SAMS is both proud and lucky to have an Auschwitz survivor, Kitty Hart-Moxon, amongst our members. The people in the camps were liberated 70 years ago and the United Kingdom commemorated the event on the 19th April 2015.
To help SAMS commemorate the liberation, Kitty’s son and daughter-in-law, Peter and Moira Hart inspired the community during our Shabbat service on the 18th April by taking the time normally given to our Rabbi for his sermon. The following is what we heard.
PARSHA SHEMINI AND KITTY’S STORY
18TH APRIL 2015
Moira and I have taken over Rabbi Rafi’s sermon spot today as we are marking the 70th anniversary of my mother, Kitty’s, liberation from the Holocaust. An event that actually took place on 14th April 1945. Moira and I would like to share with you some of the details of her life since then.
But to begin with I would like to reflect on today’s parsha, Shemini. For me, the parsha is divided into 2 distinct parts – it begins with the final preparations of the mishkan (the tent where the Divine presence will reside) and the inauguration of Aaron and his sons as priests. The second part deals with the laws of kashrut specifically detailing what Jews should and shouldn’t eat right down to the hedgehog and any animal that creeps on its belly or has many legs. Many of us are familiar with these rules so I am going to concentrate on the first part. The narrative focuses on the final preparations and offerings that are to be made to God by Aaron and his sons who now begin to officiate as Kohanim or priests. For some reason, Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, “offer a strange fire before the Lord” and God then sends a fire that devours them. Aaron is obviously deeply upset and sad but he does not say anything and he remains quiet and accepts God’s judgement. Moses tells Aaron and his remaining sons to continue their work in the Mishkan and that they should “let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled”. When I read passage I felt this could be related to Kitty’s reaction to the horrors she had witnessed – she didn’t dwell on them – the rest of humanity could do that – but she decided to make a life for herself and then channel her energies to make sure that as many other people as possible should learn from her experiences.
Through the ages the rabbis have discussed and pondered on why Nadav and Avihu were killed and have suggested that maybe they were drunk, or had not consulted with Moses and Aaron about the offering they were making. There is, however, a story in the Talmud that gives a possible explanation for their deaths:
Nadav and Avihu were walking along the road behind Moses and Aaron and Nadav was heard to wonder when these two old men would die and when would they be able to take their places. God overheard and said to them, “We shall see who will bury whom!” The Talmud goes on to consider the implications of their discussion through Job who worked as an advisor to Pharoah. This is the same Job who has a book of the old testament named after him and who was extremely pious. Anyway, when Pharoah asked his advisors how to deal with the “Jewish problem” Job remained silent, he didn’t condemn the tyrannical approach suggested by one advisor, nor did he support Jethro who was courageous enough to vehemently object to the wicked ideas of the oppression of the Jews in Egypt. By the way, Jethro went on to become Moses’ father-in-law. So what is the connection between these 2 stories?
When Job remained silent did he consider himself morally inferior to Jethro who had courageously stood up to a superpower king? Did Job go home that evening and say to his wife: “I discovered today that I am a spineless and cowardly politician who will sell his soul to the devil just to retain his position in the government”?
No. Job, like so many of us in similar situations, did not entertain that thought even for a moment.
For decades, Job continued to live and work in the Egyptian palace filled with a feeling of self-righteousness and contentment – till the day he heard of the death of the sons of Aaron. Job could fully understand why Nadav was punished but Avihu? What had he done wrong, he didn’t say anything? And the answer came to him that he was punished because he remained silent.
The moral of this story is underlined in a recent blog by Stephen Smith, who founded the UK Holocaust Centre at Beth Shalom and who is currently the Executive Director of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California. The blog entitled “Anti-Semitism is a genocidal Killer” suggests that the Holocaust was the natural conclusion to the problem of anti-Semitism, he says “the Nazis were doing our dirty work, the convenient executioners of every country that refused to intervene”. He suggests we need to work backwards from the crematoria and the trains that crossed Europe full of people destined to die in the camps and look at how countries stood by and watched without interfering. This is where he believes the work needs to be done. This can be done by educating people and having an expectation that the leaders of countries will take a stand and speak out against anti-Semitism and persecution of any other people.
This view point really reflects and underlines the route that Kitty decided to take and make her life’s work. A route that she is still actively following. In the last week she has spoken to a United Nations group in Harpenden and spoken at New London Synagogue on Tuesday. But how did she come to this conclusion? …
Many of you will already be familiar with her story during the war but what happened afterwards and what drove her to become so involved with Holocaust education?
Kitty and her mother were liberated from a camp near the town of Salzwedel in Germany. They were very weak, following a rigorous death march and incarceration in a train that sat in a siding for days. Kitty recalls sitting in the camp looking through the electrified gates and fence mesmerised by an SS bread store that was so close but unattainable. While she sat there a tank rolled past and then a second tank turned into the camp and broke down the gates. She had only one thought and ran and scooped up as many loaves of bread as she could carry. However, in the mele of people she only managed to hang onto one loaf which she shared with her mother. The next few days were chaotic with forays into the local town to find food and anything that might be useful. However, the military had to supervise the switch from war to peace and very quickly Kitty and her mother found work with the Americans as her mother spoke fluent English, German and reasonable Polish. At the time, Kitty spoke fluent German and Polish and some English. It soon became clear that Salzwedel was to become part of the Russian sector and Kitty and her mother did not wish to remain in a Russian territory so they begged the Americans to take them to a camp in Brunswick in the British sector. There they started translating for the British and did a lot of work with the Quakers who were trying to repatriate and help displaced people from all over Europe. They worked there for many months and became particularly friendly with one of the Quaker relief team called Jane. By this time news of Kitty’s father’s and brother’s deaths had been received and it was time to think about their own futures.
Kitty’s mother had a sister and brother-in-law in Birmingham and their work with the Quaker team helped them to obtain papers to come to England.
Strangely though, liberation for Kitty did not bring good things and happy times immediately and this is echoed by Jane who had arrived in Bergen Belsen very shortly after liberation and wrote in a report from the 6th May 1945 that, “as the internees gain strength it dawns upon them that ‘liberation’ will not give them immediate happiness”. Kitty and her mother arrived in England only to find that their relatives would offer them no support or help and that no-one wanted to hear about their experiences. Eventually she was given the opportunity to train as a nurse. It pretty soon became apparent that nursing just wasn’t for her – apart from anything else the rules and regulations seemed unimportant and she simply didn’t fit in. That first Christmas, her mother went with her employer to Wales and her aunt and uncle went away. No one thought about Kitty and she found herself homeless in a foreign land for the duration. She took shelter in the Snow Hill station waiting room along with some other waifs and strays and never considered that there would be nowhere to buy food on Christmas day. During the day she wandered the streets peering through windows at happy scenes and felt so sad and at her lowest ebb. It was just so lonely. Eventually at the end of her tether, Kitty found a way to talk to an eminent radiologist, Dr James Brailsford. He was the first person to listen to her and arranged for her to train as a radiographer. He quietly supported her financially and he also encouraged her to talk about her experiences and to write them down.
Kitty studied hard and went along to the International Centre in Birmingham where she met my father, Rudi. They married in March 1949, which was against the rules of the hospital, but once again Dr Brailsford stepped in and smoothed it over with the authorities. In April Kitty was the only girl in her year to qualify. Dr Brailsford gave her a dictionary as a present and offered her a job at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital. My brother David was born in 1953 and I followed 2 years later. By this time my parents had bought a small house in a Birmingham suburb. Having found it impossible to raise a deposit they were helped yet again by Jane, who loaned them the money so that they could create a permanent home in which to bring up their children.
My mother started writing notes about her experiences whilst still working in the displaced persons camp and she finally turned this into a book called “I Am Alive” which she managed to get published in 1961. Again Dr Brailsford offered her a great deal of support in this endeavour. In 1978 Yorkshire Television invited her to go to Auschwitz to make a documentary about her experiences. The film was the first “fly on the wall” documentary to be made, won international acclaim and led to the writing of her book “Return to Auschwitz”. Following this Kitty began to acquire more knowledge about what had been going on during the war and how it had impacted upon her story. She began to travel and revisit many of the places she had been during the war and she then began to share all her memories and knowledge with other people – both young and old. In 1986 she was called and asked to give evidence at the trial of a former SS Officer in Auschwitz. She was able to identify him and relate some of the terrible things he may have done but the episode made Kitty realise that a witness is a witness only to what he or she actually saw. Being involved in the case helped to crystallize and clarify many events and things that had happened in Auschwitz and again she has worked tirelessly to pass this knowledge on to others. She has been involved with Beth Shalom in Nottingham from its earliest days and has frequently travelled to Poland with Stephen Smith and is delighted that so many adults and children have the opportunity to visit the centre.
She has also been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Holocaust Education Trust since it was established in 1988. This body played a big part in making sure that Holocaust studies became part of the National Curriculum and now receives government funding to take 2 sixth formers from every school in the country to Auschwitz on a regular basis. Kitty was also involved in the setting up of the permanent Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and worked hard to help establish the 27th January as Holocaust Memorial Day.
She has made many films and television programmes. She has appeared on Blue Peter, Radio 5 Live, the World Service, Channel 4 and this year appeared on the Discovery Channel on 27th January with a new programme that was made to bring her original Return to Auschwitz up to date and relevant for today’s young people to learn from.
Her energy is undeniable and enviable but what else has she managed to fit into the last 70 years? Well, she has skied as many times as possible every year from the late 1960s until last year and in the process has had operations on both knees (her consultant warned her she doesn’t have a third knee to ruin), damaged her thumb, crawled down a mountain in the fog and been rescued from a crevasse. She learnt how to wind surf in her late 50s and won many veterans’ medals and regularly travelled to Lanzarote and Lake Garda to practise. Every morning, no matter what the weather, she does about an hour of exercises outside and seems to believe that the colder it is the better. It regularly seems to be colder on her patio than anywhere else in Harpenden but I’m not usually up at that time to be absolutely certain. She walks every day and reads the papers and listens to the news with enthusiasm. She looked after my brother and I, baked us birthday cakes, made us fancy dress costumes, took us on interesting holidays and learnt alongside of us until she felt she had acquired something of the education she lost.
We have been enormously proud to accompany her to various occasions when she has received awards. She has been given awards from the University of Gloucestershire, the Royal Holloway, the University of Hertfordshire, the University of Birmingham and in 2003 an OBE from the Queen.
Her story is so complex and her survival pretty miraculous but there are many of us here who thank our lucky stars she did survive! Kitty we’re so glad you did and so proud of everything that you have done since. We want to take this opportunity to wish you “mazel tov” on the 70th anniversary of your liberation.