I am Alive!

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Memoir by Kitty Hart, 1961

I Am Alive! is Kitty Hart's first account of her and her mother's survival during World War II—hiding in Germany and Poland, then in Auschwitz and an array of camps and journeys in the collapsing Reich.

Hart came from a Jewish family in Bielsko, Poland. She was very active, a swimming champion who enjoyed and excelled at all sorts of sports. After the invasion of Poland, her family fled to Lublin in eastern Poland and tried to escape to the Soviet Union. Their attempt, however, failed, and they returned to Bielsko, eventually hiding with a local count. A Catholic priest provided Hart and her mother with false papers, and they "hid" as foreign workers in Germany. Soon, however, they were discovered—possibly betrayed—and she and her mother were interrogated and sent to Auschwitz. On her first day there, Hart met a gypsy who told her that "you will be one of the very few to see freedom again. Remember, you must never lose your will to live." And, indeed, Hart did not. Her time in hiding had taught her to be very alert and self-sufficient, and in Auschwitz she also showed a great deal of courage and initiative: she smuggled in potatoes and dodged forced labor by hiding during the day with a resting night shift. Finally, she got a job in Kananda, which provided her and her mother with food to smuggle back into the main camp. Hart was also lucky: her mother worked as a nurse in the camp hospital and was able to care for and protect her when she fell ill with typhus. It is her work in Kanada that kept Hart and her mother alive, and she is very aware of the bleak irony of this.

Hart's memoir relates some Auschwitz stories that are familiar from other accounts: Alma Rose's concerts, the woman who killed Rapporfurher Schillinger, and the escape, recapture, and execution of Mala. She also describes a gassing in some detail, one of the earliest accounts to do so. As the Eastern front moved closer, she and others were taken from the camp. As she leaves she reflects that, although the Nazis stole her school years (a constant theme of the book), the camp had "been a good schooling. Only here one could get to know the true character of a person, not like in civilisation where people tend to hid behind masks."

Toward the end of the war, Hart and her mother were among the prisoners taken from Auschwitz in trucks. Then began a longer and bewildering period of movements and camps and work, all under the shadow of increasingly frightened guards and with almost no food. Hart, her mother, and the other Auschwitz girls band together and get more vocal as they are moved throughout the collapsing Reich. They refuse, for example, to enter a bomb shelter they suspect is a gas chamber; at one point, starving, they beg to be allowed into a camp at whose gates they have been halted. Finally, they are liberated. They head off into the local town to find food but also to seek revenge. Hart, who has acquired a dagger, and others break into a house, and they find the family hiding in the cellar: "'Come on kill them, what are you waiting for?' … I don't know why, but suddenly I simply could not do it." They do, however, smash up house after house: "It was certainly hard work and I ached all over. But how satisfying destruction can be!" Her home and the rest of her family—except an uncle in England—were destroyed, so she sets her face to the future, "to get on with the almost impossible task of wiping out the past and coming to terms with the future." The story of this is taken up, to some extent, in her book Return to Auschwitz.

I Am Alive! is one of the clearest of the camp memoirs. Hart is uncompromising in her account of the terrors she and her mother had to face and how she endured them.

—Robert Eaglestone