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Kitty Hart Moxon - interview

Survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Death March from Gross-Rosen, Kitty speaks exclusively to the Auschwitz Study Group in a wide ranging interview from her time at Auschwitz, to educating a new generation.

Kitty Hart Moxon survived the Holocaust alongside her mother in an incredible journey that saw her escape the Lublin Ghetto, a mock execution, Auschwitz Birkenau, Gross-Rosen and the death march of the harsh winter in 1944.

After moving to Birmingham, England, with her mother just after the war, she became one of the first educators of the Holocaust in the UK and was recently awarded an OBE for her dedication to the subject. Kitty is still very active and can be seen on several documentaries, often with school children and on one occasion, even Neo-Nazis.

There was no formula for surviving Auschwitz. There was no such thing as a formula. Those who survived did so by shutting down all emotions and focusing on surviving another minute, another hour another day.

Block 20 in Birkenau where Kitty Hart lived
Block 20 in Birkenau where Kitty Hart lived

In late 2015, we contacted Kitty and introduced her to the Auschwitz Study Group, an initiative founded to reproach the education of Auschwitz by considering its vast spatial areas as equal to the museum zones. Kitty immediately offered her support to the group and invited us into her home. 

"I had to be persuaded to go back to Auschwitz in 1978. That was the first time I had been back. I travelled with my son David for emotional support, but my concern was whether the Poles would let me return to England afterwards. I had to seek assurances before I agreed".

Kitty’s second book, 'Return to Auschwitz' was written to accompany her first trip back to Poland and made her a household name overnight.

"The film crew were absolutely fantastic. They gave me complete control and freedom to make the documentary the way I wanted it to happen. Everything you see of me in Birkenau was spontaneous and not contrived in the slightest". 

Kitty arrived at Auschwitz on the 2nd April 1943 with her mother after being betrayed as Jews working under false papers. "The Germans were angry that we were able to work unnoticed for this period of time. My father obtained papers for us to work at the IG Farben plant in Bitterfeld but we were betrayed along the way. They asked us several questions, before deciding to execute us. They went so far as assembling a firing squad in front of us before laughing hysterically. We were then told quite bluntly that our sentence has been changed to 'hard labour'".

"After a train journey that lasted 2 days, we pulled up quite abruptly at the main passenger station in Oświęcim. My mother knew the area and had often visited the large ponds there before the war. It was dark but we saw the station quite clearly as we disembarked on to the main road. We then walked to Auschwitz 1 as some of our transport were to be despatched there. I know it was Auschwitz 1. I remember quite clearly seeing the Arbeit Macht Frei sign above the gate. After a brief stop, we then marched to Birkenau. I have no idea how long that took. As we arrived it started to get a little lighter outside'.

Kitty maintains she entered Birkenau through the main gate at the B1 Sector, the brick barracks of the women’s camp. I suggested to her that her most probable route from Auschwitz I would have taken her directly west past the Auschwitz water plant turning right when she reached the Auschwitz scrap metal yard 1 kilometer south of Birkenau. When pressed if she remembered seeing heavy industrial areas on this route, she said most probably not which would seem to rule out the alternative journey north of Auschwitz I and past the large factories of Krupp and DAW.

There was no selection process on this occasion and Kitty and her mother were sent straight to the Sauna building where they were issued prison clothes. The last part of the dehumanisation process was the issue of a camp tattoo number. 

"The girl who was giving us this tattoo was shocked that we were admitted alive inside the camp. We were criminals, you see and it never happened that criminals entered the camp and without selection. She said to us that she would come and find us if she could and try and help us get a job undercover or in the infirmary".  

"On my first night, I realised that if I am going to survive then I cannot take from the living. A gypsy women I was lying next too had died in the night. I took her shoes as she no longer needed them. And in this way you see, I was able to organise commodities that enabled us to buy extra food, or slightly better working conditions".

"A dead prisoner still had a bread ration so it was not necessary to steal from your fellow prisoners. That would have been a death sentence. I did see people do it though".

Kitty survived several months by avoiding work completely. For a time, she managed to avoid detection and sleep in the day and night in block 22 that housed workers of the Siemens factory at the time. "It was very easy to become invisible. I was small and insignificant if you like. There were thousands of women in the camp day and night. I became quite an expert at avoiding detection and not arousing suspicion. I would get up in the morning at roll call, and slip back into the barracks with the women returning from the night shift and collect my food ration on the way back in".

Camp Food

The rations Kitty endured were at the extreme starvation levels. But she also claims that the food was intentionally poisoned. "We had 1 small piece of bread that was made with sawdust just swept up from the floor and some soup that was made up mostly of tepid water. We had to subsidise this to stand any chance of survival. Every day we had to find a carrot or potato from somewhere. This was possible if you worked outside, which I did for a while".

"If we ate too much soup, we would have been poisoned. We didn’t know at the time, it only became clear after the war. The soup was laced with a kind of bromide, a slow poison that had an effect on the state of mind. People who drank it became subdued. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the source of information I received on this after the war".

"The extreme diet meant that women no longer had periods. The stress of the situation we found ourselves in shocks the body so much that we just no longer had them. But in a way, that was a good thing as there were no possibility of managing it should it happen. I realised there was no formula for surviving Auschwitz. There was no such thing as a formula. Those who survived did so by shutting down all emotions and focusing on surviving another minute, another hour another day. If you got a good job, that may have helped. Getting a job undercover may also have helped. There were so many different aspects to surviving. Those who worked in the Orchestra had a good job. That was a good place to survive. Whilst the chances of survival were marginally better, still so many people died. You always had to pay for everything in the camp. To get slightly better work, you paid with your food ration or an item of your clothing".

Josef Mengele

Several months had passed before Kitty managed to get work in the camp hospital. It was here she crossed paths with the infamous Angel of Death, Dr Mengele. Mengele was known for his evil experimentations on twins which often resulted in both sets being killed. 

"I adopted my usual approach when in the company of Mengele. I would try and stay invisible. Like all the doctors in Auschwitz, he had his obsessions that were personal to him. They were just allowed to do as they like. I remember Mengele organising my entire block to be emptied and gassed, everyone killed just like that. The women were crying as they knew what fait awaited them. The only survivors were the ones who worked there. I was often part of a selection when Mengele was on duty. I contracted typhus which could have easily killed me. For weeks I was running a high fever and very weak and could not do anything".

An opportunity came for those hospital staff to be transferred to the area known as Kanada. Kanada was a colloquial term referring the vast array of riches taken from the incoming transports of prisoners. Everything was available in Kanada, clothes, currencies, gold and importantly – food.

Kanada Kommando

"My mother persuaded me to take the job in Kanada. Despite the risks of the high turnover of workers, she saw it as an opportunity to build up my strength. Those of us who moved across to work in Kanada formed part of the night shift and slept above the sorting sheds in the day time. Our barrack was next to gas chamber number 4, just across the wire. The gas chamber was not hidden away with big covered fences so it was possible to see everything that happened. I remember vividly how people were forced in, in their dozens like an endless line of people. But somehow they managed to pack them all in. I also saw how the SS emptied the gas canister into a hole. The crying started immediately. I have never heard anything so loud in all of my life. The crying quickly subdued. Maybe little more than 10 minutes later, I saw how members of the Sonderkommando entered the chamber. Because of what we saw, it was obvious why the Germans were keen to replace us so frequently".

Railway station in Oświęcim
Railway station in Oświęcim

Auschwitz Revolt

Gas chamber 4 was also the scene of the only mass scale revolt in the history of Auschwitz. On October 7th 1944, a planned attack on the crematoriums was bought forward following unfortunate circumstances leaving the Sonderkommando vastly unprepared for battle. Against all the odds, they managed to successfully blow up the gas chamber. "There was a heavy SS battalion permanently based at Auschwitz. They could deploy it almost anywhere in the camp within minutes. The workers managed to kill a few soldiers but it fizzled out very quickly. I was amazed at how nervous the SS were. There was no rhythm to them. The attack was unexpected and the idea of Jews fighting back was something they were prepared for in numbers, but in reality it shouldn’t happen. Those brave workers were sending a message of defiance by blowing up the gas chamber. But after the dust settled, we had more worries to consider. Explosives were bought using valuables from our Kanada barracks. The SS had already started to execute those responsible and many others in retaliation. We were bracing ourselves for what would happen next".

Although many prisoners did survive Kanada after the war, Kitty was saved by an unexpected turn of events. Her mother who had travelled with Kitty to Auschwitz 18 months earlier was a respected prisoner who spoke German fluently which impressed many of the SS. She was selected for a transport to Gross-Rosen to work at the Telefunken factory. 

Kitty’s mother took an opportunity to present herself in the direct presence of Lagerfuhrer Hossler and politely yet boldly request that her daughter be removed from Kanada and join her on the transport. "Maybe he was impressed that my mother spoke such beautiful German. She had also been at the camp such a long time in the most appalling conditions. I honestly believe that was respected. But whatever the reason, I was summoned out of Kanada and onto the transport to Gross-Rosen". 

KL Gross Rosen

"As it turns out, we never actually entered the main camp. There were around 100 sub-camps attached to Gross-Rosen and we were attached to the Telefunken factory. The horizon looked the same as Auschwitz. There were fences and guards just the same as before but this time, no gas chambers. Our walk to work did permit us to walk through the town. We had not seen houses and shops for such a long time. We were starving hungry but it was a treat to smell freshly baked food. By early February, we heard gunfire getting louder by the day". 

"The town was very important for the Germans and they were going to defend it at all costs. They had the gold, the treasury, the money here. It was like a fortress. Despite everything we had been through we still held a glimmer of hope we may soon be liberated. Instead, the Germans marched us west on foot through the mountains".

Death March

"At the start of the death march, I had new shoes that I organised from Kanada. By the end of the march, they had fell apart completely. Prisoners who walked too slow were clubbed to death. And these were Wehrmacht soldiers. Occasionally you would hear shooting at the back of the convoy. Those who walked too slow were shot at the roadside. We also had to carry the soldier’s luggage. We would often empty the contents of the luggage on the floor to make it easier to carry. They were just as tired as us, walking aimlessly away from the sounds of Russian guns".

Liberation & Post War

On April 14th 1945, Kitty and her mother were finally liberated by the American army. Their grasp of languages was vital to the Americans and they quickly began working for them translating.

"We emigrated to England in 1946. I had no intention of moving back to Poland or travelling to Israel. I never let my experiences leave me after the war. It was now a part of who I was but I was never going to let it take over my life. My children were bought up in what happened to me. I wrote my first book 'I am Alive' in 1961, but by 1978 I was getting sacks of mail every day". Letters simply addressed to 'Kitty, Birmingham' were being sent all the time. "I probably did become a bit of a celebrity. My kids were used to it. But we never talked gas chambers. When the kids didn’t want to eat, we’d say, you know you should be happy. All I had was watery soup and stale bread. Or for example if they didn’t want to go to bed, we’d say you should feel lucky you have a bed. Just think that I had to sleep in the snow with 1000s of other women". 

"I gave my children a book when they were about 13 or 14. We now do a lot of work with this age group in schools so that is about the right age to really talk about what happened in the Holocaust. And because of this approach, my kids never had a problem growing up. We took that responsibility away from them. They had a very normal upbringing. I see today that second generation children have big big problems as their parents would not talk about what happened. There was and still is quite a lot of controversy about how people handle this and I think it’s a big mistake that people try and keep it from their children".

"When we talk to younger children in schools, we talk about normal things like going to the lavatory, food, sleep in very small doses. We don’t talk about gas chambers".

In 2003, Kitty was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services relating to Holocaust education. 

Museum Preservation

She has always been quite vocal and never one to shy away from sharing her feelings. Kitty has a lot of empathy with the Auschwitz Museum today but sees Holocaust tourism as a problem in the future. "Why do people only go to Auschwitz? Why not Majdanek in Lublin. A lot of the focus is on Auschwitz now and that can be a problem in the future. They encourage you to see Auschwitz I as that is where they have everything set up. Even the guides don’t want to stray too far away from Auschwitz 1 as they are unsure of the facts. They have asked me several times to speak to groups in Birkenau for this very reason".

"Tourists do not want to explore Birkenau in depth. It’s too big and tiring, and the weather in winter is not favourable. The museum do not want you to explore areas around the Little White House gas chamber so they grassed it all over. But that is where you can find the ash pits. When I went back in 1978, no one had explored the ash pits before me. You could see that as no trails led there. It was covered in undergrowth. I immediately went to them and discovered charred bones and ash everywhere. No, the museum do not want you to explore this area". 

"The same can be said for the area of Kanada. It is not difficult to explore and find metal objects that are buried quite shallow. People will still be finding these several decades from now as there are just so many still there. If we know what happened, I don’t see a reason to excavate the areas. In the case of Sobibor, not so much is known as hardly anyone survived the camp. Nothing existed after the war so it is important for history’s sake and to prevent deniers to prove what happened there. But like what happened at the site of Belzec (a death camp in Poland), they excavated there but put it back to how it was before the dig. That’s the way it should be".

Since the early 1990’s, millions of Euros have been spent preserving the grounds of Auschwitz I and II for future generations. The project is in phases and will take several years. "All the decades when the museum was under the communism has made preservation an almost impossible task. The relics of Majdanek in Lublin are much better preserved due to the better climate, a much lower altitude".

Neo-Nazis

On December 1st 2015, Kitty turned 89. Her energy, wit and passion show no signs of faltering. She keeps herself active and still devotes much of her time to educating children and lecturing at Holocaust events around the country. In 2014, Kitty recorded another documentary at Auschwitz with 2 school children, her age at the time of imprisonment. But these days, she is fighting another problem. Holocaust denial. "A few years ago, I was asked by Channel 4 to record a TV programme alongside some Neo-Nazis. There were 3 men, A Scottish man, German and French. They had agreed to go to Auschwitz to film but they were not told I would be there too. Within minutes, they walked out. It was there loss". 

"They were not prepared to face me. They thought the place didn’t exist. They tried so hard to get out of the filming, and in the end they just walked off. As I say, it was their loss".

Denis Avey

But more surprisingly, it is a fellow survivor she is much more critical of. In an earlier issue of the Auschwitz Study Group Newsletter, I published an extract of an interview I conducted with Denis Avey. Avey was captured and sent to a British POW camp, E715 Monowitz. The labour camp was only 10 minutes from Auschwitz I and II and next to Auschwitz III Monowitz. He released a book in 2012 called 'The Man who Broke into Auschwitz'. The book was met with a lot of criticism doubting the legitimacy of his switching places with a Jewish prisoner to see Auschwitz for himself. Kitty read the article I published but not without comment. "It could never have happened in a million years. Absolutely rubbish. For a start, he could not have changed clothes. He would never be in a position where he would be alone. He had hair, the Jews didn’t. He only spoke in English, and many of the Jews didn’t. That would have caught him out very quickly, I can tell you. He is a total fraud".

"I crossed paths with him at a dinner. I was asked to come, and I met him briefly. He waited until most of the people had died before he told this fabrication thinking he would get away with it. He claims he gave cigarettes to this Jewish prisoner, packs of them. But where could he keep it? His uniform had no pockets and he had nowhere to store them in the camp. The other prisoners would have taken them immediately. I believe the Yad Vashem and the Auschwitz museum did not accept his story".

Legacy

The Holocaust education in the UK owes a lot to Kitty for her devotion over the last 5 decades. It is now a mandatory subject on the curriculum and school trips to concentration camps are much more common. "Yes I am proud that I am part of this educational change. You can now study the Holocaust at University level. I do feel I was an important part of the change. I not only endorsed the work of the Holocaust Trust, I often helped by going into school and Universities. I am honoured to have been awarded an OBE but there were many people doing exactly what I did. But I was one of the first and I think that’s what the recognition was for. I have been told that my early work inspired a new generation to carry it on and that’s a very rewarding feeling".

 

Kitty was speaking with Auschwitz Study Group on the 18th December 2015. 

We sincere gratitude to Kitty for inviting us into her home and sharing her incredible story.