Acclaimed singer-songwriter and occasional Wears The Trousers contributor Katy Carr releases her long-awaited third album, Coquette, today, a wildly imaginative collection that takes us back to the 1930s and ’40s, to wartime Europe, with romantic and powerful songs largely inspired by women of the era. Dodging any potential bias, we’re not going to review it; the 4* reviews in Q, Mojo and The Daily Express speak for themselves. Instead, we’ve invited the half-Polish singer to share an incredible story with our readers, a story of how the daring escape of four men from the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in 1942 inspired her new single, ‘Kommander’s Car’, and how writing the song led her to an intense meeting and lasting friendship with the only remaining survivor, Kazimierz Piechowski. This connection forms the basis of a new, 23-minute documentary film entitled ‘Kazik & The Kommander’s Car’, directed by Hannah Lovell, recently submitted to London’s Imperial War Museum for their current short film season which runs until the end of December.
In this first of four parts, Katy explains the inspiration behind the song: the great escape itself.
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In October 2007, while visiting my aunt Zosia in Bielsko-Biala, a large town at the foot of the Beskid mountains in southern Poland, I was watching Polish TV one evening when I happened to catch a documentary entitled ‘Uciekinier’, or ‘The Runaway’, that told a remarkable escape story. I couldn’t believe what I was observing. In June 1942, four prisoners from Auschwitz had managed to steal SS uniforms, the Kommander’s car and driven from “hell” to freedom. It was an awe-inspiring story made all the more intense as the film’s narrator was the last remaining survivor, Kazimierz Piechowski.
The scene in the film that first grabbed me was when I saw Kazimierz, who I’d later come to know as Kazik, retracing the steps of his escape at what is now the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Then in his mid-80s but remembering every detail, Kazik was guiding the film crew by torchlight through the warehouse that had stored the SS uniforms. I was surprised that he still knew every inch of the way: “We had to know every step as each second was life or death,” he explained. It was hard to believe that this dilapidated building with paint peeling off the walls had once been an area infested with Nazi officers and virtually impossible to enter.
As I continued to watch the documentary I became more and more entranced. It was completely unimaginable! Having read about the mass human suffering, the unprecedented cruelty and the murder of 1.5 million innocent people in Auschwitz, I was in shock that four people had actually managed to escape. (I later discovered that out of the 700 or so people who had attempted to flee Auschwitz between June 1940 and January 1945, 144 of them had been fortunate enough to make it out from those gates that bear the indelible words, Arbeit Macht Frei.) What struck me most was the intrigue and the very nature of Kazik’s escape. These prisoners had acted their way out of Auschwitz as Nazi officers and driven out in the Kommander’s own car, a glamorous Steyr 220, with Kazik acting as the fictitious ‘Kommander’. It was an act of complete defiance and subversion. I imagined with great glee how the SS and Nazi officers must have reacted when they found out their Kommander’s car had been stolen. Surely they cursed for hours with infuriation at how their very precise rules had been so flagrantly broken and at how fooled they’d all been!
The following day I decided to visit the Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, only one hour by bus from Bielsko, to see it for myself. I knew it would be a very emotional visit, but I never anticipated that it would have such a profound effect on me and take me on such a journey of historical discovery. My impression of the museum was that it had been very thoughtfully laid out and took a dignified and sensitive approach with regards to showing visitors around the site. Incredibly, at its peak use in the summer of 1944, the three main camps and 40 sub-camps covered an area of over 40 square kilometres. Today it is much smaller, but the atmosphere remains solemn and heavy – hardly surprising considering that the ground beneath my feet contained the ashes of over a million people. I’d read about it in books, seen black and white images on archive film, but nothing prepared me for actually being there. I was seeing Auschwitz in colour, and the colour was an excruciating reality.
Within the brick barrack buildings, each block designed to serve a different function or to house different ethnic groups, I saw exhibits portraying the countless belongings that remained from the prisoners: glasses, luggage, shoes, hair, guitars, prosthetic limbs, braces and canes. For the first time, I saw documentation of the selection process by which those fit to work were ‘saved’ and those unfit were murdered in the gas chambers or shot; I saw the vast and precise plans the Nazis had drawn of Auschwitz, feeling disbelief and devastation that anything so organised could have been allowed to exist; I visited the gas chambers, saw the fingernail scratches on the walls, felt the deathly silence seep into every pore, and imagined what all those people must have felt like when instead of water from the showers came lethal gas. The choking, the screaming, the terror.
On the first day of their arrival, the inmates would be told, “The only way to escape is through the crematorium chimney”; two years and five days after the Nazis officially opened Konzentrationslager Auschwitz, Mr Piechowski and his three companions proved them wrong. The full details of their bold escape can be read in Lawrence Rees’s book, Auschwitz, and seen in the documentary ‘Uciekinier‘, but I want to focus on what happened during the last five seconds – the crux of the drama that inspired me to write a song about it. Picture it: the four men dressed in stolen SS uniforms, crammed into the hijacked Kommander’s car, which might as well be running on pure adrenaline instead of gasoline. They have no passes or documents.
Eighty metres away from the final exit gate, the barrier is still down. The driver, a Ukrainian mechanic by the name of Genek, shifts the car down to second gear. They are now 50 metres away and the barrier has not been raised. At 18 metres, the men are mentally preparing to take their own lives should their plan fail. Kazik is in a trance. With 15 metres to go, Josef, a Polish priest, thumps him in the back and says, “Kazik! Zrob cos!” (Kazik! Do something!”). Coming to his senses with just a few more metres to the barrier, Kazik opens the car door, shows the SS insignia on his stolen Nazi uniform and shouts, in German, to the officers: “Open the gate you lazy buggers! How long do we have to wait here?” Instantly the officers stand to attention and the barrier is lifted. The four men drive to their freedom and leave the horror of Auschwitz behind them, physically but never in their minds.
I wanted my song ‘Kommander’s Car’ to portray the tense drama of these final five seconds of the escapees’ time on Auschwitz soil, with the climax being that of Kazik exploding at the Nazi officers. At first it was difficult to think about writing a song connected with Auschwitz; I wanted to write something that was respectful to the memory of the people who were murdered there. However, I realised that my song could not be a memorial but a song about hope in the face of adversity. To me the escapees were like trapped birds. I saw the Kommander’s car as the bolt breaker, the force that would give the birds their wings again and lead them to salvation and freedom.
Having decided that Kazik would narrate the song in a prayer-like manner (“Fifty metres is all that lies between us / come to me baby, come to me and save me / drive, drive, we’ve got to to drive away!”), I also wanted to include some words in Polish. It meant a lot to me to portray that Kazik was one of the camp’s 150,000 Polish prisoners – politicians, doctors, teachers, priests, civil servants, army officials, artists…even girl and boy scouts – as well as to be able to connect with my own heritage, so I translated some of what I’d written in English. And so the chant of “80 metres; 50 metres; 18 metres; 15 metres” became “Osiemdziesiat metrow; piedziesiat metrow; ociemnascie metrow; pietnascie metrow”.
A clip from the BBC documentary ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis & The Final Solution‘, based on Lawrence Rees’s book, helped me to visualise the intensity of Kazik’s escape; the point at where he realised that his comrades were all counting on him to see them through those gates. I imagined them all singing together in their heads when they were in the car, and so the chorus is supposed to sound like a choir, the four men chanting a hopeful, desperate mantra. Working closely with my producer Nick Crofts, I worked hard to get the underlying music to convey the tension and danger of the men’s situation. To me, the low, pulsating cello part in the song represents the voice of the car’s engine pumping away like a heartbeat, carrying its friends to safety, while the higher, lilting cello lines portray the intense sadness the four men felt at leaving behind their fellow prisoners in the appalling conditions of Auschwitz, as my imagined Kazik tells the tale.
I would later hear Kazik himself say to me, “Bravo, thank you very much Katy – my voice!”
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Tomorrow, in part two, read how Katy managed to contact Kazik and how he reacted to hearing the song for the first time.
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