On Holocaust Memorial Day 2019, it was revealed that five per cent of adults in Britain don’t believe the Holocaust took place. A poll found 8 per cent of British adults think its scale has been exaggerated. Antisemitic incidents were reported at 19 UK universities in the two years to 2017.
This is the story of a woman who saw the Holocaust and survived it.
This is Iby’s Story.
1935, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia
Born into a well-respected Jewish family Iby Knill grew up in the city of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the eldest of two children. Blissfully unaware of the political tensions rising across Europe at the time, Iby spent her childhood cycling, swimming – anything athletic. The Knills lived in an affluent pocket of the city, so Iby grew up, in her words, ‘exceedingly sheltered’, surrounded by cooks, maids and a governess.
As a child, she attended a local German grammar school in the city and could speak four languages: German, Slovak, Czech and Hungarian. After her school friend Greta, began to ignore her and her exam results were capped for being a Jewish student, Iby began to notice a shift in attitudes. Although still adamant that nothing separated her from any of her school friends, she was soon forced to admit that life would be different for her as a young Jewish girl in Czechoslovakia.
1933 marked the year of Adolf Hitler’s accession to power, westward and across the border into Germany. In the midst of the falling Weimar Republic the Nazi Party rose, undyingly devoted to the creation of a pure Aryan race. This claim of racial superiority and the desire to genetically improve the population would be used to justify the systematic persecution of those who did not fit the Nazi model. Although predominantly targeting the Jewish community, the Nazis persecuted multiple other minority groups deemed incompatible with the regime. By 1945, over six million Jewish lives were claimed – the genocide that would later become known as the Holocaust.
By the age of 22, Iby had fled home, lived in four different countries, and endured 40 days in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Witness to the extremes of human cruelty and confused why she survived when so many others died, it took Iby 60 years to share her story as a survivor of the Holocaust. Compelled by the vows she made to others along her journey, Iby promised to share her story and their stories of human suffering.
Now aged 95, a university graduate and author of best-selling memoir, ‘The Woman Without a Number’, Iby lives in the U.K and dedicates her time to recounting her story to young people. In a political climate marred by intolerance, she hopes that this will act as a warning to younger generations.
By aged 19, Iby had become accustomed to the treatment of Jews in Czechoslovakia, which she described then as a ‘Nazi puppet state’. The introduction of the Nuremberg Laws, a comprehensive set of anti-Jewish legislation introduced seven years prior, was used by the Nazis to legitimise anti-semitism. Iby recalled the restrictions imposed on Jews: she couldn’t sit down on public transport due to fears of contamination, and she often queued for hours in shops in which she often was often then ejected.
“You had to strip and hold your clothes above your head. If you swayed or stumbled you were taken away and never seen again”
The family business, set up by her maternal grandfather, sold the latest technology ranging from prams to gramophones. It soon became Aryanised as the Nazi influence increased. Knowing that life was no longer safe in Bratislava, Iby’s parents forced her to flee to Hungary under forged papers in January 1942. With only the clothes on her body, she crawled across the border into Hungary, fleeing persecution. Having been refused help by her frightened aunt Bella, she stayed with a cousin in Budapest. Now accustomed to another rule: stay quiet and stay hidden, Iby claimed that “the secret of survival was not to be noticed”. After four months in hiding, she was caught by Hungarian police as an illegal immigrant and taken to a refugee camp in the north eastern region of Ricse.
The German occupation of Hungary a month later marked a further intensification of Nazi rule. Loaded onto a cattle wagon at the refugee camp, Iby unknowingly began her arduous five-day journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. As men in striped pyjamas opened the gates which read “Arbeit Macht Frei”, ‘work sets you free’, she sang the Hungarian national anthem.
Iby recalled the drill for new arrivals: stripped, shaved, showered.
“Every morning, midday and evening there was Apell – everyone was counted, this could take three or four hours. You had to strip and hold your clothes above your head. If you swayed or stumbled you were taken away and never seen again…”. It soon became clear that this was not just a labour camp.
A month passed in Auschwitz . Enduring the horrendous conditions, deprived of food and human dignity, Iby spent hours fantasizing about mashed potato, a dream she could almost taste.
“Holocaust denial is ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous and is not true”
The infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele had requested prisoners, particularly doctors and nurses, to volunteer at a slave labour camp in Germany. Knowing that this could be a temporary salvation from her otherwise impending demise, Iby volunteered. Alongside 530 Hungarian women, she travelled to the northern town of Lippstadt, where she would lead a hospital unit caring for patients of the slave labour camp. It was here that her perfect German saved her.
Following the evacuation of the hospital in Lippstadt at the end of March 1945, Iby, alongside the other volunteers, was forced to march to Bergen-Belsen, another concentration camp 215 kilometres away.
Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945
The journey to Bergen Belsen was tiresome – walking in the night, hiding in barns during the day. As those who were too weak to continue lagged behind, an officer would follow, a gunshot would be fired and then only one set of footsteps could be heard. On April 1st, as Iby and the fellow volunteers continued their journey through fields, one volunteer spotted American tanks in the distance. Hundreds of women ran towards the tanks. A few days later, Iby was liberated on Easter Sunday.
Both Iby’s mother and brother had survived the Nazi regime, and the family were reunited in Bratislava before the war was over. Her brother, through personal connections, had been in hiding in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, whilst her mother suffered a similar fate as a prisoner in Auschwitz and was later liberated by the Russians. The year before, Iby’s father had been one of the last victims to be gassed in Auschwitz before the Nazis began destroying the gas chambers and crematoriums.
8th May 1945 marked V-day, the end of the war in Europe, and what would have been Iby’s late father’s birthday. The Nazis unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. In an effort to suppress the trauma of her past, Iby moved to England two years later with her new husband Bert, a British Army Officer.
“For fifty years I lived the life of an Army Officer’s wife. I made his family and its history mine. It was only after his death and after my children had left home and made their own lives that I felt the need – and the duty – to recall my own past and to record my own history”.
Face to Face with Iby Knill
I met Iby in the University of Sheffield’s Diamond cafe before the talk she was giving to a sold-out audience of students.
I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – perhaps someone frail and soft-spoken, as befitting a 95-year-old woman. But her dry sense of humour and quick wit soon defied all my expectations.
She was not telling her story for sympathy, but instead as a warning of the effects of allowing hateful attitudes to breed within societies. In a time of volatile politics where tolerance is scorned, Iby’s story is ever more pertinent. I spoke to Iby to ask her opinion on the situation today.
“Why would Germany have 55 million documents and make this up? It’s simply too big of a lie”
I brought up the statistic that a recent poll showed that there are over 2.6 million Britons today who believe that the Holocaust is a myth, but she started laughing before I’d even finished my sentence.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous and is not true. The International Tracing Service in Germany had 55 million documents about 17 million people affected by the Holocaust.”.
When I asked her about the rise in Holocaust denial and anti-semitism at U.K. universities specifically, her response was similarly strong-minded.
“The funny thing is that the people who do this, do not stand up for themselves, they are cowards. Their actions are very much hidden in such a cowardly way. How do you act against people who won’t talk to you about this? What is needed is dialogue, where you can discuss why people feel this way otherwise it is hopeless, you have to be able to listen and talk to people”. Iby has actually invited Holocaust deniers to meet with her, but there has not been much response.
“I have done so for years, nobody has come to me not one person. I have 32 documents from the International Tracing Service who tracked all of my movements at the camps. Why would a bureaucratic country like Germany have 55 million documents and make this up? It’s simply too big of a lie”.
On a wider scale, Iby views the current level of discrimination and prejudice in global politics today as a serious problem.
“Today it is particularly important that we do not let the ‘us and them’ syndrome flourish, it is very easy to blame others on things being wrong without looking at yourself and seeing if you contributed, willingly or unknowingly, where you blame others – actions by proxy. It’s too easy to blame somebody else for what we should be taking responsibility for and we have a great tendency for that today. There is intolerance not just against Jews, but against Muslims, against those of a different class, different gender, somebody who is seen as different”.
- We are incredibly grateful to Iby Knill for coming to share her story at the university. Gabe Milne, president of the University of Sheffield Jewish Society which hosted the event, said ‘We were delighted to see such a huge response to bringing Iby onto campus. As antisemitism reaches its highest level in recent history, it is more important than ever to remember what such vicious hatred can lead to. It’s on all of us to make sure it never happens again.’
- Page design by Ewan Somerville, Online News Editor.