Ask anyone today to cite an act of human evil, and chances are they will name the Holocaust. As Holocaust Memorial Day approaches, Iby Knill came to speak at the University of York about her experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust. A charismatic and inspiring figure, with an astonishing sense of humour, Iby recounted to us her story, and experience of the Second World War. Aged 94, she is determined to uphold a promise she made to a twin at Auschwitz: to tell their story. Nearly 73 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, it is more important to educate and remember, than ever.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1923, Iby’s life until the Nuremberg Laws rarely referenced the fact she had been born Jewish. It was not until she was forced to change schools as a result of new discriminatory practices, that Iby began to factor her religion into her life at all – although to great amusement, she admitted she was not too upset about being one of only 17 girls at her new school. After German troops began rounding up young Jewish girls to “service” front line troops, escape from Czechoslovakia seemed to be the only option. Iby ended up cycling to the Hungarian border, before crawling across the no man’s land that separated the two countries (her family were later to escape by rowing down the Danube). Once settled in Budapest, she became involved in the White Rose resistance movement, aiding Allied air crew in their escape out of occupied territory. In May 1942, Iby was arrested and tortured for information, before being released, re-arrested as an illegal immigrant, and then granted parole to be with her family, who by this time had arrived in Hungary. In June 1944, Iby, alongside 3000 Hungarian Jews, was rounded up by German officers, and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Iby spoke to us of the brutal conditions in the camp; lack of food and water, the disappearance of anybody who became ill or weak, being forced to stand for hours at a time without moving or collapsing. She believes that her status as a political prisoner in Hungary possibly saved her life, as did the risk she took by volunteering to join a slave labour transport and work in Lippstadt medical unit and factory. Her moment of freedom came when having run out of material for the factory to work, all prisoners were marched towards Bergen-Belsen. On this long march, their ordeal was finally ended. American tanks could be seen in the distance, the German guards began to retreat, and the prisoners were liberated. It was Easter Sunday 1945.
This story is made even more remarkable by the fact that Iby Knill did not speak of the horrors and atrocities she had witnessed until over fifty years later, and until after her husband had died and her children had flown the nest. Aged 75, Iby began to write about her experiences as a Jew and political prisoner at Auschwitz, and to date has spoken to 50,000 young people.
There is not much that can be said about the Holocaust that has not already been said, and most of us today can hardly imagine the trauma that survivors live with. Iby did not shy away from the horror inflicted upon millions of people, but nevertheless, her message was one of hope. “If you don’t have hope you are done for,” she concluded in answer to a question. This sentiment is one which is much needed across the world, especially given global politics and current events. She hopes that young people will bring the change that is needed, and make our communities and nations more tolerant, accepting and kinder places – in her own words “all you can do is live in such a way that you do not do any harm.”
That a person who has seen the extent of human cruelty can find in in her heart to be hopeful is truly inspiring. As her talk ended, with a poem entitled ‘I was there’, you could have heard a pin drop. As one of the last remaining survivors, Iby speaks regularly about her experiences. But those who witnessed it firsthand will not live forever. It is up to us to ensure that this dark period of human history is never forgotten, to stand up to those who would repeat it, and to fight for a better world. Her parting message was a plea to remember two things: that under the skin we are all the same, and that every single one of us is capable of making a difference.
Holocaust Memorial Day is Saturday 27th January – the anniversary of the liberation of Aushwitz. On Wednesday 24th 600 candles will be lit at the York Minster to remember the lives taken.
Iby has written two books since revealing her story: The Woman Without a Number and The Woman With Nine Lives. Her website is here: http://ibyknill.co.uk/index/
This event was free to attend, but donations were taken for a Holocaust Heritage and Learning Centre in Huddersfield, an initiative of the Holocaust Survivor’s Friendship Association. If you would like to donate you can do so here: