Harpenden Holocaust survivor warns it could happen again

Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon talks to Herts Advertiser's Samantha Lewis in her home

Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon talks to Herts Advertiser's Samantha Lewis in her home - Credit: Archant

ON the evening of April 2, 1943, a woman lying next to Kitty Hart-Moxon took hold of her hand and said ‘You are going to come out’.

Little did she know these words would stay with her for the next two years while she served a life prison sentence in a Nazi concentration camp.

Kitty was 12 years old when the Germans invaded her hometown of Bielsko in Poland and her family was forced to flee and head for the city of Lublin. But within weeks the Nazis occupied Lublin and everyone registered as Jewish was herded into a ghetto.

Desperate to escape the overcrowded and primitive conditions, Kitty and her mother posed as Polish forced labourers and were transported into Germany clutching non-Jewish documents they had obtained with the help of a priest.

But they were unable to conceal their true identities for long and as suspicion grew about their Polish accents they were put on trial and found guilty of entering the country illegally and having documents that did not belong to them – offences that carried the death penalty.

Kitty said: “One night we were taken out into the courtyard and put our arms up against the wall, the machine guns were in position and we were to be executed by this firing squad.

“There was a huge explosion, I thought I had not been hit, I touched myself and I was all in one piece but they actually shot into the air.

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“They said ‘Oh no we are not going to kill you just like that, we must know where these documents came from’, and to do that they commuted our death sentence to life imprisonment in Auschwitz.”

This is just one of the memories Kitty, now an 86-year-old grandmother, is able to vividly share with me while she sits relaxed in an armchair at her home in Harpenden.

Since the war ended Kitty has devoted her life to speaking about her past, which has led to her penning two books and filming the award-winning documentary Return to Auschwitz.

She has also spent decades working with schools, colleges and universities and was given an OBE in 2003 for her services to Holocaust education.

When she begins to tell me about walking through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time, I get the impression it is a story she has told many times. This is why I am not surprised when I ask if it is painful to relive the moment she shrugs and replies “I’ve got used to speaking about it”.

“Nothing in this world can prepare you for what is going to happen to you,” Kitty continued in the next breath. “They opened up the train and threw everybody out and you were confronted with barking dogs and men in uniform with whips.

“There was this incredible stench that hit you and you didn’t know what it was. My mother said ‘Surely they are not roasting meat here?’. It was kind of a choking smoke.

“You couldn’t think because everything happened so fast, you were simply pushed into a hole and there you were stripped and whipped by women prisoners.

“Then you were put under these cold showers and smeared with a green fluid that stung your body. You were pushed into the next hole where you were shaved, all your hair, everywhere. Then you were thrown some rags. They murdered 20,000 Russian prisoners of war before we arrived and so we got their uniform.”

Kitty, who was just 15 at the time, quickly learned if she was going to stay alive she needed to come up with a method of survival. “I pictured myself as an animal trying to get away from everybody like animals get away from their predators. You had to have a one-track mind, you needed something to eat and somewhere to lie down and to keep away from people who were trying to kill you.

“People used to say Auschwitz was another world and I always say it was a mirror of the animal world.”

For several months she was ordered to work in close proximity to the gas chambers sorting clothes and valuables that had been stripped from the prisoners.

“During the eight months I was there I saw more than 500,000 people go to their deaths. You tried not to see it. Your brain did not accept that. If you did you could not go on.”

After the war she would discover this death toll included 30 of her own relatives.

Kitty and her mother had been transferred to another camp when they were liberated by Americans on April, 14, 1945. They were the only survivors of their family. Her father and grandmother had been murdered and her brother killed in action at Stalingrad.

A year later they received permits to settle in the UK where Kitty trained as a radiographer in Birmingham. She tells me, with a sigh that while treating patients they would often ask about the concentration camp number (39934) she had tattooed on her forearm.

“I didn’t want to have it taken out ever but after the war I was working in hospitals and people didn’t know what it was. People would ask me if it was my boyfriend’s telephone number.”

Ignorance about the Holocaust continues to motivate Kitty to share her wartime memories. Why? “Because we have got no guarantee it is not going to happen again.

“I decided that people have got to know sooner or later, they have got to learn something. I have always maintained that.”