Updated: Jul 10, 2021
Linal Haft is an exceptionally talented actor, who has enjoyed an illustrious career in both television and film over the years, as well as on the stage. Born in Leeds, England to a Jewish family, Haft found fame in the iconic British Telecom adverts as the son of Maureen Lipman during the 1980s. He also played Jewish character Monty Fish in the TV drama ‘Shine on Harvey Moon’ (1982) and later starred in a number of beloved British TV series, including Harry Gold in the BBC's long-running soap ‘Eastenders’ from 2010-2011, ‘Minder’, ‘Casualty’ and ‘The Bill’. Half is also perhaps best known for his role in Baz Luhrmann's 2001 hit ‘Moulin Rouge’. Yet, he also played a central part in Jack Gold’s ‘Escape from Sobibór’ (1987) where he played the heroic part of Kapo Pożycki, who helped to execute the prisoner uprising from the camp on 14th October 1943.
Szymon Pożycki was, according to survivor Dov Freiberg, aged between twenty to thirty and brought to Sobibór from his home city of Warsaw with his brother and father. He was a Kapo who supervised the Waldkommando in the camp, alongside his younger brother Hersz who also helped during the revolt. Kapo Pożycki earned the trust of the uprising leaders Aleksander Pechersky and Leon Feldhendler, after he helped them to kill Oberkapo Berliner, who threatened to expose their escape plans. Pożycki was able to use his authoritative position to help with the logistics and organisation of the uprising. Unfortunately, neither he of Hersz survived the escape. Their father Yankel, however, did make it to the end of the war.
In ‘Escape from Sobibór’, the story of Kapo Pożycki (also referred to as Kapo Porchek) and his bravery during the camp uprising is a key part of the film’s overall narrative. Thus, the curators of this exhibition were honoured to speak with Linal Haft about his memories of playing this important role, and the experience of filming such a harrowing part of history.
“I met the renowned and gifted film director, Jack Gold - film royalty”, Haft reflects on first becoming involved with the films production. “Jack had a lovely calming temperament. We chatted, and he put me at ease. I think I read ok. Well, I did get the part. It was a difficult and complicated eight week shoot that involved over 500 people of various nationalities and tongues. If anything went amiss, I never saw Jack lose his temper. Apparently, the film came in on time and on the money...because of Jack’s skill”.
Had he been involved in any representation of the war or Holocaust prior? Haft informs us: “I emigrated to Australia in the early sixties where I became an actor. I’d never been to the theatre, but I joined an amateur theatre group in Sydney. My first stage appearance was in a play called, ‘SS Colonel Wilhelm Shultz’, written by George Garami, a holocaust survivor. He had a pronounced limp…his foot had suffered frostbite during a particularly harsh winter in the concentration camp. That’s as much as he told us. I remember asking him if he’d read,’ Mila 18’ by Leon Uris, about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He scowled and snapped, "Why would I want to read a book like that?”
And of Sobibór, or indeed the story of Kapo Pożycki specifically? “I knew nothing about Sobibór, but I had a school pal whose family died in Auschwitz. He never talked about it. As a young boy growing up in Leeds, I experienced episodes of antisemitism on a daily basis: verbal abuse, physical abuse. Of course, it was nowhere near the horrendous kind the European Jews suffered. I couldn’t find anything about Porchek, there was no Google in the 80’s. But my own experiences did give me an edge; something to draw on. I knew what being a Kapo meant and that being one could increase your chance of survival”.
How did Haft’s own experiences growing up as young Jew in the United Kingdom affect his understanding of the film’s difficult subject? “As a young Jewish boy, growing up in post-war Leeds, I experienced daily episodes of antisemitism”, he tells us. “On the way to school, in school, on the way home from school, during leisure time. It came from individuals, gangs of yobs, teachers, people you worked with etc. You killed Christ…You started the war…You have all the money. The usual crap. Sometimes an incident would turn to violence. Sometimes I weighed up the odds and thought it better to run. I learned to live with it. I knew that if I went to a certain area to see a particular film that was showing there it might be inviting trouble. But mostly, the desire to see the film outdid my fear of potential violence so I saw the film. In my later life I would still get things said to me. For instance, I was doing a tv job in the late 80’s and a fellow actor said to me how he’d just sold his car and the salesman had tried to ‘Jew him down’. I’d heard that expression many times before, but I asked him to explain it. He said it was when someone tried to haggle the asking price lower. I asked, since when was trying get a better deal a bad thing and exclusive to Jews? I told him he was being antisemitic. He was embarrassed and apologised profusely. But antisemitism has always existed in England…and still does. You only have to go back in history to King Edward 1st…Jews were expelled for over 300 years. I played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice a couple of years ago so got heavily involved in research. Interestingly, I never had any trouble in Australia.”
So, how could one prepare and portray such an important role as Kapo Pożycki? Haft reveals: “So, I invented for myself a few simple rules that might increase that chance of survival and might also give shape to the man: Always show an expressionless deference to the Nazis. Don’t look them in the face. Don't dither. Don't attract attention. Move purposefully. Focus on where you’re walking to and keep your head down. You can enjoy the perks of being a Kapo within your own barracks...where you might relish that tin of sardines the Nazis gave you for services rendered.”
The survivors and the Kapos did not always have a trusting relationship, but Pożycki eventually earned the trust of the underground resistance. Why was the role of Pożycki- and his part in the uprising- so important to portray in the film? “Porchek was one of the more sympathetic of the Kapos”, Haft asserts. “He wasn’t an overtly violent man. The hellish existence of Sobibór and the part he was playing in it ate away at him. The underground resistance sensed this. As a Kapo, he had access to parts of the camp the resistance needed to get to if the escape was to have any chance of success. He was willing to help and willing to die trying”.
So how did it feel, being on the set of the camp at Sobibór? Haft recalls: “My fist arrival on the set was around midnight. It was hot and humid. It had been raining during the day and there was steam coming off the muddy ground. Through the mist I could make out a gallows with three hanging nooses. A chilling first impression. Then I heard some low-pitched whispering coming from behind a tall briar fence. I couldn’t find where it was coming from. I found out later on… it was a recreation of ‘Himmelstrasse’ or ‘Road to Heaven’…a narrow path that led straight to the gas chambers”.
Several of the former Sobibór survivors, such as Thomas Blatt and Esther Raab were often present on set. Was Haft able to interact and consult with them? “I remember Thomas always seemed to be clutching a well-worn file of transcripts about how he tracked down and interviewed Karl Frenzel, the man who ordered the death of his family. He always insisted on showing them to me. I remember him saying he had a pleasant discussion with Frenzel. I think you know about how he joined the extras when we shot the escape scene. He ran into the forest and returned a few hours later with scratches, torn clothes and broken spectacles. Chaim and Selma Engel were the most lovely couple. They said my portrayal of Porchek was uncanny. Particularly, my physical manner. There was an incident with a South African white man in the hotel we were staying at. It involved Chaim and Selma. It was, ironically, reminiscent of Nazism.” Haft elaborates thoughtfully on this incident: “Chaim and Selma, myself and a couple of others from the film were in the lobby of our Hotel in Belgrade. The lobby was rather empty. A tipsy, white, South African male, in his early forties, wearing a well-worn, creamy coloured suit, staggered up to us and asked how he could get to his particular floor. He then said, out of the blue: "In a big hotel like this I can't even find myself a n****r to kill!" That stunned us all. Chaim and Selma looked quite ill and asked us to take them away from him…which we did...but not before I told the man that instead of pressing the number to the floor of his room why didn’t he try pressing minus 40…that might take you down to where you really belonged…hell! As we walked away from him he shouted: “You British…you can never take a joke!"
Of course, there must be so many specific incidents like this that Haft remembers. What was the most vivid memory that sticks, all these years later, we wondered? “Although the film holds many vivid moments it was the prospect of working with Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer that impacted most. I didn’t know Alan was in the film until the principle cast met for the first time to watch episodes of ‘The World At War’...as a form of research. I was thrilled to be working with such a masterful actor - an actor's actor. That’s not meant to put Rutger in the shade...his role in Blade Runner says it all. A dangerous, sensitive and poetic performer”.
Did the film get the reception and reaction Haft had expected? “I think we all expected the film to get the reaction it did. It’s important to keep reminding ourselves of monumentally evil episodes...such as Sobibór. We must constantly tell ourselves that such things must never happen again. Film is a powerful force. It does the job best”.
Considering this, did the work on ‘Escape from Sobibór’ inspire the actor to take on similar roles in the future? “Of course, I’d take on other work of a similar nature. I’m an actor. A couple of years ago I did an episode in a daytime TV series playing a Jewish man who lived next door to a devout Muslim. There was rancour between them. There was no problem between me and the other actor who was himself a devout Muslim. In fact, I said to him, in our shared dressing room: ‘I know what Muslims feel about Jews…in your eyes we’re infidels and have to be gotten rid of’. We had many discussions on the topic. When I finished my part and was leaving he said: I’m gonna miss you…who else will I talk to? I remember in Australia...in 1967 and just after the six-day war...I was applying for a motorcycle licence. Next to me was a young middle eastern man who was having trouble filling out his form….I helped him with it. Afterwards, I said to him: Don’t forget...a Jew helped an Arab”.
Lastly, we ask - did Haft’s participation in ‘Escape from Sobibór’ change his outlook at all? “I remember going on jogs by the river Sava with Jack Shepherd”, he reminisces. “We would discuss lots of things including being in Sobibór and ways in which the experience might change a person. You could go in there a heroic type and come out a coward…or go in meek and mild and become heroic…etc. I have a distant relative, Harry Haft, who survived Auschwitz by boxing other prisoners for the entertainment of the Nazis. He ended up in New York and became a professional...fighting the likes of Rocky Marciano. He and his son had a volatile relationship. His son wrote a book about his dad. His dad didn’t come across as the nicest of people. Was he always like that? Or did his experiences in the camp change him? There is now a movie about him that’s about to be released. Danny De Vito has a role in it. Has being in the film changed my own outlook…well, the world is still full of hatred and violence and antisemitism. History repeats. It saddens me and angers me…greatly.”
Words by Hannah Wilson. The curators are deeply grateful to Linal Haft for sharing his memories with us.