Many of us have a favourite pair of shoes, piece of jewellery or work of art that hangs in our homes. Something that sparks conversation or makes us smile. But, I doubt there are many of us who have as treasured item as Lily Ebert – the gold pendant that she wears every day. It may not be worth much, but it is priceless to her.
Lily was born in Hungary in 1923, the eldest daughter in a family of six children.
When the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944, Lily’s happy childhood was changed forever. Her observant family, who lived peacefully alongside their non-Jewish neighbours, found themselves forced into a ghetto, cramped into shared living spaces, with barely access to sanitation, let alone the freedom to practise their faith.
Months later, at 14 years old, Lily – along with her mother, younger brother and three sisters – was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Lily says it was lucky that her father died in the ghetto – that at least he has a grave. It is impossible to imagine but that is the horror of the Holocaust.
On arrival, Lily’s mother Nina, younger brother Bela, and younger sister Berta were immediately sent to the gas chambers whilst Lily and her sisters Renee and Piri were selected for work in the camp. In the final moments Lily had with her mother, they switched shoes. Lily knew that her mother had hidden some jewellery, including a gold pendant, in the heel of that shoe. Almost all Jews who arrived in Auschwitz were stripped of everything they owned. But not Lily. The Nazis had run out of shoes to give to her transport. So she kept the shoes, and miraculously the necklace survived Auschwitz hidden in the shoe heel and then hidden in scraps of bread – possibly the only piece of gold to have left Auschwitz with its original, rightful owner.
Four months after arriving in the camp, Lily and her two sisters were transferred to a munitions factory near Leipzig in Germany where they worked until they were sent on a death march, eventually liberated by American forces in 1945.
In Auschwitz, Lily promised herself that if she survived she would tell her story. That she would tell the world.
Since her liberation, Lily has made it her mission to make sure that the world knows what she and millions of others endured during the darkest days in human history. She’s accrued over one million followers on TikTok. She has met royalty, politicians and celebrities, spoken to schools across the country, and regularly features in the news.
When you witness the strength, determination, spirit, and unstoppable energy of Lily, you cannot help but be astounded at all that she has suffered and lost, and all that she has achieved. Just as she found a way to keep hold of her pendant against all odds, just as she found the strength to keep going to look after her younger sisters and the extraordinary determination to tell the world, today, at 97, having recovered from Coronavirus earlier in the year, Lily finds a way to keep telling her story. And when faced with antisemitism, and she does even today, her immediate answer is to keep going.
Phenomenal does not come close to describing this incredible woman.
So, as we start the new year, we renew our pledge to all our beloved survivors – that we will carry the torch of memory long into a future when the light of the witnesses cannot burn as bright. That we will use the same vigour and drive to ensure people know about the past and learn the lessons for today. Lily’s own great grandson Dov Forman is one of those torchbearers. He is leading the next generation, but he cannot do it alone. It is up to us all to take on the baton and ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are never forgotten and that our precious eyewitnesses are remembered and treasured, just as Lily treasures the pendant she wears around her neck every single day.
You can see Lily and Dov being interviewed by Rob Rinder MBE at the Holocaust Educational Trust here. Their book, Lily’s Promise is out now.