When John Carr made use of the first lockdown to finally commit his late father’s extraordinary wartime story to paper, little did he imagine that little more than a year later that the book he would write would be being translated into multiple languages, have an audio version read by one of his favourite actors and see serious discussions under way about potentially turning into a film or a play.
Carr says he is stunned by the growing success of Escape From The Ghetto, which tells the story his father Henry’s dramatic escape from Lodz Ghetto and journey as a fugitive to a new life in Yorkshire.
“My original motivation for writing the book was self-therapy to understand my dad better because we didn’t have the best relationship when I was a kid,” he explains.
“Then I became a parent and wanted my kids to know about their grandad. That was kind of my ambition - I wanted to write it for myself, for my family and for my dad too, even though he died in 1995.”
His father Chaim Hershman – or Henry Carr as he was eventually to become known in Yorkshire – was just 13 years old when he killed a Nazi guard in Lodz Ghetto. He immediately became a fugitive, beginning an extraordinary journey that took him through the heart of Nazi Germany, across France and Spain and eventually to the UK; returning to the continent as a British soldier.
His survival depended on bravery. guile, tenacity, incredible amounts of good fortune and the ability to lie convincingly. After the war he went on to start a new family and life in Leeds but for over a decade maintained perhaps the biggest lie of all to even those closest to him – pretending to be Catholic rather Jewish.
The deception only came to an end when his sole surviving brother Nathan came to visit him from his new home in Israel, arousing the suspicion of the Polish-Catholic community he had become part of and leading him to finally tell his family about his true identity.
Carr says that after “meandering around” with the idea of writing his father’s story for around 20 years, he finally committed to writing it during the first lockdown after being pushed to do by Sir Mark Jones, who founded Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh in 2012.
“He said, ‘John you have been messing about this manuscript for over 20 years, now is the time to write it,” Carr, a former Labour party politician who served on the Greater London Council in the 1980s and is now an acclaimed internet security expert, explains.
Golden Hare published the book late last year and it received a spate of publicity, with coverage in newspapers including The Yorkshire Post, The Times and the Daily Mail.
Carr says: “After that publicity I got approached by all kinds of people wanting to buy the film rights or TV rights. I don’t know anything about that world so I got an agent through the Curtis Brown agency. They are the ones who have unlocked all of this.”
The publishing rights for the book were bought from Golden Hare by Hodder Studio, which is part of the giant Hodder & Stoughton company. Audiobook versions of the book narrated by acclaimed actor Sir Simon Russell Beale were released in June, with a revised hardbook version published on July 29.
Carr says he was thrilled by Beale’s involvement.
“I don’t know him and have never met but Simon Russell Beale is one of my heroes who I go to see at the theatre whenever he is on. When Hodder told me he was doing the audiobook and asked if it was ok, I said that I was more than satisfied with that.
“I was driving along the M6 to Carlisle and turned it on as an Audible book. It was very strange hearing my words and my dad’s story read back by this famous voice.”
In addition to the new British version of the book, an American publisher has also been found while it is set to be released in multiple different countries around the world.
“I have got a book deal in US which I think is coming out in March. They have also done deals for it to be released in translation in Spanish, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Dutch and Danish. It is really taking off.”
A recent review in the Jewish Chronicle said his father’s story “deserves to be ranked among the great survival stories of the Second World War”.
It added: “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.”
Broadcaster Alistair Stewart said the book is an “extraordinary tale, brilliantly written”, while bestselling author Ken Follett said “This is a great true story”.
Carr says he has been stunned by the reaction to the book and added that talks are currently taking place about potentially bringing the story to the screen and even to the stage.
“The reaction from critics and everybody who has bought the book has completely bowled me over. The only negative review was someone on Amazon but it was pretty clear they hadn’t actually read it.”
“There is talk about a play and there are talks about films and series. All of those things are currently in play.”
But despite all of its success, Carr has not forgotten his family’s Yorkshire roots.
“Because of Covid, we still haven’t had a proper launch party,” he explains.
“I want to have a launch party in Holmfirth at the Picturedrome which is owned by my brother Peter. I know there will be lots of family members there for it.”
Truth of past took years to be revealed
Following the war, Henry was living in Glasgow when he met and fell in love with a young Irish woman called Angela Cassidy in 1949.
He pretended to be a fellow Catholic and when they moved to Leeds after Angela became pregnant, Henry agreed to be secretly baptised so they could get married when a priest at Leeds Cathedral was unconvinced by his professions of Christianity.
It was only when his brother Nathan came to visit in 1958 that the truth came out in a period where his marriage to Angela had already been coming to an end. John was 11 or 12 when he found about his father’s Jewish identity but it was only in the decades that followed where he began to hear his full story.
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