George Medal

In 1941, Barney Lewis – son of Lewis and Leah Karbatznick – was awarded the George Medal for saving the life of a man trapped in a bombed-out building in war-torn East London. Pinned down by fallen masonry and in danger of drowning as the basement in which he was trapped filled up with water, the man faced almost certain death until Barney battled to beat the rising water level.

Read the citation for bravery, the invitation to an investiture at Buckingham Palace, letters and telegrams of congratulations, and a letter from Barney’s proud sister Bessie to her two daughters in which she recounts a day to remember.

This is the full story:

During the war, Barney Lewis was staying with his sister Bessie and brother-in-law Alf at their pub in East London and was a member of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), a government organisation to protect civilians from the danger of air-raids.

During a bombing raid by the Germans on 23 September 1940, Barney heard that a local pub had been hit, and raced along to join the rescue party.

In fact, a large bomb had fallen on three shops, under which were two public shelters containing over sixty people. The roof of the shelters collapsed and a water main burst, flooding the shelters. Those who were not injured were quickly got out, but one man was trapped and in danger of drowning, while four other men were pinned by their legs.

Barney waded through the water to the first man, and finding that he was wedged in by brickwork and timber, jacked up the roof and by sheer strength forced the brickwork away. He then found that the timber was still holding the man down. Barney crawled back and obtained a saw with which he cut the timbers away, freeing the man just as the water reached his head.

Others at the scene reported that Barney had undoubtedly saved the man’s life. Along with another member of the East Ham ARP team, who had worked for over four hours to save two men trapped elsewhere in the rubble, Barney received a citation for bravery.

The rescue was reported in a local newspaper, and word of the daring rescue soon spread. On 13 February, Barney received a letter informing him that the Minister of Home Security had brought his “gallant conduct” to the attention of the King. The letter went on to say that “at the request of the Minister, His Majesty is pleased to award you the George Medal”.

The following evening, 14 February 1941, the London Gazette published the citation for:

Barnett Lewis, Leader A.R.P. Rescue Party, East Ham
Allister William Christie, Member A.R.P. Rescue Party, East Ham

Congratulations followed: a letter from the head of ARP in Whitehall, telegrams from Barney’s sisters, and then on 23 May came a letter from St James’s Palace requesting his attendance at an investiture at Buckingham Palace by the King on 17 June.

With invitations for two people to accompany him, Barney took his sisters Bessie and Cissie, with Bessie preserving details of the day in a letter to her daughters Joyce and Gloria, who had been evacuated from London to stay with Harry Burke’s parents in Somerset.

The local council were so proud of their citizen that they sent a car and chauffeur to take the three Karbatznick siblings to the palace. Read full details in Bessie’s four-page letter elsewhere in this section of the website.

Further plaudits followed. The Rotary Club of East Ham invited Barney to a grand luncheon “as a mark of appreciation of the fact that you have been decorated by His Majesty for services rendered”.

The Royal Society of St George – comprised of people who love England – made Barney an honorary member, saying in an August 1941 letter, “Our country has been inspired by the valour which caused HM the King to bestow upon you the George Medal.

How amazing. Just one generation on from a Russian husband and wife who spoke no English when they arrived in the country, their son was decorated by the King of England for bravery.

Additional material by Harold Pollins, copyright BBC website.