My father’s great escape
John Carr’s biography of his father’s escape from a Jewish ghetto evokes sad resonances with today’s ‘illegal’ immigrants
05 November, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Henry Carr in Germany in 1946
CHAIM Herszman was a 13-year-old child when he, his brother and his cousin attempted to crawl through barbed wire surrounding the Jewish ghetto they had been herded into, under the gaze of armed Nazi guards. They were living in Lodz, Poland – and were desperate to scavenge some food for their starving families.
His brother got caught on the wire, and a guard spotted him: Chaim, who had made it across and was hiding on the outside of the ghetto, saw the soldier ready his rifle. He knew unless he acted fast, he would watch his brother murdered.
What happened next would alter the course of his life – and now his extraordinary story can be revealed in a new book by his son, Gospel Oak-based internet security expert John Carr.
As the book Escape From The Ghetto reveals, Chaim – who travelled across Occupied Europe under various guises to reach the safety of England and then enlist to fight – had no choice.
Drawing a knife, he boldly approached the guard, pretending to be a young Polish boy. The soldier paused – and Chaim killed him.
Knowing he could not return to the ghetto, Chaim took on a new name, Henryk Karbowski, and spent three years making his way from Poland to Gibraltar.
John started writing the book as his father began recalling his previously untold story of his early life and being on the run in war-torn Europe.
“It was when I had children of my own that I decided they needed to know about their grandfather’s life,” he says.
After his dad died in 1995, he decided to collate his father’s anecdotes and research what he had been told.
“I retraced Dad’s entire journey, making stops at all the key points along the way,” he writes.
At first, Chaim hoped to join his older brother Nathan, who had managed to get to the Soviet Union – but an attempt to cross a frozen river that marked no man’s land between land captured by the Third Reich and the Red Army nearly ended in disaster as troops spotted him and threw hand grenades to break the ice. Instead, he decided to head west.
Chaim hid in the Polish countryside, hitched lifts with farmers selling market produce, and even travelled on a Nazi troop train: he was discovered by soldiers, but his claims to be a Polish Catholic held up under scrutiny. He was helped by various people along the way – relatives and family friends he tracked down en route offered occasional beds for the night and he managed to find forged papers to create a new, non-Jewish identity.
Henry in the dress uniform of the 15th Scottish parachute battalion, in which he served in 1948
In 1940, as the Germans celebrated the fall of France, Chaim had got to Berlin. Here, he donned a Hitler Youth uniform and relied on the fact he had blond hair to throw anyone suspicious off the scent. But he knew his subterfuge was precarious and he was putting those shielding him at risk. When it was announced parts of France would be under the Vichy regime, he decided to leave the lion’s den. The Hitler administration had announced they would send workers to countries under Occupation to Germanise them and help with the war effort: Chaim was sent to Lorraine, where his mastery of German, Polish and French helped.
He was given a role partly as a translator for the Polish people forced to work on the land, and found the farmer he was billeted with had helped a young Roma woman escape.
Another posting saw him taken further west – though his luck nearly ran out when he was taken ill.
While in hospital, doctors noticed he was circumcised – but a soldier-surgeon told him he would not report it until the following morning, giving him time to escape.
After traversing France and crossing the Pyrenees, Chaim reached Gibraltar, and was taken to England to join the Free Polish fighters.
His extraordinary story has lessons for us today, says his son.
“My dad never crossed, or tried to cross, an international border legally,” he says.
“He was on the run, in fear for his life – exactly like the youngsters we see today from Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.
“When you hear the likes of home secretary Priti Patel complaining about these ‘young criminals’ trying to enter the UK illegally, I ask myself – where is your compassion, where is your humanity?
“It is exactly what my dad had to go through.”
And writing about his dad’s experiences led to a greater understanding of who he was: when Chaim reached the UK, he changed his name to Henry Carr and for many years hid his Jewish roots, scared of bigots and anti-semitism.
“After everything he had witnessed and lived through, dad deserved, not a free pass exactly, but understanding and unconditional acceptance,” he adds.
“If anyone can say their life had been shaped by events beyond their control, it was dad.”John’s research also saw him return to Lodz – and it was here he managed to find the graves of his grandparents, who died of starvation in 1941.
“The exact location of their otherwise unmarked graves had been recorded on a grid kept by the Jewish authorities. Astonishingly, these records had survived,” he says.
“When I told dad, he broke down and cried – a rare occurrence. It is a day that will live with me for ever.”
• Escape From The Ghetto. By John Carr, Golden Hare Books, £12.50