fight. To underline the seriousness of their threats, they took pains to remind Harry of the fate of Vince Foster, an up-and-coming boxer from the Midwest who had recently died in a mysterious auto accident.
In the face of the menacing trio, Harry and his manager stood their ground and kept their cool, but Harry’s nerves were nonetheless badly shaken. Years later, he confessed that when entering the ring to take on Marciano, he felt fear of a kind he had never before experienced. Once the fight started Harry’s worst fears would be borne out, and like so many of Marciano’s previous victims, he would last barely three rounds with the “Brockton Blockbuster” before going down to defeat.
Devastated by his loss to Marciano, after the fight Harry hung up his gloves and called it quits on his once promising boxing career. A few months later, he found some consolation when, in the fall of 1949, he met a young woman name Miriam. Within a month, the two would be married, and together they would raise three children.
It would be good to be able to report that after everything he had suffered through in life Harry had finally found peace and happiness, but sadly that would not prove to be the case. With no education, few skills, and a halting command of English Harry had limited prospects for employment, and he spent most of his life eking out a living hawking fruits and vegetables on the street of Brooklyn. Tormented by the memories of the traumas he had endured the Nazi camps, he had a mercurial temper and was prone to violent mood swings that terrified his family. Even so, he did manage to find a few occasional moments of joy, like the day in 1963 when he was briefly reunited with his teenage girlfriend Leah, who had survived the war and was living in Florida, and fighting a battle of her own with the advanced stages of cancer.
Harry Haft himself would eventually fall victim to cancer, passing away in 2007 at the age of 82. For most of his life he remained largely silent about his experiences during the war years, but a few years before his death he sat down with his eldest son Alan, and finally began to recount the gruesome details of what he had lived through. The result of these conversations was the book you are now reading about. Trust me when I say that it is a compelling and at times shocking life story that is well worth reading.
Readers of e-Veritas will recall that many years ago I wrote an article called The Greatest Generation, which recounted in detail the stories of four men associated with the College who had fought in the Second World War. Harry Haft’s biography is one that reveals in stark and chilling detail the magnitude of the evil that these men were fighting against. Like many of his generation, Harry’s story is ultimately one of survival; it is a story of what one man had to do to preserve his life and his sanity after he was thrust into circumstances of unimaginable horror.
Harry Haft competed in over 100 boxing matches, ultimately ending his career with a seemingly humiliating defeat to Rocky Marciano, who would later retire as the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. But as this book shows his greatest battle was ultimately fought not in a squared circle, but rather in a death camp with a monstrous system that was intent on the extermination of Harry and his people. And in that battle, which was literally the fight of his life, through a combination of tenacity, resourcefulness, and the indomitable spirit of a true warrior, Harry prevailed.
This is a powerful and unforgettable book, and an absolute must-read for Ex-Cadets of all generations.