Exiting Yad Vashem in 2016, the sudden heat of the sun added to the unexpected moisture on my face. I had not realized that I had been crying. Leaving the Children’s Memorial, I stumbled outside into the sunshine with an ache like someone had just punched me in my stomach. I had stood in the dark auditorium lit only by the flickering of candles and listened as children’s names, ages, and country of origin were read in a monotone that filled the almost empty space with imaginary faces that the world would never know. 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered during Shoah just because of who they were. The reading of the names is numbing. It takes over three years for the names to be read before the roll call rewinds itself to the beginning. Knowing first hand the pain of losing a child, I could not begin to fathom the 1.5 million reasons for pain I was listening to. As a mother I wept for the children, as a human being I was enraged at the world.
I recently got to “meet” Lily Ebert, who as a young girl managed to live through the horrors of the Holocaust. Lily Ebert is a Hungarian Jew. Rounded up with her mother and four other siblings, she recounts her journey from the sleepy little town and vibrant Jewish community of Bonyhad in southwestern Hungary, to Auschwitz. She vividly recollects how the normal quickly turned into a nightmare, and how the world stood still and silent as millions marched to their death wondering what they had done to deserve it.
In her book Lily’s Promise, Lily took me on a horrendous journey which left me realizing how little I knew about “the final solution” and the predetermined evil that allowed it to happen. The Holocaust encompassed selection and murder. But worse, it was the insidious, intentional, and slow process of dehumanization and then annihilation of a selective group of people. Stripping them of all semblance of human identity and dignity in conditions that were animalistic. Removing any identifying features of their former human self which included shaving heads, no underwear, torn clothes, starvation, and replacing names with numbers. Lily described this slow social degradation process in detail. Her family, like the majority of Jewish families in Europe, waited until it was too late to realize or understand that the expulsion from communities they had lived in for centuries and called home was deliberate and calculated.
Lily’s father passed away several months before all Jews in Bonyhad were forced to move out of their homes and into the ghetto. Thousands forced to live in conditions so poor and unhealthy, that most died when they arrived. Ghetto “residents” were only allowed to get food twice a week and only at designated times which often meant that they received dregs. An insidious method of dehumanization that makes one lose hope in oneself and humanity. But even in the Ghetto hope was alive. Rabbis uplifted people and families shared the little they had. This could not last forever or so they thought and secretly hoped.
Lily writes with anguish and often anger on how Jews were deceived all the way to their death. From one upheaval to the next, they were always reassured that they would be taken care of. This despite the misery they lived in. But being Jewish, they had hope. Hope is what kept Lily and two of her siblings alive. Besides, most of those in authority were Hungarian like them. The naivete was set in the mindset that there was no logic to what was happening.
The selection of the fittest was implemented even in the ghetto. Young healthy youth were sent to the fields or other manual labor as required. The war had inadvertently produced labor shortages. The Nazis decided that Jews can make up the deficit by providing free labor. Even at this point in time, it would never cross the minds of Lily, her siblings, and young friends that this was the prelude to hell.
Throughout her book (co-written by her great grandson Dov Forman), Lily describes the disorientation and wonderment as they transitioned from one strange situation to another. The confusion was intended to keep them unsettled and in the dark as to what was really going on. Lily recalls asking herself as her family and thousands of others waited on the platforms of a freight depot: “What could be the purpose of bringing us all here?” She so poignantly added: “Three quarters or more of Jews in Hungary had already been exterminated. But we knew nothing of this”. The Nazis promised a life of almost reasonable living, the mothers and the older women will take care of the young children, the ill, and the frail, while the youth and men will go out to work. What could be more normal than that?
The plan suddenly unraveled when thousands were brough to the freight yard at Pecs and men with guns and dogs started pushing families with children and babies toward freight cars already packed with people. Hungarian police assisted in the round up. She described her family shoved in a wagon already full to such an extent that one could hardly breath and definitely unable to sit. The stench of unwashed bodies, vomit, and fear was unbearable. Two buckets hung in a corner, one for water and one for excrement The stench grew as the July heat beat on the train. Every other day, the train stopped for the dead to be unloaded and counted and the buckets to be replaced. Counting seems to have been the most imperative order of any given day. Doors opened, fresh air came in, they breathed it with pleasure unable to leave. For five days they endured conditions no human should endure.
Lily describes the final destination with clarity. Doors opening, sunlight, and hope. But hope quickly dissipates as uncertainty, fear, and inhuman smells penetrate the air. “…hard-looking men in striped trousers and shirts” who were selected prisoners eager to inflict pain on others in exchange for an extra portion of bread, were given the task of organizing the human chaos that ensued. Luggage grabbed from the hands of men, women and children, while assured that they would retrieve it later was piled in a sordid heap as the shoving and pushing continued. “Schnell” echoed in the air. “Quick”. Before they realized where they were or what was happening, they were forced into two columns of human misery. Lily was glad that her family was intact and still together. Her mother was holding her two younger sisters’ hands.
In a blink of an eye, they were facing a German officer, Lily described him as elegant with spit shined boots, white gloves, and a baton. Without a sound he gestured with his baton left or right. In an instant, Lily’s mother and two siblings were motioned to the left, and Lily and her two sisters to the right. The selection was complete. Later, Lily realized that her mother and two siblings were led straight to the gas chambers. Lily and her sisters survived to tell a story.
But the story took a long time to be told, because living through unimageable horrors was indescribable and tiring. The book threw me back to a conversation I had with our Israeli guide back in 2016 outside Yad Vashem. His father was a survivor. Like many other survivors, he never mentioned the Holocaust. It was a door that could not be opened easily because he was afraid that he would inflict his nightmarish memories on his family. But one day the grandson asked the inevitable question, “grandad can you tell me about the war?”. The grandfather, silent for so many years, didn’t stop talking for the next two days. The story started to be told.
Lily Ebert called her book Lily’s Promise, because amid the horrors of Auschwitz, she made a promise to herself, to those who were daily “selected” and never seen again, and to her mother and two siblings, that if she survived, she would tell the story. But through the incarceration, the death march before liberation, and liberation, Lily could not “tell” because she could not bring herself to tell. The horrors were too vivid to relive. She also convinced herself that nobody wanted to listen.
Lily’s journey from liberation to Israel and finally the UK brought its own mental challenges. On being liberated, living in Switzerland for a short while, and then immigrating to Israel, Lily still lived in the shadow of death that had surrounded her and her sisters. When liberated, survivors questioned the world. Why did the world allow the systematic degradation and murder of millions? Jews, Roma, and homosexuals were among those murdered. But Jews made up for the six million accounted. The Third Reich in its Aryan superiority demanded accountability. Lily writes that during the hour-long roll calls in all weather conditions on the lager in Auschwitz and later Buchenwald, even corpses of the dead were brought to be counted because numbers had to be precise.
When the Americans liberated Buchenwald, Lily, her sisters, and hundreds of other young women were taken into safety. Shaven, emaciated, dirty, in torn clothes, most bare footed, and bug eyed, they drove through small picturesque window flower box German towns and villages where normality seemed vulgar. Such moments left survivors threatened by their own vulnerability and questioning their resistance to evil. Lily recalls having so many doubts and questions. Why didn’t we resist? Why couldn’t I save my mother? During her early days in Tel Aviv, Lily was forced to remain silent because survivors were often viewed and taunted by young zealot Zionists as “giving up” easily. Doubts put a lid on her promise.
Lily and her sisters received their tattoos in Buchenwald. Lily’s number is A-10572. The tattoo was a source of continual silent discomfort to her and later her family. Her husband Scmuel always remained prudent and non-inquisitory. He knew the story, or at least a story, but kept quiet. As her children grew up, they also remained “mum” on the Holocaust. Tiptoeing around the subject. Years later they all discovered that their desire not to inflict pain to one another caused more pain. Lily felt guilty of burdening her kids, and her kids felt guilty of bringing up painful memories. Each unaware of the need to talk to each other and to tell the story.
It was grandchildren who finally opened the door to the flood of memories that had to be shared. Lily realized that there could never be a “never again” unless the story was told and repeated over and over again. When one of the grandchildren asked about the blue now faded tattoo, Lily realized that the time had come to keep her promise. Lily spoke.
In 1988, Lily visited Auschwitz for the first time with her daughter and granddaughter. The smells hit her like that first time they arrived on July 9, 1944. She had to muster all her strength to continue. The train platforms were gone, but the barracks, guard towers, and ominous chimneys still held the cries of pain and horror of those who were chosen to be murdered, and those who endured and survived. Some preferred to throw themselves on the electric fences and die rather than live another day in hell. What was always missing in Auschwitz were birds. They were still missing when Lily returned. Even nature could not stomach the evil of the past. Lily made a second trip a few years later with her granddaughter. Her bitter anguish was that she could never pray over the grave of her mother or siblings. They were ash thrown in the Polish countryside. As she later opined, Poland held the ash of millions.
When Scmuel developed heart disease, the family moved to the UK, where children got married, grandchildren were born, and eventually Scmuel passed away. The passing of Scmuel and the shiva afterwards was a painful cleansing for Lily. The pain of losing her husband brought the accumulated grief of losing her mother and siblings all over again. Graves she couldn’t visit and words that were never said. She wept for herself, the six million Jews, and thousands of others who were exterminated for who they were. She wept for her husband who she loved unconditionally, and for the world who must carry the burden of guilt for allowing the Holocaust to happen in the first place. She wept for days.
At 99, (as of this writing) Lily Ebert continues to tell the story and keeping her promise. She has been on the forefront in encouraging survivors to tell their own story because each story has a different pain, fear, loss, and hope. She speaks in schools, conferences, and during Covid managed to learn Zoom to connect with journalists and interviewers. Although almost 80 years have passed since Auschwitz, Lily can never step back from Auschwitz. While addressing Jewish children, she stopped for a moment in realization that 80 years ago if they were in Hungary, they would have all been murdered.
Lily’s story is often accusatory. She recalls watching the Eichmann trial and feeling nothing for either the man or the process. No matter how many go on trial, the enormity of the Holocaust must also be placed on the shoulders of all those countries who were told what was happening and ignored it. Chamberlain cozied up to Hitler for “peace” while reports of concentration camps had already reached Britain. The US waited until it got attacked at Pearl Harbor before considering entering the European war.
I live 40 kilometers from Flossenberg, a concentration camp in Bavaria, very close to the Czech border. 250,000 slave laborers died of malnutrition and harsh cold conditions. Several hundred political prisoners were executed. Flossenberg lies in the beautiful hills of the Oberphalz. One can miss it unless looking for it. A picturesque town nestled in a forested area engulfed in Bavarian charm. The camp sits smack in the middle of the town. The same butchers, bakers, and homes still surround the camp. Still belonging to the same families who used the prisoners as free laborers. On the hills looking down on the misery were homes belonging to the SS and Camp Commandants. These beautiful homes with window flower boxes housed monsters. These same homes now belong to “normal” homeowners. How one can live in them is beyond me. How one can wake up each morning and look outside at a crematorium while going to the butcher for a beef steak is unthinkable. How one can drink coffee outside a quaint Bavarian bakery opposite the gates to misery is unimaginable. I’ve taken visitors to Flossenberg many times. Each time I feel my throat closing in and I can’t breath.. I hear the voices of those who endured and of those who died. The Holocaust is required learning in all German schools, and camps like Flossenberg are frequented by local students. Nurnberg has also kept all records of the Third Reich and a Documentary Center features interviews and testimonials from survivors and the Nurnberg Trials. Is it enough? Will it ever be enough?
“Never Again” is on the forefront on Yom Hashoah but often gets back on the back burner of life when ceremonies end, and life goes back to normal. Unfortunately, people like Lily Ebert do not have the luxury of forgetting or remembering only one day a year. Am I also guilty of “remembering” because its on my calendar? After reading Lily’s book, I realized that survivors will soon pass away, and it will be up to their families and the rest of the world to keep the story alive. It is our obligation to keep telling their story.
H.R.H Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales wrote the Forward to Lily’s book quoting the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks as he differentiates between history and memory: “History, is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is a part of who I am.” According to Rabbi Sacks, history is about information on the past, while memory is about the past but at the present. A poignant summation of how survivors like Lily Ebert transformed history into reality through their memories and painfully bring their past to our present.
“You cannot fear the worst if you cannot imagine it” (Lily Ebert)
Ebert L, & Forman D. 2021. Lily’s Promise. How I survived Auschwitz and found the strength to live.