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Iby Knill

Camp survivor

Iby Knill and her brother Tomy in 1938. (c) HSFA
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Iby fled to Hungary to escape Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, but was later deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was liberated on a death march on Easter Sunday 1945.  

 

“I think that unless we can teach people to understand each other, to tolerate and respect the differences, there is really no future for mankind.”

 

Life in Czechoslovakia

Iby grew up in an educated, cultured family where she and her brother, Tomy, spoke several languages. Religion played little part in Iby’s childhood. She attended a German grammar school where she flourished, until she was excluded for being Jewish and had to then attend a Jewish school.

After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia life became increasingly difficult for Jewish people. For example, they were no longer allowed to sit on public transport, and were required to wear a yellow star on their clothing. Iby hated wearing a star and would cover it with her scarf as she walked to school. The persecution also meant that her family was forced out of their home to allow a German family to move in, and they were instead given a small flat on the outskirts of town.

Iby with her parents and younger brother.

 

1942

One day in 1942 Iby’s mother received a phone call from a friend asking if the Germans had taken Iby. She explained that Jewish girls were being rounded up to work as prostitutes for German soldiers on the Eastern Front. Iby’s mother quickly dressed her as a peasant girl then put her and a cousin on a train to the village where her grandparents lived. Iby hid in the village for several days until her parents could find a way to get her to safety.

“We cycled part of the way and we then walked, it was February 1942, and everything was frozen and cold, and then crawled across no-man’s-land into Hungary.”

‘Safety’ for Iby meant stealing across the border into Hungary in the middle of the night. In Budapest she hid with another cousin for several weeks. She had to remain completely silent during the day so that his neighbours didn’t realise she was there. She then lived with a solicitor who was also a member of the Hungarian resistance. 

Auschwitz-Birkenau

In 1944 the Germans invaded Hungary and quickly began deporting Jews. One evening Iby was at a friend’s house when an air raid meant that she couldn’t return home. At 5am the police raided the flat she was staying in and took everyone away. They were then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in cattle wagons on a journey that took three days.

On arrival at Birkenau Iby was ‘selected’ for forced labour. She was shaved, showered, and given a prisoner uniform before entering the camp. Her language skills came in useful in Auschwitz as it mean she could communicate with the guards, which sometimes resulted inbetter rations. Iby spent around six weeks in Auschwitz before she and some friends volunteered to accompany prisoners to another camp as nurses. At the camp they were forced to make armaments for the German war effort. Where possible Iby and her friends would sabotage the work.

Iby in August 1945 after liberation.

 

Liberation

In the final days of the war, the camp was evacuated by the Germans and the prisoners forced on a death march. Anyone who couldn’t keep up was shot. Iby was struggling to walk due to an infection in her hip, but her friends supported and carried her. The women were liberated by the American army on Easter Sunday 1945.

Iby and her husband Bert on their wedding day.

Iby’s mother and brother both survived the war and returned to Bratislava. Iby spent some time recuperating in hospital and then began working as a translator for the Military Government in Germany. Here she met Bert, a British Army officer. Iby and Bert married in 1946 and moved to Britain in 1947. They brought up their two children and Iby had a fascinating and varied career which she has written about about in her two-volume autobiography.

Iby speaks regularly about her story to young people to spread her message of acceptance and tolerance.

“To teach young people to accept differences, to understand them and to honour them, and unless young people learn that, there is really no future for civilisation because genocide in one shape or another will take place.”

Find out more about Iby’s story in the exhibition ‘Through Our Eyes’ at The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre in Huddersfield.

Videos (8)

Iby's story: Bratislava (06:44)

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Iby's story: flight from home (07:29)

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Iby's story: arrest in Budapest (08:50)

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Iby's story: Auschwitz (08:44)

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Iby's story: forced labour (08:42)

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Iby's story: forced march and liberation (06:11)

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Iby's story: after liberation (04:07)

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Iby's story: embracing difference (03:20)

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