When Kitty Hart-Moxon, 97, was recently asked to choose one object that symbolised the horrors she survived at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz, Belsen, and on death marches, she had no doubts.
A glass container encasing the preserved tattooed numbers she had cut out of her own arm and also that of her mother, Rosa Lola, which she keeps in a cupboard at her home in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, is a shocking, tangible reminder.
“My number was 39934 with a little triangle at the bottom, and my mother’s was 39933”, she said.
In postwar Britain, while training as a nurse and then qualifying as a radiographer, she was acutely conscious of people staring at the number, clearly visible in her short-sleeved uniform. One doctor remarked he supposed it was her boyfriend’s number that she couldn’t remember. “And, that just did something to me. I decided then and there it’s got to come off.”
She was 25. ‘I thought it is better to remove it, and put it in a specimen jar. It will be there forever, whereas I will be gone,” she said. And later, after her mother died, she asked for her number to be cut out too.
In a video portrait for an upcoming exhibition by the Imperial War Museums (IWM), she appears, with her tattoos and alongside her grandson, Michael.
“It was the story of my life, wasn’t it? And I don’t think anybody else has got theirs because most people died with them. But I thought it will now be there for ever. It’s part of history. It’s important.”
The exhibition, Generations: Portraits of Holocaust Survivors, which opens at the IWM London on 6 August, brings together over 50 contemporary portraits of Holocaust survivors and their families taken in spring 2021.
Born in Poland, on the border with Germany and Czechoslovakia, Hart-Moxon and her mother survived the Lublin ghetto, many forced labour camps, Auschwitz, death marches and Bergen-Belsen before being liberated. She lost her teenage years, from the age of 12 to 18, along with her father, brother and many other relatives, to the Holocaust.
Photographer Simon Roberts has produced six video portraits of Holocaust survivors for the exhibition. Each incorporates the voice of a younger family member describing the legacy their relative’s experience has had on their own lives and upbringing. These family members, often grandchildren, are revealed later in each video portrait standing alongside their relative, as is the object the survivor sees as particularly significant.
Roberts was inspired by a Guardian report of research at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital on epigenetic inheritance. His video portraits will be exhibited alongside photographs, including three by the Duchess of Cambridge, on the theme of generations and the Holocaust.
Of Hart-Moxon, he said: “I asked each of them if they would provide something that was of significance to them. So I didn’t know anything about it until she presented it. Initially I wasn’t really quite sure what exactly I was looking at. When there was that sudden realisation that this was actually something removed from her own body, it was quite shocking. But, of course, it was a shocking act to be numbered in that way, and so I think it is a very powerful emblem of what humans can do to other humans.”
“For her, it is an important reminder and, I suppose, she sees it as is something that will live beyond her, which is the importance of part of that story. And, obviously, it has an intensity she wants to convey about what she experienced.
“For her this was one of the most powerful ways to convey the graphic nature of what she and her mother experienced.”
He said Michael, who speaks of his grandmother’s influence in the five-minute lifesize video, knew the numbers by heart. “They are ingrained. He wasn’t even looking at them when he was talking about them. But he knew the numbers”.