Astonishing story of teenage boy who killed a Nazi, escaped the Holocaust and led secret life in UK revealed by his son
When British man John Carr learned that his father was not a Polish Catholic who had settled in Britain after the war but was in fact a Jew who had escaped from the Łódź ghetto when he was just 13 years old, he had no idea that the shocking revelation would take him on a journey of discovery into the darkest corners of modern history.
After years of coaxing out details of his father’s life when he was still alive and painstaking detective work later, John was finally able to piece together the astonishing odyssey his father made as a fugitive across German-occupied Europe that took him through Poland, Germany, France, Spain and Gibraltar, the UK and finally back to Germany, then as a British soldier.
The fruits of this investigation, which uncovered the shocking reason his father was forced to change his identity, are now available to readers in his recently published book Escape from the Ghetto.
“It was all about staying alive, it was all about surviving. He didn't want to be a Catholic. He wasn't a very religious Jew either. But it was all about survival,” John told TFN.
Chaim Herszman was just 13 years old when his life changed, and he became a fugitive with no one in the world to help him.
The year was 1940 and he was a virtual prisoner in the Łódź ghetto, the second-largest ghetto in all German-occupied Europe after the Warsaw Ghetto.
Needing food to feed the family, Chaim, his brother Srulek and his cousin Heniek decided to break through the perimeter to forage in nearby woods.
“My dad went through first and he was going to wait on the other side of the wire. Srulek followed, but as was going through the wire, he got his leg caught. He let out a huge scream of pain that attracted a German soldier who came to see what it was,” John explained.
Chaim was blond with blue eyes and he could speak good German, so he approached the soldier and started talking to him.
“The soldier was taking his rifle off his shoulder and preparing to shoot what he said was a little Jewish rabbit caught on the line,” he added.
“My dad goes up to the German soldier, pulls out a folding knife from his bag and stabs him in the stomach, the soldier goes down. Then my dad jumps on him because he's not dead and slits his throat, at which point he starts to die very rapidly.”
Chaim realised that he could no longer stay in the ghetto, so he adopted the name Henry Karbowski and passed himself off as a Catholic.
He spent the next three years making his way from Poland to Gibraltar, from where he would sail to Britain.
He kept this identity when he served in the Free Polish Army. He later joined the Royal Berkshire Regiment, with which he crossed the Rhine in 1945 where he was injured.
He didn’t even remove the façade when he got married to Angela, John’s mother, in 1949. He became a member of the Knights of St. Columbus, a kind of Catholic Freemasonry and they lived in a staunch Irish Catholic community in Headingley, north Leeds. In a final act of assimilation, he changed his name once again, this time to Henry Carr.
“He got completely immersed in this lie, and that, that in a way trapped him. And once you've told that lie, you're stuck with it. And my dad went all in to live it.” John said.
“I was brought up in a little part of Ireland but transplanted into Leeds in Yorkshire. I was an altar boy, I had been confirmed, the whole nine yards. I even went to a Jesuit school,” John revealed.
But, around 10 years after he married, the scaffolding that Henryk had built to protect his identity started to collapse.
After the war, Chaim thought all his family had died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau or Chełmno death camps or in the ghetto. But in 1957, he found that his brother Nathan had survived and was living in Israel.
Desperately wanting to see him again, Chaim arranged for him to come to England. But there remained the thorny issue of how to explain to his new family that he had a brother in Israel.
He wrote to Nathan and asked him to call himself Michael Karbowski and to tell everyone that he was a Catholic but that he had met a Jewish woman in a displaced persons camp, fallen in love and moved with her to Israel.
That was the story he told everybody, but it didn’t work. “As soon as Nathan got on the plane to go back to Israel, the Poles who lived in our area of Leeds started to come to see my mother and say, Angela, I think you should know that that man Michael Karbowski is a Jew. And if he's a Jew, that means your husband must also be the Jew,” John said.
John Carr was just a boy at the time, and it would be many years before he began to draw out more details of his father’s past by questioning him.
“Initially, my dad didn't want to talk about it at all. He felt so bad, and slightly ashamed I think about the fact that he told that big lie.
“I think he began to relax and over 5,6,7, maybe 10 years on he began to tell me more and more about his story,” John said.
During these conversations, John found out what Chaim had done after fleeing the ghetto.
The only other person in the world who he knew who was not in the ghetto was his brother Nathan, who had escaped the Germans by moving to the Soviet Union.
Chaim decided that was where he would head. He went to Lublin, where he joined up with a group of refugees and tried to cross the Bug river to the Soviet side.
“My dad was the youngest, so he was at the back of the queue. The whole column of refugees got onto the ice and started crossing when suddenly hand grenades started appearing from the Soviet side and then machine gun fire. Everybody in the column was killed. My dad was still on the Polish side and hadn't set foot on the ice.”
He abandoned the idea of crossing the Soviet border and headed west as he had heard that Poles were heading to France to fight Nazi Germany.
He smuggled himself onto a troop-carrying train going to Germany but was soon spotted by German soldiers.
“With his blonde hair and blue eyes, he said he was a Volksdeutsche and he was trying to get to the west so he could help fight the communists.
“The German soldiers in the carriage believed it and decided that they wouldn’t shop him. When the train ended up in Berlin one of the soldiers wrapped him up in this greatcoat threw him over his shoulder and marched him past the railway guards and officials in the railway station in Berlin,” John explained.
“This German soldier took him home. He stayed there for nearly four months. He was the first good German that he met. He saved his life, because if they had turned him in, he would have been dead.”
Chaim could speak Polish, German and a little bit of French. So, he got a job in Lorraine on a farm helping the farm manager deal with Polish agricultural workers.
His goal, though, was to get as far away from Germany as possible. So, his next task was to get to Vichy France.
According to John, he arrived a couple of months later, where he found shelter in a hostel for young Jews on the run.
He stayed there for a few months, but when the Germans invaded Vichy France, he decided he better get out of France altogether. He went to Perpignan, where he joined a group of Poles who were heading over the Pyrenees.
Going down the Pyrenees after he fell and twisted his ankle and couldn't walk. He was picked up by two Spanish border guards.
They took him to Miranda de Ebro prison, a Spanish concentration camp that the Germans had helped to set up during the Spanish Civil War.
Worrying that his true identity might be found out, he came up with a plan. He told the Spanish authorities that he was a French Canadian.
Canada didn't have separate representation in Spain at that time. They were represented by the British government. British diplomats made regular trips to Miranda de Ebro to get members of the International brigade released.
“A British diplomat came to see my dad in prison. My dad levelled with him and said he was a Polish Jew and asked for help. The British diplomat went to the Spanish prison authorities and said that he accepted his story. So, he was released into the care of this British diplomat, but my dad decided that he didn't trust anybody,” John said.
From there, Chaim made his own way to Gibraltar, where he registered with the Polish Mission and got a passage to Britain.
Much of this John had heard from his father. However, after he died, at a ceremony in Łódź at the Jewish cemetery where he placed a commemorative plaque on the wall, people had many questions about his father’s life that he could not answer.
At that meeting, Heniek, who had been at the ghetto perimeter that fateful day in 1940 was able to corroborate the story about killing the German guard. John needed more answers, though.
“I got his records from the army. I got stuff from the public records office, I started looking into Polish newspapers, because there's a bit in the book about a terrible incident where a Catholic boy who was his friend got murdered by an anti-Semite. I started piecing all that stuff together and fleshing out the story,” John explained.
“A major breakthrough was when I discovered that there had been a permanent Polish mission established on Gibraltar, and the records of the Polish missions still survive.
“I went to the Polish club in Kensington and the guy there showed me the record of the Polish mission of the 23 January 1943 with the very distinctive signature of my father arriving in Gibraltar.”
After the revelation about his persona came out Henry ceased the pretence and lived the rest of his life in his Jewish identity.
“You could sense the relief, the palpable relief that he had become a Jew again. He didn't keep kosher laws, he didn't go to the synagogue, but all of his mates were Jews,” John said.
The journey of discovery and writing the book has allowed John’s relationship with his father to develop, despite him dying in 1995.
“I feel as if I know my dad better, I feel much more sympathetic towards him. Love has grown through writing. There's no question about that,” John concluded.
Escape from the Ghetto by John Carr is published by Golden Hare Books.