Iby Knill. Auschwitz Birkenau survivor.


At the end of her talks, Iby Knill, an Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor, is asked many questions and the following appear regularly:

Where did your mother go after the war?

She went back to Bratislava, re-married, and came over to England quite a bit. My brother also survived, went back to Bratislava and died about 5 years ago.

Have you been back to Auschwitz?

There isn't any amount of money enough to make me go back there. I didn't realise going to Kaunitz would bring back memories I didn't want. I was there in Auschwitz 40 days.

What changed your mind about speaking?

I had 2 stepsons and a son and a daughter and I wanted a life. I put my memories away and got on with life. I had several careers and it wasn't until I was in my late 70s and I took an MA in Theology at Leeds University that I thought about it. 

How does faith factor into your journey?

Auschwitz felt like a godforsaken place. It just felt as if there was no God there, therefore it made you less religious. My husband was Church of England, I was baptised in Hungary as a Catholic in 1942 and I became Church of England. God finds you and he found me in 1963 and from then I had a strong faith that supports you. I have quite a lot of involvement in my church. Faith gives you a certainty that God's love is unlimited and that his love is there. It's not a question of deserving it. It gives you a bedrock, you feel encompassed and loved.

How did you feel in Auschwitz? Did you feel you would die?

Auschwitz was weird. You hang on by your finger nails. There may not be a tomorrow. I follow that as a way of living.

What do you tell teachers about teaching the Holocaust?

It is still on-going. All over the world.

How did officers behave in Auschwitz?

The emphasis was on de-humanising you. You begin to accept that yourself.

How do you define the Holocaust?

It was a manifestation of extreme bureaucratic government imposing a frightening theory of superiority on their people. In a bureaucracy no one person is responsible. Democracy is about people limiting what the government can do.

You were engaged. What happened to him?

Marton froze to death on a march to Moscow. Gaspar was in a salt mine and he also perished. They left wills leaving their effects to me, and I gave everything back to their families.

How did you forgive?

If it is a sin (something I can imagine myself doing) then I can forgive, if it's evil then God has to forgive.

What do you think of deniers of the Holocaust?

I'm still waiting to meet one. I'd love to meet one because I'd like to confront them with all the documentary evidence I have.

(See Iby's documentary evidence here).

During the Holocaust did you ever feel ashamed for being Jewish?

I don't know whether that even entered my mind, because it's a question of being ashamed as against being shamed. I was being shamed for being Jewish, and I resented that, but I don't think ashamed was really my feeling.

What are your feelings towards Germans today?

Well they are people like any other people. As a matter of fact there is more Holocaust education happening in Germany than in any other country. I think they have come more to terms with having to deal with this black spot in their history, not quite so much in east Germany because that was occupied by Russia and there, Communism took over, but in western Germany all children are taken to a concentration camp as part of their education, which is much more than in other countries. I have actually had German students staying here.

How do you feel about telling your story, and having to keep telling your story?

I think it's necessary. It's not a thing I enjoy doing if I'm absolutely honest. If I get the right response from students, which I invariably do, I get satisfaction out of doing it because I think it's very important we keep the memory alive, because if we don't do that, if people are not aware of what can happen, then it can happen again.

How did you tell your children your story?

I didn't. They had little bits of it from here and there but the first time my daughter actually heard me tell the story was when I did it in the Houses of Parliament, and my son when I went to give a talk up in the north of the country.

Did they tell you how they felt about hearing it?

I didn't ask them. I find now that my daughter is very keen that I should continue doing it. She thinks it is essential that I should do this.

Were there any Germans who were kind to you?

When we were in the labour camp we were guarded by Wehrmacht people who were not fit for soldiering - elderly people, and there was one particular chap who used to stand outside. We were in the first hut, the hospital hut, and he used to stand at the guard room with his hands behind his back, at the gate. When it was my birthday he called me over and he gave me a packet of 10 cigarettes and a box of matches, which were riches in those days. We used to talk like normal people.

On the journey to Lippstadt it took quite a time to get from Auschwitz to Lippstadt because of the amount of air raids and on one occasion we stopped in the station. We had only been given a piece of bread and the guard himself must have been getting peckish.  He opened the wagon to let some fresh air in and he went into the station and managed to get some soup. A woman in a Red Cross uniform came with a huge boiler of thick pea soup. At least in our wagon we got some soup.

Did your ability in languages prove an advantage in the camp?

Tremendously. To start with, in Birkenau itself the Kapos were Czech and I could communicate with them. All the rest of the people were Hungarians and they couldn't communicate with the Kapos at all. Also, because I spoke German, the 'Queen's English' equivalent of it, it sort of impressed the Germans from that point of view, because I was talking in the same way that the officers were talking. So language was a tremendous advantage all the way along. Subsequently too, in life, because if you talk to people in their own language you get an entirely different attitude from them.

Can you tell me about the role of friendship in the camps?

Friendship was essential, because if you didn't have somebody to cover your back you were vulnerable and if you were vulnerable you were picked on. It was survival of the fittest, and by us sticking together, the five of us all the way through, we could back each other. In particular on one occasion in Lippstadt, one of our doctors was seriously ill and somebody had an abscess under their arm, and the doctor was in bed and couldn't operate so we actually put the operating theatre into the room with the doctor and she told me what to do to operate on it. Friendship was the way to cope really.

Of your four friends, did they all survive?

One of the doctors knew she had cancer and she died about a year after liberation. She went into a German hospital and I visited her there. The other doctor went back to Slovakia and she practiced as a doctor until she retired to Israel. The one who was a dental technician met up with her husband and they emigrated to Australia. I don't know about the fourth one.

Why didn't you get a tattoo?

I don't know. It seems to have been entirely pot luck who got one and who didn't.

How do you feel when you watch documentaries and films? Do you ever watch them?

I don't. There are two reasons. First of all, when I talk I want to make certain that what I talk about is my own memory. There is such a thing as false memory and it is too easy to get bits from other people's stories mixed up with your own. Secondly, it upsets me. It's too close to home.

You can find out more about Iby's experiences in our Survivor Stories section and on Iby's own website www.ibyknill.co.uk