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Thursday 14 December 2017

'It was a living hell': How four generations of one family learned to cope with horror of Auschwitz

Lily Ebert spent decades unable to speak of Auschwitz's horrors. To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, she tells her harrowing story to Joe Shute

Lily (front) with (left to right) granddaughter Nina, great-granddaughter Orli and daughter Bilha
Lily (front) with (left to right) granddaughter Nina, great-granddaughter Orli and daughter Bilha

Each Friday night, Lily Ebert's family gather for the traditional dinner customary in Jewish households.

Four generations sit down to eat and discuss the week that has passed. Towards the end of the meal, Lily's relatives notice she always keeps back a small piece of bread, which she folds away in a napkin.

Bread holds special meaning for Lily - one that only a dwindling few can ever truly understand. For months, it was all that she had to survive on in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she and her sisters were rationed one tiny crust spread with margarine each evening to supplement the foul dollop of soup given at lunch.

It was also in a hunk of stale bread that she managed to hide the gold pendant her mother gave her from their Nazi captors; she still wears it around her neck today.

When you have really starved, as Lily has, old habits die hard. "Even now, she can't bear food waste," says her granddaughter, Nina. "If she sees any of my children not finishing their bread, she will be really upset."

Nightmare

Last night, Lily lit a candle at the annual Holocaust Memorial Day Trust event in Westminster, ahead of today's Holocaust Memorial Day.

Now in her late 80s, in person she is bright and fierce and can recount in startling detail the horrors she faced. The Holocaust remains seared into her being, palpable in the tears that still fall and the fading Auschwitz stamp tattooed on her forearm - A10572.

So profound were her experiences that they have shaped not only Lily's life, but those of her three children, 10 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren. Her nightmare spans the generations. Through it she has inculcated in her family a desire to make the most of every single moment.

Lily's grandchildren recall being towed around museums by her from morning until night so they could soak up as much knowledge as possible.

Many of her British descendants have gone into careers such as therapy and healthcare because of a desire to make the world a better place.

"She instilled in us that you have to make the best of what you have," says Lily's daughter, Bilha, when I meet four generations of the family in her flat in Golders Green, north London. "That and the idea that, if you have to fight, then do it with two hands."

Lily was brought up in a comfortable home in Bonyhad, a small town in south-western Hungary, where she was the eldest of four sisters and also had two brothers.

She was still a girl when the Germans invaded in the spring of 1944.

"The war was already over," she remembers, "but they wanted to finish off the Jewish population from Hungary."

Lily, her mother, Nina, and siblings were forcibly moved into a ghetto (her father, Artur, had died from natural causes earlier in the war). Her eldest brother, Imre, was sent to a labour camp. That July, the rest of the family were put on the second-to-last transport out of Hungary, bound for Auschwitz.

The train journey, Lily recalls, took five days and nights with no food. They were stuffed into broiling cattle cars with up to 80 other people at a time.

"Quite a lot of people died on the way," she says. "A few times during the journey they stopped to take out the bodies."

When the train came to a halt and the doors were pulled open, Lily encountered a scene that, even 73 years on, she struggles to put into words. "People were moving, but they didn't look like humans," she says.

They were hauled out of the train "half-dead" and lined up. A man in SS uniform marched up and down the columns (she did not know it then, but he was Josef Mengele, the feared Auschwitz doctor known as the "Angel of Death").

Her mother, younger brother, Bela, and younger sister, Bertha, were told to go left; Lily and her other two sisters, Renee and Piri, went right. It was the last time they saw each other.

Lily recalls being told to take a shower and having her head shaved. When she came back outside, a chimney was blazing.

"I asked someone, 'What kind of factory is this?'," she says. "They told me, 'It's not a factory, that's where your family are'."

Lily describes Auschwitz as a living hell. They were worked beyond exhaustion and at night slept like sardines in squalid barracks.

"The crematoria were working day and night, but even so they could not finish everybody," she says.

Liberated

Somehow, she and her two sisters survived. After a few months, they were sent to work in a munitions factory in Leipzig, Germany, before being liberated by US troops in 1945.

Like many Holocaust survivors, Lily could not talk about her experiences following the war. She later married and moved to London with her three children. It was only when her stockbroker husband, Samuel, died 32 years ago that the anguish she had suppressed for so long came to the surface.

In 1997, Bilha's daughter, Nina, accompanied her grandmother to the camp. Last Dec- ember, Nina's daughter, Orli, visited on her 17th birthday.

"It made me aware of everything," says Orli. "My great-grandmother's positivity inspires me to be the best person I can."

When Lily revisited Ausch- witz decades on, she imagined she could still smell the burning bodies. Then, as now, her family gave her strength.

"It was a special feeling," she says. "To feel I could walk out of there when I wanted, with my children and grandchildren by my side. These were the people I had achieved it for."

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