Katy Carr : Interview Author: John Clarkson
When the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau opened in June 1940, twenty year old Kazimierz “Kazik” Piechowski was amongst the second convoy of Polish prisoners to arrive there. A political prisoner, his only crime was that he was an Eagle scout.
Of the estimated 1.5 million people that were deported to Auschwitz, 862 attempted to escape, and of those only 144 succeeded. Kazik, prisoner no. 918, was amongst the 144.
He and three other political prisoners, Stanislaw “Staszek” Jaster, a fellow scout; Jozef Lempart, a Polish priest and Eugeniusz “Gienek” Bendera, an Ukranian car mechanic, did so in June 1942 by stealing Nazi uniforms and guns from a storeroom, and the car of Auschwitz’s then commander, Rudolf Hoss, from the garage in which Gienek had been assigned to work. They had no documents or paases, and, as they drove up to about 80 metres from the final camp exit, they saw that its barrier was still down. Jozef thumped Kazik on the back, and implored him to “do something.” Kazik opened the car door, showed the SS insignia on his uniform, and yelled threats and obscenities in German at the guards. The barrier immediately opened, and the prisoners in the ‘Kommander’s Car’ drove away.
London-based singer-songwriter Katy Carr is currently playing dates across England to promote ‘Kommander’s Car’, her song and a single, which tells of Kazik’s escape. She is also at these gigs screening ‘Kazik and the Kommander’s Car’, a 25 minute short documentary, which, directed by film maker Hannah Lovell, shows Carr going to meet Kazik, who is now 92, in his home town of Gdansk to present and play to him her song.
Carr, who is British with Polish roots, first discovered Kazik’s story by chance while staying on holiday at her aunt’s home on the edge of the Beskidy mountains in southern Poland. Randomly flicking though the channels on her aunt’s television one night, she stumbled across a documentary in which Kazik returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau and told the story of his two year incarnation and escape from there.
‘Kommander’s Car’ originally appeared on Carr’s 2009 third album, ‘Coquette’, a set of songs which, partially invoked by the wartime experiences of Carr’s grandmother on her father’s side, focuses on the tunes, stars and characters of the 1930s and 1940s in Britain, France and Poland.
Concentrating on the last few seconds of Kazik and his friends’ escape, ‘Kommander’s Car’ combines rattling, rustic-sounding percussion and a slithering cello and violin with swirling vocals from Carr and Hannah Lovell, whom is also a backing singer in Carr’s band, the Aviators. As the car approaches the final barrier in the song, all other instrumentation cuts away, leaving just a starkly eerie keyboard and Carr counting down the metres to the barrier, until as the escape is completed the tune surges forwards again.
“I was fascinated by the live or die momentum of it,” Katy Carr says to Pennyblackmusic in an interview about ‘Kommander’s Car’ and the documentary. “The whole story of Kazik’s escape is like a countdown to this live or die moment at the barrier. If he hadn’t got through, he would have had to use one of the guns they had stolen to kill himself. It is remarkable really that he is around to share his story with us.”
“There were countless occasions that people had tried to escape, not just in Auschwitz, but from other German Nazi concentration and labour camps. Most attempts remained unsuccessful. Kazik was extremely lucky. So many moments throughout the escape could have meant life or death for him and his fellow escapees, but they managed to get the SS uniforms. They managed to get the car which more importantly didn’t didn’t break down, and every moment worked out so that they could flee.”
“The amazing thing is that if Kazik had bottled it at the end, and not managed to get the German guards to open the the final barrier, they wouldn’t have been able to escape. Kazik told me that it was very diffiult to transform himself into a SS officer having been starved, tortured and brutalised by the Nazis for exactly two years. To salute and gesticulate ‘Heil Hitler’ to the German SS officers took all his energy, and his ability to act out of this place of living hell remains extremely inspirational.”
When Carr found out that Kazik was still alive and living quietly with his wife in Gdansk, she and Lovell went there to meet him in August 2009. The then 27 year old songwriter and 90 year old war veteran hit it off instantly.
“I had no idea how it was all going to pan out,“ reflects Carr. “It was a completely organic experience. Kazik said it was completely unlike any other encounter that he had been through because, while countless journalists had gone to him wanting something from him and to tell his story, it was the first time that he had experienced an occasion when he was given something creative directly inspired by his own story.”
“We didn’t think at first that we were going to video it, but I said to Hannah who had just started to make music videos at that stage, ‘No, we have got to document this in some way. We have got to make a blog or something.’ We ended up with twenty hours of footage.“
“Kazik loved the song and, after hearing it, wouldn’t stop talking about his experiences. We just went with the flow. The whole film is told from his voice. We then put a translation in English over the top of what he was saying. As the main character in my song is Kazik, I wanted to find out more about him, because until then I had just imagined what he was saying. It wasn’t dissimilar to what he was telling me, but to hear it firsthand gave a different light to the whole story.“
Carr has since then through an Arts Council grant been able to bring Kazik to England to elaborate further on his experiences. At one event in March at the Polish Embassy in London he made an official address and the film was screened, and at another at Baden Powell House he was presented with a special letter of honour from the Chief Scout, Bear Grylls. The Arts Council grant has also allowed Carr to take the Aviators, which also includes cellist Francesca Ter-Berg, violinist Flora Curzon and percussionist Camilo Tirado, out on the road on what she has dubbed ‘The Escapologist Tour’.
“The emphasis is centred on bringing Kazik’s story and in turn Polish history to a British audience,” she says about the tour. “Our performances are structured by screening the documentary which is a very emotive film.”
“We then play songs from ‘Coquette’, which have a twenty first century sensibility, but which we have given a raw Eastern European sound, so that it has a flavour of something that Kazik might have listened to in his youth. We also mix them up with some 1940’s songs as well, so that the audience has another link with the past. We are trying to bridge a gap between the past and the present really.”
“People don’t generally know that, although approximately 90% of the 1.1 million people that were murdered in Auschwitz were mostly Polish citizens and of Jewish origin, 150,000 were Polish intelligentsia,” Carr explains when asked why Kazik was sent there for having been a scout. “That is why Kazik’s story is of such importance to understanding the history of Auschwitz. The first transports were 80% Polish political prisoners or, if you like, ordinary Polish people who were the pillars of the community. The German Nazis knew that they could break the morale of Poland as soon as they occupied it by murdering the leaders’ communities like the girl and boy scouts who in the 1930s and ’40s were very highly regarded in society.”
After escaping from Auschwitz, Kazik joined the Polish partisans. He was, however, to come across a second enemy, the Soviet Union, and at the end of the war was sentenced by the Russians to ten years in jail.
“During the war Poland had on one side the Nazis and on the other side the Soviets,” Carr recollects.”In some respects Stalin was maybe six times worse than Hitler. He murdered more people than the Nazis did in the Holocaust, and, after the war when the Soviets had taken over Poland, people like Kazik, who had fought for his country after escaping from Auschwitz, ended up being put in jail for fighting for an independent Poland.”
Katy Carr is now recording an album of songs about Kazik’s experiences after the war.
“Kazik’s life story represents some of the main chapters of Polish history in the 20th century,” she concludes about her now honorary grandfather. “He not only witnessed the beginning of the Second World War and lived through and escaped from Auschwitz, but also fought in the Polish partisans for three years after his escape. When World War Two ended, he was sentenced to further imprisonment by the Soviets, and remained under constant Soviet surveillance until he became a free man at the age of seventy.”
“It is a great honour for Kazik to cite that my song ‘Kommander’s Car’ is like a gate finally closing the Auschwitz chapter for him. I trust that his story will be told for many years to come.”
Katy Carr’s forthcoing album, ‘Pazsport’, will be released later in 2011 or early in 2012.