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Iby Knill

Camp survivor

Iby Knill and her brother Tomy in 1938. (c) HSFA
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“Unless we can teach people to understand each other, to tolerate and respect the differences, there really is no future for mankind”.

Iby grew up in an educated, cultured family in Bratislava, then in Czechoslovakia. Her mother was Slovak, her father Hungarian, and Iby and her brother grew up speaking several languages.

Iby went to a German grammar school until she was excluded for being Jewish. Once Germany annexed the Sudetenland and divided Czechoslovakia, life became more difficult for the Jewish population on both sides. Jewish people weren’t allowed to sit down on public transport and were the last to be served in shops. Iby deeply resented being made to wear a yellow star on her clothing and used to cover it with a scarf on her walk to school.

Once the war began and Germany occupied Slovakia the persecution became worse. Jewish students were not allowed to study beyond the age of 16. Iby’s parents’ business was “Aryanised”, which meant it was taken over without compensation and given to non-Jewish people. Her family was forced out of their apartment, which was allocated to a German family, and given a tiny flat on the outskirts of town. She spent much of her time queueing in the shops for food.

In 1942 Iby’s mother had a phone call from a friend, asking whether the authorities had come to “fetch Iby”. The friend explained that Jewish girls were rounded up to be taken to work as prostitutes for the German soldiers on the Eastern Front. Iby’s mother acted fast. She dressed Iby up as a peasant girl, and Iby and her cousin took a tram out to the village where their grandparents lived. There they hid for several days while Iby’s parents made arrangements to get her away to safety.

‘Safety’ meant crossing the border into Hungary, crawling across no man’s land in the middle of the night. Iby hid with a cousin for several weeks, then went to live with a solicitor who worked in the Hungarian resistance.

The Germans invaded Hungary in 1944. One evening Iby was visiting Jewish friends when an air raid happened and she was unable to return home. At 5am the police came to round everybody up and take them to Auschwitz. Iby had never heard of the place and had no idea what was going to happen to her.

Iby spent about six weeks in Auschwitz on starvation rations, crammed into inhuman conditions with thousands of others. One day, she and some friends answered a call for volunteer nurses to go with a slave labour transport.  They were taken to work in the hospital of an armaments factory in the Ruhr. By this time the war was going very badly for the Germans. Iby and other women sabotaged the work they were doing to undermine the German war effort further.

In the final stages of the war, the Germans evacuated the camp. Iby and the other women were taken on a forced march towards Bergen Belsen. Anyone lagging behind was shot. Iby had developed an infection in her hip and may not have made it were it not for the friends who carried her along.  Iby and her friends were finally liberated on Easter Sunday 1945.

Iby realised that many of her friends and family would not have survived. Although her mother and brother returned to Bratislava, she had no desire to go home. After a stay in hospital, she got a job as a translator for the Military Government in Germany and there met Bert, a British army officer. They married in December 1946 and Iby moved to England the following year. She has lived here ever since.

Videos (8)

Iby's story: Bratislava (06:44)


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


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


Iby's story: Auschwitz (08:44)


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


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


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


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