Reinhard Kleist tells the story of the Polish Jew Harry Haft in the form of a comic. To entertain the Nazi soldiers in Auschwitz, Haft had to box against other prisoners - for life or death.
Harry Haft is 16 years old when the Germans take him from his hometown, the Polish city of Belchatow, to a concentration camp. He has to leave behind his family and Leah, the girl he loves.
Haft comes from a poor family - his father sells vegetables - but the slight-statured boy is tough and has learned to find his own way. One of the Nazi SS soldiers notices that and protects Haft - but with ulterior motives. He wants him to become a boxer in the camp, fighting other prisoners to entertain the soldiers.
It's a fight for life and death. Harry Haft remains undefeated, while his opponents are sent to the gas chamber. It's not a simple story that follows the typical perpetrator/victim format, says graphic artist Reinhard Kleist.
"Harry Haft is not just a victim, but has dealt it out on all sides. If you want to do something with this material, you have to work with that," said Kleist. "I was particularly interested in this incongruity."
Alan Scott Haft wrote a book about his father, Harry Haft, and Reinhard Kleist immediately saw the graphic potential of the story. In the resulting graphic novel, "The Boxer," he painted the scenes with wide black strokes; the emaciated prisoners in the drawings almost look expressionistic.
For a German author, talking about the Holocaust in a comic is touchy - even more so with a story of a Jew who was also a perpetrator. Kleist managed this challenge by keeping his distance.
"I often just placed the camera further away," he said. "Something like Haft's work in the crematorium at Auschwitz can really only be hinted at. Otherwise it seems too sensationalist, and I really didn't want that."
American artist Art Spiegelman was among the first to show that the Holocaust can be dealt with in a comic. In 1992, his "Maus" became the first comic to win a Pulitzer Prize. In Spiegelman's work, however, the Nazis are depicted as cats and the concentration camp prisoners are mice - a technique that turns the story into a fable.
Kleist, on the other hand, aims to tell a gripping story with his more realistic approach. "I want to entertain as a storyteller," he said. "I want to bring the reader into the story and provoke reactions."
On the surface
The result is indeed entertaining, but hardly provocative, as it doesn't pose any larger questions. Harry Haft's story is disturbing enough in and of itself and shows just how close good and evil can be.
Kleist's approach, however, avoids getting too deep into Haft's own perspective, so "The Boxer" remains a somewhat superficial story, told second-hand. The narrative is exciting, but the reader is kept at a distance.
What Kleist does do, however, is tell the end of the story. Haft managed to flee Auschwitz and emigrate to the United States. In the US, he had ambitions to become a professional boxer, but lost his biggest fight to the famous heavyweight boxer Rocky Marciano.
In the end, he ran a vegetable store in Brooklyn and was feared by his family because of his bad temper. He never stopped searching for his childhood sweetheart Leah, whom he would meet again after 62 years. It was after this that the 78-year-old finally broke his decades of silence. Just a few years before his death in 2007, he let his son write out his biography, which became the basis for Kleist's graphic novel.