Life & Culture

Review: Escape from the Ghetto


Escape from the Ghetto

By John Carr

Hodder Studio, £20

Reviewed by Robert Low

Like many 20th-century immigrants to Britain, Polish-born Henryk Karbowski swiftly anglicised his name, in his case to Henry Carr, in 1944 or 1945 while he was serving in the British Army.

Nothing unusual about that, you may think, except that his real name wasn’t Henryk Karbowski but Chaim Herszman, a Jewish native of Lodz, and the story of his journey from that city’s infamous ghetto to the Royal Berkshire regiment and beyond is a compelling one.

It deserves to be ranked among the great survival stories of the Second World War, all the more so since Chaim/Henryk was only 13 when he fled from German-occupied Lodz in 1940.

Moreover, he was still not yet 17 when he finally made it to Britain — in handcuffs, as UK officials didn’t believe his extraordinary tale but instead feared he was a German spy.

He owed his survival in large measure to two factors: the toughness bred into him as the son of a rag-and-bone man on the streets of Lodz in the bleak days before the outbreak of war, and his looks: he was small and blond so he could — and did — pass for a gentile, a handy attribute in the deeply antisemitic world around him.

He awarded himself the alternative identity of Henryk Karbowski to help things along. He also had a gift for languages, speaking Polish, Yiddish and German, and picking up good French and English during his travels.

He needed all that and more when he found himself on the run after he killed a guard who was about to shoot his younger brother, stuck on the barbed wire ghetto perimeter as he tried to join Chaim on a foraging expedition.

He had the good fortune to spend his first night as a fugitive in an empty but well-stocked dacha (summer country home), finding boots, clothes, a rucksack and tinned food before hitching a ride to Warsaw where he naively hoped relatives would take him in. In the event, he couldn’t have been more unwelcome.

On the next day, he was on his way again, heading for the Soviet border. Any thoughts of finding sanctuary in the USSR, however, were brutally dashed when he was the sole survivor of an ambush by Soviet soldiers of a group trying to cross the Bug river.

His odyssey took him incredibly via Germany and then France, Spain, Gibraltar — and finally Scotland.

Henry Carr’s adventures and escapades along the way would defy belief had they not been painstakingly researched and written up by his son John Carr.

They would make a wonderful film, if you are reading this, Mr Spielberg.

Henry’s book was published as a paperback in 2020 by a small Edinburgh outfit, Golden Hare Books, but is now issued as a hardback from Hodder Studio. I hope they have tidied up some rather confusing editing in the paperback. But this is a minor quibble. Chaim/Henryk/Henry’s story deserves to reach a wider audience, particularly among teenagers.

Robert Low is a freelance journalist

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