LONDON — It was the moment that undoubtedly saved Chaim Herszman’s life. In February 1940, the 13-year-old stabbed and fatally wounded a Nazi guard in the Lodz Ghetto who he believed was about to shoot his younger brother.
Herszman fled the ghetto, leaving behind a family he would never see again — and commenced an epic three-year-journey across Nazi-occupied Europe which eventually took him to the safety of Britain. Over its course, he assumed multiple identities, stowed away on a German troop train and, while being sheltered in the heart of the Third Reich by a member of the Wehrmacht, wandered the streets of Berlin dressed in a Hitler Youth uniform.
After the war, Herszman, who changed his name to Henry Carr shortly before the British army dispatched him to take part in the liberation of Europe, married an Irish Catholic. But, in an extraordinary twist, Herszman was secretly baptized and hid that he was Jewish for nearly a decade. The deception began to unravel in 1958 when his only surviving brother traveled from Israel to visit the family in their home in Leeds in the north of England.
Herszman’s incredible escape from the Nazis has been revealed for the first time in “Escape From the Ghetto,” a recently-published book by his son John Carr.
“It is a remarkable story,” Carr writes. “A story of tenacious, quick-witted determination to live, of defeating enormous odds, often in novel ways. But then any and every story of a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust borders on the miraculous.”
Herszman died in 1995, but the book is “based entirely on my dad’s recollections of what happened to him,” Carr told The Times of Israel in an interview. “Over the years he told me and my wife the same story pretty much consistently.”
Carr has since retraced his father’s journey from Poland to Germany and France, where Herszman joined a small group that made the perilous crossing over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain. In years of research and digging, Carr also managed to track down documents confirming the date when — with the help of a UK diplomat to whom he had confided the truth of what had happened in the ghetto — his father arrived from Spain in British-run Gibraltar. British army records, contemporary newspaper stories and a 1942 photograph of Herszman with other refugees in Vichy France offered Carr further proof of key parts of his father’s account.
A cloak and dagger life begins
A critical moment for Carr came when he met with Herszman’s cousin, Heniek, in Lodz and, unprompted, he began to relate what had happened on that fatal day in the ghetto.
“He told me the story of the escape and it was pretty much identical to what my dad had told me, so that was an independent eyewitness account,” says Carr.
As he recalled, Heniek was keeping watch as Herszman and his brother, Srulek, were embarking upon a much-planned attempt to leave the ghetto for a few hours to steal food for their family. But Srulek became entangled on the barbed wire, his screams as he tried to free himself causing an armed guard to come running as he drew his gun. Heniek then saw Herszman, who had already successfully got through the wire, run back, reach for a knife in his knapsack, and stab the guard.
That he had managed to get close enough to the guard to drive a knife into his abdomen was probably the result of the fact that Herszman’s striking blue eyes and blonde hair — friends called him “Blondie” — and his ability to speak German had likely led the sentry mistakenly to believe the teenager simply wanted to watch the trapped Jew’s death up-close.
The life of a chameleon
Herszman’s appearance, aptitude for languages and chameleon-like ability to switch personas would prove essential to his survival again and again over the next three years. So, too, would be the bravery and quick thinking he’d shown to save his brother from near-certain death.
As Carr suggests, his father’s “talent for subterfuge” and ability to pass himself off as a Catholic Pole had been honed before the outbreak of the war, sometimes for altogether more benign purposes. He had, for instance, gone Christmas caroling with his friend Cesek Karbowski when he realized that they would be rewarded with warm donuts. He had managed, crucifix around his neck, to become an altar boy for a short time when he believed that might get him on a Church-run football team. And he had posed as Cesek’s cousin, Henryk, when the two boys were looking for casual work and proffering his obviously Jewish name had seemed unwise.
But, after killing the Nazi guard, that talent would become a matter of life and death. Herszman’s initial plan when he went on the run was to head for the border with the Soviet Union.
His older brother, Nathan, had left Lodz for the USSR shortly before the German troops arrived, hoping to establish himself there and then find a way to get the rest of the family out to join him. It was, as Carr writes, “quite a responsibility for someone not yet seventeen.” A cryptically worded postcard from Nathan a few weeks after he left Lodz indicated to the family that he was heading for Włodawa on the eastern-most edge of German-occupied Poland. Adopting the identity of Henryk Karbowski, Herszman decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps, making his way via Warsaw and Lublin.
In Włodawa, Herszman was taken in by a Jewish baker and his wife — because his father couldn’t recall the names of all those he met, Carr has had to invent some of them — who helped him link up with a small group planning to cross the frozen Bug River into Soviet territory. Herszman had a narrow escape when Russian border guards tricked and murdered most of the group. Carr believes that his father reached Włodawa sometime between February 1940, when his name appeared in the Lodz ghetto register, and mid-April, when the river would have begun to thaw.
His plan to find his brother thwarted, Herszman then decided to head west towards still-unoccupied France, where the Polish government-in-exile was assembling its forces. Fighting the Nazis had become his new ambition.
The teenager decided to stow away on a train to Germany but, only once it had pulled away from Lublin, did he realize he had boarded a troop-carrier bound for Berlin. When he was discovered, Herszman trotted out a story he had concocted in advance about being a “Volksdeutsche” — an ethnic German living in Poland — whose parents had been murdered a few weeks earlier by Communist partisans. Rather than going to an orphanage, he told the soldiers, he was trying to get to family in Baden Baden. The crucifix around his neck again appeared to give credence to the story.
Into the lions’ den
When the train reached Berlin, Carr’s father had another stroke of luck when one of the soldiers took him home to meet his wife and daughters. “Walther” and “Jutta” — who turned out to be deeply Christian and quietly disapproving of the Nazis — allowed him to stay in their home, dressed him in a Hitler Youth jacket when he went out of the house and even helped him to secure fake identity papers. Herszman’s latest new identity, Karl-Heinz Reitzenstein, was born.
“I don’t think they ever knew he was a Jew,” says Carr, “that would have been a test for them.” But he wonders if they nonetheless suspected that his story didn’t quite add up.
After a few months, the couple inadvertently helped Herszman with his plan to get to France by securing him a job on a farm in the now-German-occupied town of Moncourt 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the city of Metz. Thanks to his command of Polish and German, Herszman was hired to work as a liaison between the farm manager and his largely Polish workforce.
He knew both from his childhood friendships with Germans in Lodz and from the way Germans had helped him stay alive, not all Germans were bad
In the summer of 1941, Herszman moved on to Woippy, just outside Metz, and got a new job working for a business that manufactured agricultural machinery. Decades later, when he visited Woippy, Carr found a member of the French family Herszman had lived with who remembered his father.
After recovering from an operation for tonsilitis in September 1941, Herszman came perilously close to being arrested. In a semi-conscious state in the recovery room, he began to speak in Yiddish and the surgeon who had carried out the operation was called back. Sporting a Wehmacht uniform under his white coat, the German officer told Herszman it was clear he was a Jew carrying forged or illegal papers. However, he said he would delay filing a report with the authorities for long enough to allow the teenager to flee the hospital, which he then did with the help of a sympathetic nurse who cared for him in her home for several days while he recuperated.
“He was living on his wits,” Carr says of his father. “And if you’re living on your wits you need luck, he was very clear about that. So it was luck that he met the ‘right’ Germans rather than the ‘wrong’ Germans, but it was also rooted in the fact that, as he knew both from his childhood friendships with Germans in Lodz and from the way Germans had helped him stay alive, not all Germans were bad.”
Making his own luck
Herszman’s luck continued to tenuously hold for another year as he remained on the run. He undoubtedly made his own luck, too. His escape from the German-occupied zone to the relative safety of Vichy France was as remarkable as his flight from Poland to Berlin. Herszman stole a farm vehicle from Woippy and drove himself roughly 300 kilometers (186 miles) to the border.
Spotted on a country road as he emerged from a wooded area, Herszman was arrested by German military police. But an unlocked door in the waiting room of a holding center allowed the teenager — in a display of incredible chutzpah — to slip unnoticed back into the now-empty police car which had transported him there. Moments later, in a hiding place beneath the seat, he found himself crossing the border into Vichy, where the police had been sent to pick up a German arrested by the French authorities.
For several months, Herszman bided his time in Vichy France, staying in Grenoble, Villard, where there was a Polish school, and Voiron, which housed a Jewish orphanage. For a time, Henryk Karbowski made a reappearance, then Herszman became Jan Szewczyk, a teenager with a French-Polish backstory.
Finally, he adopted a new cover — one inspired by the story of a Jewish orphan he befriended in Voiron — which saw him pose as a French-Canadian separated from his parents in France by the war trying to get back home across the Atlantic via Lisbon.
This was the story which the teenager told Spanish border guards when they detained him soon he after he had crossed the Pyrenees in January 1943. But Herszman’s true destination was not Lisbon but Gibraltar on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, where the British allowed their Polish allies to operate a mission to recruit fighters and receive refugees.
Canadian interests in Spain were handled by the UK, and a British diplomat was called to the Miranda del Ebro prison where the 16-year-old was held. Herszman decided to take a chance and tell the diplomat the truth — that he was a Polish Jew who had escaped the Lodz ghetto. Several days later, a car with British diplomatic plates took Herszman to Madrid.
Forever in character
On January 21, 1943, Herszman crossed from Spain into Gibraltar — the date confirmed to Carr by a log book now held by a Polish club in London. Herszman kept the pledge he’d made to himself to fight the Nazis, serving for a while in the Polish Free Army until, thanks to anti-Semitism in its ranks, he joined the British forces.
But Herszman had held one important detail back from the British diplomat: his real name. Carr believes that his father remained terrified of revealing it for fear that, somehow, the Nazis might find out he had killed the guard at the Lodz ghetto wire and wreak terrible revenge on his family if they were still alive. As Herszman would later discover, however, his parents were already dead, having perished in the ghetto hospital in 1941. His sisters died in the ghetto, too. Srulek — who Herszman had risked his life to save — was murdered in Chelmno in 1944.
Carr says that Herszman was haunted by survivors’ guilt. “My dad always felt that if he had stayed behind in the ghetto, being a young, tough guy and really street smart, maybe he could have saved his family,” he says.
The decision not to reveal his real name to the British authorities in Spain may also have aided Herszman’s final deception. After leaving the army in October 1948, he met and married a young Irish woman, Elizabeth Angela Cassidy. While the young Pole had led her to believe he was a Catholic, a skeptical priest initially refused to marry the couple. The priest later relented, but not before he had taken Herszman aside and secretly baptized him.
Even while he concealed his Jewish identity from his wife and children, however, Herszman continued to search for his family. In 1957, he discovered that his older brother Nathan, who had survived spending the war in Siberia, was married and living in Israel. The following year, the brothers were reunited in England.
Nathan agreed to help Herszman maintain his cover by posing as “Michael Karbowski,” whose marriage to a Jewish woman had led him to move to Israel. But Herszman’s friends in the local Polish community were clearly unconvinced by this story and, once Nathan returned to Israel, confided in Angela their suspicions. The marriage, already on the rocks, ended four years later in divorce.
Revealing himself to his family
Carr understands what drove his father’s decision not to reveal his Jewish background. After the highly publicized killing of two British sergeants by the Irgun in Palestine in the summer of 1947, anti-Semitic rioting broke out in a number of cities in England. Alone in Britain, without family, and still barely out of his teens, Herszman must have feared, his son believes, that it was “Kristallnacht all over again.”
The relationship between Carr and his father was strained for many years. “He was unpredictable and irascible. Not a drinker he was nevertheless quick to strike with his hand or a belt for any of the several high crimes or misdemeanours of which I was undoubtedly guilty,” Carr writes of his childhood.
But, while a student in London, Carr lodged with his father and his new wife, and a process of reconciliation began. Assured that his children regarded the fact that he was Jewish as “colorful but ultimately irrelevant,” Herszman began to open up about his past. Their long conversations ultimately proved highly therapeutic.
“He became a Jew again,” Carr recalls. “He didn’t go to the synagogue, he never kept kosher, but he grew a beard. He went to places where Jews hung out. He joined a Jewish freemasons’ lodge.”
Carr regards himself as “a second-generation Holocaust survivor.”
“There’s a responsibility on people like me to make sure the stories are not forgotten, because if they’re forgotten, it will happen again,” he says.
But, Carr believes, they have a contemporary resonance too. “My dad never crossed an international border legally. He never told the truth about his identity,” Carr says. “When you see these young kids running away from Syria, Afghanistan and Libya and trying to get into England for refuge, and you hear politicians talking about them as if they are criminals, I think, ‘Where is the humanity in that?’”
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