This week marked the 70th
anniversary of the liberation of Belsen concentration camp on April 15th
1945. Auschwitz was liberated on 27th
January 1945 which is why 27th
January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last week, at a meeting of the United Nations Association, I met a survivor of Auschwitz, Kitty Hart-Moxon, and she told us her story.
Kitty Felix, as she then was, was born in 1926 in the southern Polish town of Bielsko, near Cracow. She had one brother, Robert, who was five years older. Her father operated an agricultural supply business. Her mother studied at the University of London. While on holiday, when Kitty was 12, her parents decided to get away from Bielsko because it was so close to the German and Czechoslovak borders. Anti-Semitism was now rife there. The family fled by train to Lublin in central Poland. They left on 24th
August 1939. On 1st September Germany invaded Poland near Bielsko. But on 27th
September Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland. The new border was the river Bug[i]
and Lublin is a little to the east of that so Kitty’s family were stuck in the German half.
The German army advanced quickly but behind them came the death squads that initiated a reign of terror. They named the area General Government and set up ghettos, into which the Jews were forced, and what Kitty calls killing camps. Once in the ghetto Jews could not get out. The Germans regularly raided homes, beating everybody up. They looted valuables and smashed everything else. Jews were rounded up and deported to work in factories and camps. Some were just thrown out of the upper storey windows on to the street below. Those deported could take just one bundle of clothes and other possessions but many were machine gunned. Most people did not believe it but Kitty’s father did and he tried five escape attempts.
If a man went into the street looking for food the Germans would grab him and deport him to one of the camps. The family survived by bartering the few possessions they still had for food. Kitty went through the sewers to the non-Jewish quarters and bartered these items for potatoes or flour. There was no meat. Her mother contacted a Catholic priest, Father Krasowski, and taught English to the students in the seminary.
Once her father got hold of a horse and sleigh. It was winter and the family, she and her parents, her grandmother and her brother spent three or four days going through the fields, sleeping in ditches. They got to the frontier, waited for the river to freeze and with the help of a guide got almost across when shots rang out on both sides. They had been spotted by the Russians and the Germans alike. They hurried back and returned to the German side.
By this time the Polish population had become hostile to Jews. They were rewarded by the Germans for betrayal of Jewish people. Kitty’s family made a fifth escape attempt and got out of Lublin. It was just in time because two weeks later the Germans massacred 43,000 people in one weekend, the entire remaining Jewish population of Lublin. The family walked for days and got to a village. Every day the Germans raided this village. They took valuables, then clothes, then produce, then cattle. Again the family escaped, this time into a dense, primeval forest. Kitty’s grandmother refused to go and so they had to leave her behind. They watched her being deported.
In the forest they lived on berries, although Kitty became sick after eating some mushrooms. They decided to split up for safety and returned to Father Krasowski’s vicarage. This was hardly safe because the Gestapo headquarters were on the opposite side of the street so they hid for a while in the coal shed. The priest had a plan. With Jewish documents or false documents they were doomed. They needed to get genuine non-Jewish documents and get out of Poland. Even non-Jewish Poles were being rounded up now. Her father bribed some officials and obtained documents for her and her mother. With these passports, birth certificates and identity cards, they were smuggled onto a train of Polish workers bound for Germany. They thought by splitting up it would increase their chances of survival.
They found themselves in a group of 50 Polish women in I.G. Farben in Bitterfeld and began working at a rubber factory. But some of the Polish women were suspicious that Kitty and her mother and some other women were Jews because their accents seemed different. On 13 March, 1943 Kitty, her mother and 11 other Jews at the factory were betrayed and taken to Gestapo headquarters. They were interrogated for days and kept in solitary confinement. They were charged at trial with “endangering the security of the Third Reich”, “illegally entering Germany with forged papers” and of being Jewish. They were told that they would be executed and placed in front of a firing squad. They were all lined up and told to place their hands up against a wall. A tremendous explosion of shots rang out but it had been a mock execution. The Gestapo wanted to know how they had obtained their forged identity papers and so the sentences were commuted to hard labour in Auschwitz.
Kitty and her mother went on a tortuous journey via four different prisons and travelling in a special train adapted to ferry prisoners with cells inside. These were no more than cages in which they had to stand up the whole time as there was no room to sit or lie down. On the 2nd
April 1943 they reached Auschwitz, a vast place comprising 40 different camps. Auschwitz I was the base camp with a headquarters, torture cells, a place for medical experiments, a camp for political prisoners and one gas chamber. Auschwitz II was just a killing centre.
The prisoners slept in vast triple-tiered bunk beds. On the first night Kitty was next to a Gypsy woman who read her palm and told Kitty she would get out. In the morning the Gypsy’s body was cold to the touch. She had died in the night. Kitty learnt the first lesson of survival, that you should not be squeamish, and took what clothes and food the dead woman had. She worked for eight months in a place called ‘Canada’. Canada is thought of as a rich country and this nickname symbolised the wealth. 2 million people passed through Auschwitz with buckets of wealth which the Germans confiscated and then got Kitty and her fellow workers to sort out into piles of valuables, shoes, etc.
On arrival at Auschwitz prisoners were immediately segregated. Pregnant women and young children were killed immediately. Belongings were confiscated, disinfected and then sorted. Those fit to work were put to work in various jobs. Toilets were communal. Food was barely nourishing but bartering took place. Some hid crucial items by burying them. Kitty managed to conceal a knife.
By 1944 the killing had reached such a pitch that the gas chambers were all full. The Germans started to burn groups alive in pits. When Kitty went back to Auschwitz in 1978 for the first time with her son, David, she could see the remains of ashes. Rumours began in August 1944 that Auschwitz was to be evacuated. Kitty’s mother was selected as one of 100 prisoners to be removed from the camp. She appealed to the Camp Commandant Hessler. “Prisoner 33933 begs to speak to Camp Commandant.” Hessler said yes. “My daughter prisoner 33934 has been working in the Crematorium for eight months and I would like her to work with me in transport.” Hessler said “Dismiss.” Kitty was then implicated in an incident when the Crematorium blew up. By now she had secreted some gold and jewels but she buried them. An SS woman called her out. She thought it was the end but she was evacuated with her mother. The Commandant for reasons unknown had agreed to her mother’s request.
In November 1944 they were taken along with several hundred prisoners to Reichenbach, one of 96 sub camps of the huge Gross-Rosen concentration camp complex in Lower Silesia. Every day the inmates were marched to a nearby town to work in the Philips electronics factory. This camp was even more brutal with no kitchen, food or water. They had to get what they could at the factory. Ironically the Russians liberated Auschwitz on 27th
January but Kitty and her mother were still in Reichenbach. As the Russians advanced, in February the prisoners of Gross-Rosen were forced out on what became known as the death marches. They walked for three weeks across the Sudeten Mountains. Thousands died and Kitty suffered a head injury. Her shoes wore out and she was walking barefoot in three feet high snow.
These prisoners were chosen to be evacuated rather than executed because Albert Speer, the German Armaments minister thought the skills they had acquired in the Philips electronics factory would be useful in other German factories for the manufacture of jamming transmitters and equipment for high performance aircraft. They were eventually taken to a train station and shipped across Europe to Porta Westfalica in north western Germany. Only about 200 of the original 10,000 prisoners, including Kitty and her mother, survived the journey.
In Porta Westfalica the prisoners were sent to work in a factory in a cave. The Allies were pushing from the west so they were evacuated once more to Bergen-Belsen where they were left in a locked train to die. The train was sealed tight so Kitty used her knife to open a small hole in the floor where she and her mother took it in turns to breathe. Eventually a group of German soldiers released them and they were taken to a camp near Salzwedel. In the second week of April 1945 the SS guards disappeared from the camp. On 14th
April Salzwedel was liberated by the American army.
Kitty and her mother began working as translators for the British army. They tried to locate their family members soon after they were liberated, but found that everyone else had been killed: her father had been discovered by the Gestapo and shot; her brother was killed in battle; and her grandmother was taken to Belzec concentration camp and died in the gas chambers.
In 1946 Kitty emigrated with her mother to England to live with her uncle who had moved there before the war. In 1949 she married Rudi Hart, an upholsterer who had also escaped before the Holocaust. They had two sons, David and Peter. Her mother died in 1974. Kitty has spent most of her life since the war educating people about the Holocaust by telling her story to the public. For this she received the OBE in 2003.
There is little photographic evidence of what happened at Auschwitz but two SS officers took photos of a group of Hungarian Jews arriving in 1944 and you can see that record in the Auschwitz Album. [ii]
In 1948 the United Nation issued the Convention on the Prevention and Punishmen of the Crime of Genocide. To date only 146 member states out of 195 have signed it. In questions Kitty was asked if she could forgive the Germans. She said she had no authority to forgive. She had seen things that most people have not seen. And it was ordinary people who did these things.