An astonishing story and the lessons we have yet to learn
- Credit: John Carr
At the age of 13, Chaim Herszman escaped from a Nazi ghetto by killing a guard. CHARLES CLARKE, the former home secretary, says his story - published in a new book - is one that many in Britain still do not fully understand.
July 28th this year will be the 70th anniversary of the signing in Geneva of the United Nations Convention on Refugees. The Convention was inspired by the stories of millions of people like Chaim Herszman / Henryk Karbowski / Henry Carr whose powerful history is told in Escape from the Ghetto by his son John. Indeed the Convention was originally designed to respond to the needs of European refugees such as Henry in the years following the Second World War. These limitations were removed by the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in October 1967 so that Its provisions now extend round the world (though important non-signatories include India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia).
The foundation of the Refugee Convention is Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in December 1948, which itself represented the determination of the whole world to put behind it the horrors of the Second World War and its predecessor disasters of mass unemployment, Nazism and fascism.
Using Henry’s words, Carr’s account gives a penetrating insight into a part of that horrific world which these seminal legal frameworks were intended to consign to history.
It tells the story of life in the Lodz ghetto, the second-largest in German occupied Europe, after Warsaw. Henry paints a complex and touching picture of the ways in which people lived, in close proximity and demonstrating the best and worst of human values and behaviour.
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Amidst the terror of the Nazi advance, there was still a sense of trust and tolerance across communities living in these circumstances, whatever their ethnic or religious background.
The story demonstrates the desire of people from very different backgrounds, cultures, religions and beliefs to live in mutual respect despite all kinds of efforts to divide them. However, the deep truth was that more than 200,000 Jews passed through the Lodz ghetto - almost all on their way to Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
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The ghetto’s existence was itself an expression of the Holocaust genocide which characterised Nazi domination of Europe. In its grotesque way it inspired the enormous post-war determination to outlaw this kind of behaviour.
In early 1940 the 13-year-old Henry fled the ghetto after killing the guard who had come to shoot his 11-year-old brother. Had Henry been caught, he would have paid with his own life and others of their community would also have been killed. His only choice was flight.
The rest of the book is a description of his extraordinary journey and the courage and determination which he needed first to survive and then ultimately to build a new life in Britain, of which John is the product. I have been a decades-long friend of John, and indeed best man at his wedding to Glenys in Yorkshire, but had only the vaguest idea of the fullness of his father’s experience, which is told so colourfully and movingly in this book.
Henry’s journey is in itself inspiring but on the way it tells many stories which illustrate the society in which he lived. For me one of the most significant moments is the story of his arrival at the River Bug which, just a few months before, had been determined to be the dividing line between the zones controlled by the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army.
That decision was contained in the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact approved by the Supreme Soviet in Moscow the day before the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and then the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland on September 17.
Henry had set off eastwards from Lodz in the belief, held also by many of his friends, that the communist Russians would be more sympathetic to Jews fleeing the Nazi lands. That belief was comprehensively destroyed on the banks of the Bug, just 50 metres of ice away from the Soviet zone of control, where the waiting Russians shot at him and killed many of his associates with grenade attacks.
This was the most graphic possible illustration of the cynicism shared by Stalin and Hitler and exemplified by their 1939 pact. This divided between the two tyrants both Poland and other parts of eastern and central Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
In Britain we do not understand well the historic depth of the conflicts between Russia and Germany which for centuries have dominated the history of the territories between them. We tend to see the Franco-German conflict as the determining European historic context, at least since 1870.
A visit to the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, opened only in 2015, not only describes the history but explains why many Poles consider that the Second World War ended only in 1989, after the fall of communism, and not in 1945. This perception is understandably deep-rooted and deeply influences current events.
It explains why as recently as last June Vladimir Putin published a personally authored piece - “The real lessons of the 75th anniversary of the Second World War” - seeking to justify the Hitler-Stalin Pact and its consequences. And why many governments, including the Poles, refused to attend the 2020 Moscow Victory Day Parade to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945.
And as we know very well in Britain, notably from the Brexit debacle, the ways in which we look at history, and notably the Second World War, remain important, even decisive, for contemporary life and politics. The insights from his father’s experiences in Carr’s book have important lessons to teach us about how we think about things today.
One of the most moving aspects of this book is the coming together of Henry’s family, and their descendants around a memorial to him in Lodz in 2005, 10 years after his death. Even after the most appalling hardships the human spirit insists on bringing people together in a powerful and compelling way.
This should give us confidence that it is possible to build a better future if we focus upon how best we can make that happen - as they did in the late 1940s.
After 1945 the focused determination of both people and governments led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on Refugees. It also led to the essential economic change of Keynesian demand management and policies of full employment, and to the foundation of modern welfare states. These were the central elements of creating a new world order after the disasters of the 1930s and 1940s.
However these important achievements, which have been the foundation for so much progress, are now threatened by the rise of inward looking populist movements and the abuse of nationalism across Europe and in the US.
These movements exploit often understandable frustration at the apparent inability of our current systems of international governance to meet the destabilising challenges of globalisation, of which modern refugee movements have been such a powerful and destructive symptom.
The tens of thousands of refugees who have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean are harrowing examples of the enormous numbers of people across the globe who are fleeing all kinds of crisis. In their own flights to freedom they are the modern counterparts of Henry Carr. The failures (notably by the EU and its member governments) to address their situation has had disastrous personal and political consequences.
And of course we know that, despite the best of intentions and very many successes, those great International treaties in the 1940s did not succeed in putting the terrors of totalitarianism and genocide behind us.
At a time when populist movements are challenging the capacity of the world system of law to at least inhibit and hopefully prevent these evils it is time again to focus on the best ways in which properly constituted international law can be reformed and reinvigorated and best applied to banish the barbarisms which still exist far too widely.
John Carr’s book should help to reinforce the determination of the international community to outlaw the unacceptable behaviours which continue cause so much human hardship and pain.
Escape from the Ghetto, by John Carr, is published by Golden Hare Books
Charles Clarke is a former Labour MP and was home secretary from 2004 to 2006
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