Vicky Krieps and Ben Foster in The Survivor directed by Barry Levinson
Vicky Krieps and Ben Foster in The Survivor courtesy of HBO

When Barry Levinson first read the script for The Survivor — the true story of Harry Haft, a boxer who survived Auschwitz and went on to box professionally in America — it brought up a distant memory from his childhood about the first time he met his great uncle who survived the Holocaust.

“When I was a little kid in Baltimore, I lived with my parents and my grandparents. And this is the late 40s,” Levinson told MovieMaker. “We all lived together in this little small house, and this man showed up at the door one day, and it turned out that it was my grandmother’s brother. I never even knew she had a brother. She never actually spoke about family in any way. He came in and he was speaking in what now I would assume was Yiddish… and they put him up in my bedroom on a cot. The first night he was there, I was awakened to, like, he was thrashing around in bed and he was saying things in this foreign language. I could sense that something’s very wrong, but I had no idea what’s wrong, and then he would fall asleep.”

For two weeks, Barry Levinson says, his great uncle would have unexplained night terrors every night without fail.

Also Read: The Survivor Trailer: Ben Foster Enters the Ring as Real-Life Boxer and Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft

“This went on night after night after night, tossing and turning and yelling out something this language — I don’t understand any of it,” Levinson said. “Then he moved out because he had gotten a job, and I didn’t see him. I mean, I’d see him on occasion. Nobody talked about where he came from or anything else. And literally, it had to be 16 years later or something like that, I’m sitting in the kitchen with my mother and she says, ‘Well, you know, Simcha, when he was in the concentration camp…’ and that’s the first time I heard that he was in a concentration camp, because he never spoke about anything that took place in the past.”

It was then that Barry Levinson realized what his great uncle’s night terrors were about.

“I suddenly I flashed on that’s what those nights were. These were nightmares haunted by the past,” Levinson said.

In The Survivor, Foster’s character Haft goes through a similar scenario. Years after escaping from the camps, he lives a peaceful family life with his wife and son running a grocery store. But some nights, he experiences night terrors that remind him of the horrors of his past.

“Many Holocaust survivors, they’re not eager to share what happened. They’re trying to sort of protect the young, in a way, [from] the horrors of the past. And of course, there are a lot of complications that come with that. So, a lot of times the children of survivors struggle because they know something’s wrong, and they don’t know what —they think, maybe it’s me,” Levinson said.

“So this script, which is Harry Haft, who basically fought in the camps and survived, and then lives with a combination of the guilt of it all, the tragedy of it all, and all these emotional elements — I thought, that’s now we call post-traumatic stress disorder. It had no name in the past. It was like, something happened, it’s over, and you get on with your life — not understanding that for some people, it’s not that simple.”

The Survivor, starring Foster, Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, and Danny Devito, premieres Wednesday, April 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO in honor of Yo HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

Main Image: Vicky Krieps and Ben Foster in The Survivor courtesy of HBO.

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