LONDON — Lily Ebert spent Yom Kippur 1944 in Auschwitz and made herself a promise.
“If I ever came out of that place, I was determined to do something that would change everything,” she writes in her newly published autobiography. “I had to make sure that nothing like this could ever happen again to anybody. So I promised myself I would tell the world what had happened. Not just to me, but to all the people who could not tell their stories.”
Nearly eight decades on, few could dispute that 97-year-old Ebert has fulfilled that promise — many times over.
She has done so not just by telling her remarkable story in “Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live,” but also through years of Holocaust education work. Thanks to her great-grandson, Dov Forman, that work has gained a huge new social media audience during the pandemic. The pair have 1.4 million TikTok followers, and their social media output has an average of about 1 million views a day.
“You can see I am not a youngster anymore. I learn from young people and I am so happy,” Ebert told The Times of Israel during an interview together with 17-year-old Forman. “I was afraid that [this work] would finish with our generation but luckily I see it won’t finish. The youngsters will take over and they will, I hope, learn from it.”
Despite her impish good humor and self-evident joy at the close bond she has formed with her great-grandson through their work together, Ebert talks about her family’s tragic story with painful honesty and openness.
And indeed the trauma, which led to a long period of silence after her liberation, where she could not speak of her ordeal, made her question whether she would ever be able to keep the promise she made that September day amid the darkness of Auschwitz.
As she describes in her autobiography — co-authored by Forman and to which Prince Charles provided a foreword — Ebert’s childhood in Hungary was in many regards idyllic with barely a hint of the horror to come.
Her parents — “kind, calm, loving, and very lenient indeed” — provided a “kind of cocoon,” she writes. Ebert and her five brothers and sisters were “so safe and protected from the evils of the world, we didn’t even know evil existed.” Bonyhád, the small, busy market town in southwest Hungary in which the family lived, had a sizeable Jewish population, but, Ebert says, she knew nothing about the antisemitic laws introduced by Admiral Miklós Horthy’s authoritarian regime prior to World War II, nor about the growing power of the fascist Arrow Cross Party. Even the outbreak of war in 1939 barely seemed to register.
While her father’s death from pneumonia in 1942 brought this “happiest of childhoods” to an abrupt end, the family’s nightmare was just beginning. Two years later, in March 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary. With a grim inevitability, a raft of further restrictions on Jews were soon imposed. “The problem was in a way we were overprotected,” she reflects now. “Our parents didn’t want to let us see how bad it was, but it was bad… We were not prepared, we were protected.”
In late June 1944, after a short spell in the lower ghetto, Ebert and her family — minus her brother, Imi, who had been dragooned into the notorious Jewish labor battalions — began their journey to Auschwitz. It was, she later discovered, one of the last transports to the death camp carrying Hungarian Jews; indeed, three-quarters or more of the country’s Jewish population had already been exterminated by that point.
As Ebert notes, “the most painful” aspect of the Hungarian Shoah was the fact that it could not have been conducted without the assistance of other Hungarians. “My family lived there hundreds and hundreds of years,” she says. “They’re more Hungarian than Hungarians.”
Ebert graphically describes the transport to Auschwitz and the family’s arrival where she and her sisters, René and Piri, were separated from their mother and younger brother and sister, Béla and Berta, whom they never saw again.
“I realize that at this point, we simply went numb,” she writes. “I felt, yet I could not feel. I thought, yet I could not think. In the face of such brutality, nothing worked as it should.” This feeling of numbness was mixed with a sense of incomprehension. “You cannot fear the worst if you cannot imagine it,” she says.
Survival was, of course, random and arbitrary. But Ebert was sustained by her faith and by her overwhelming desire to keep the vow she had made to her father shortly before he died that she would look after her siblings. “I knew that as long as we were in this place, I could not take my eyes off my sisters,” she says. “I had to look after them… I was the one thing they could trust, the only point of stability.”
That feeling was almost instinctual, as Ebert demonstrates when describing how her sister René was picked out by an SS guard at a selection and ordered to follow him. “I instantly took her hand,” Ebert writes. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking. Her reflex was to obey, mine was to protect. I had no plan.” The guard, so accustomed to obedience, did not even notice the sisters’ act of defiance, as 20-year-old Ebert pulled the younger René back into the lineup.
Indeed, defiance — stealing potatoes and onions at Auschwitz and later sabotaging bullets in a munitions factory at the Buchenwald sub-camp of Altenburg — also gave Ebert added strength. “With your soul fed by a small act of resistance, even if it made no difference to anyone else, you imagined you could live for just a tiny bit longer,” she notes.
Ebert’s account of the train journey she and about 500 other female inmates made from Auschwitz to Altenburg in October 1944, is perhaps one of the most shocking passages in the book. As she peered through the slats of the train as it traveled through the German countryside she glimpsed a young woman pushing a white pram, a scene from “a very ordinary, normal-looking world, where nothing had changed at all, it seemed.”
“I thought the whole world had died,” she says. “Nothing is normal. And then you see an ordinary world. There are babies, children. The normality, you couldn’t take it in.”
The three sisters’ ordeal came to an end in April 1945, when, on a death march, the SS guards abruptly abandoned them in a village in Saxony close to the Czech border. Within minutes, United States Army tanks and jeeps appeared.
As the war ended, Ebert and her sisters were moved to Buchenwald, now under US control and operating as displaced person’s camp. They slept in one of the houses previously occupied by SS guards, although the sight of soup being served up in the same communal containers used at Auschwitz brought “a terrible feeling,” with all three sisters “overwhelmed with images and memories we couldn’t control.”
Escape came in the form of a Swiss government initiative to take in hundreds of Jewish children. Thanks to a none-too-subtle tip-off from a chaplain, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who was organizing the transport, Ebert altered her date of birth on her identity card so she met the under-16 age criteria.
In reality, however, Ebert’s arrival in Switzerland did not bring liberation. Instead, at last, the enormity of the trauma she had experienced hit home, together with the realization that “the world did not want to know” the horrors they had endured. “I felt I had to keep quiet,” she writes. “The promise I made myself in Auschwitz was slowly crushed. How could I tell the truth to a world that wasn’t listening?”
Feeling that they no longer had a home in Hungary and that Europe was unsafe for Jews, Ebert and her sisters emigrated to Palestine with the help of Agudat Yisrael in June 1946. She married her husband Shmuel 12 days after Israel declared independence in 1948, as sirens wailed and bombs fell.
Marriage brought Ebert security and, by the end of 1957, her third child. But life in Israel still did not bring the opportunity to fulfill her promise. Instead, a silence about the Shoah — “national as well as personal” — enveloped her. “It was both an individual trauma and a social one,” she recalls.
The survivors’ stories were, Ebert says, “so terrible… [they] seemed unbelievable… People could not understand, it was impossible [and] people did not want to know about it.”
Asked whether she discussed what she had been through with other survivors, Ebert responds, “No, it hurt too much.”
Indeed, Ebert did not even talk about the past with those closest to her. Still anxious to protect her sisters, she felt it best not to talk about their shared wartime experience. Her husband, who had emigrated to Palestine from Hungary in 1938, feared upsetting his wife by asking questions. “A warm-hearted and generous man, he imagined that talking and remembering would only cause me pain,” Ebert writes. She still believes that it may have been “too fresh, too raw” to talk then about what had occurred in Auschwitz.
However, Ebert also now thinks that her desire to shield her children from their mother’s story — to give them an upbringing “totally free of horror and fear” — may have come at a price. “You can protect a child too much,” she says. “Now I can see that they always understand more than you imagine.”
Ebert’s silence continued even as the Eichmann trial forced the rest of the country to face the full horror of the Nazis’ crimes. Years later, when one of her young grandchildren asked about the tattoo on her arm — the subject of which was “completely taboo” — Ebert brushed the question aside.
Her husband’s death in the mid-1980s marked a turning-point — albeit one sparked by a tragic bereavement — in Ebert’s life. “All the grief I had kept inside since Auschwitz-Birkenau finally escaped, heaped on top of my agony at losing Shmuel,” she writes.
Now living in London, Ebert helped to establish a survivors’ group. While still not able to talk with her family directly about her past, Ebert also started to work with Judith Hassan, an expert in Holocaust trauma, to record her memories. That process enabled her to both acknowledge the defining nature of her experiences, and also to make a critical decision: in May 1988, along with her daughter, Esti, Ebert joined a Jewish group from Britain that was visiting Auschwitz. The only survivor in the party, she also agreed to say a few words to the others about her experiences.
The visit proved pivotal, Ebert says. She began not simply to talk with her family about her past, but also to fulfill the promise she had made decades earlier. “I was ready, and the world seemed more willing to listen,” she writes. Soon after, Ebert agreed to speak in public for the first time at a conference for Holocaust educators. It was, she says, “the beginning of a whole new life for me.”
She has since told her story countless times, from talks at the British Houses of Parliament to visits to primary schools — including the one her grandchildren attended. In 1996, on the exact day she had arrived in Auschwitz 52 years before, Ebert returned there again, this time with three of her granddaughters.
Amid the pain, Ebert says she felt a “sense of satisfaction” on each of the occasions she has visited Auschwitz. “I went into Auschwitz when I wanted and I didn’t go alone; I went with my children and grandchildren,” she says. She felt as if she were saying to “the murderers” who had wanted to kill her and countless others: “I am here, I came in because I wanted to. I won.”
With the assistance of her great-grandson, Ebert’s story is being told to ever-wider audiences. As Forman writes in “Lily’s Promise,” the pandemic — when life felt so fragile and unpredictable — was a powerful motivator for writing the book. “I don’t want these stories to disappear. I want to find a way to hold on to all that Lily’s given us, forever,” he says.
He says that while Ebert, whom he describes as the “queen of the family,” has always been close with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their collaboration on the book further strengthened this relationship. “Spending so long writing the book and delving so deep into someone’s history… is bound to bring you closer,” Forman says. “I’ve learned so much from her.”
He believes, too, that the four-generation gap between his great-grandmother’s Holocaust experiences and today has “made it easier for her to talk to me, rather than my mum or my grandparents. I think I was less afraid to ask [questions] than maybe my mum or grandparents would have been, and she was less afraid to answer,” Forman says.
While sharing his great-grandmother’s story was the “primary focus” of the project, Forman says he also wanted to ensure that the stories of “all of those in the Holocaust, and the Holocaust as a whole, are not forgotten,” especially at a time of rising antisemitism in Europe and the UK.
The pandemic not only led to “Lily’s Promise,” it also forced Forman to explore new ways — beginning with simply posting photos and videos Ebert had previously made — in which his great-grandmother could take her message online. Aside from Twitter, where their posts average about a million views each, Ebert is to be the first Holocaust survivor to appear on the gaming platform Twitch. Their TikTok live talks instantly amass around 5,000 viewers. There is, Ebert jokes, “no limit” to their potential reach.
“It’s insane,” says Forman of the response. “I think it shows there is a space for good on social media. Of course, we have to be wary of the dangers, but just as easily as hate can spread, positivity and education and good messages can too.”
That was evident in Forman’s first foray into social media on Ebert’s behalf. It began in July last year when he chanced upon a German banknote among his great-grandmother’s photos inscribed with the words: “A start to a new life. Good luck and happiness.” It was given to her just before she left for Switzerland by a Jewish American soldier who worked as an assistant to chaplain Schacter. She had treasured the gift. “[It was] so heartfelt and personal… the first spontaneous human kindness we’d experienced for a long, long time,” Ebert writes.
Forman told his great-grandmother that he could trace the anonymous soldier within 24 hours by posting about the banknote on social media. Within a few hours, he had 8,000 Twitter notifications and a trail which eventually led to an emotional video call with the family of the late Hyman Schulman.
“Your father showed me there was good in humanity and gave me hope for the future,” Ebert tells Schulman’s son, Jason, who lives in New Jersey. The reunion, she declares, is a miracle. “It’s the ultimate proof that the Nazis didn’t win.”
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