Iby Knill | Camp survivor

"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 the capital of Czechoslovakia. Her mother was Slovak, her father Hungarian, and Iby and her brother grew up speaking several languages at home.

Family group in 1932, Iby second left, mother left and father on the right.  Iby, cousin Trudi, and Tony in family car 1932 

Iby went to a German grammar school until she was excluded for being Jewish. Once the Sudetenland had been annexed by Germany, and Czechoslovakia was divided, 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.  Iby didn't come from a religious family, and discrimination on grounds of being Jewish made no sense to her at all.

Iby aged 3  Iby aged 3

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 in which her brother's bed was a board on top of the bath and Iby slept in the kitchen. She spent much of her time queueing in the shops for food.

   Iby aged 15 when she won Miss Bratislava in 1938

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 went to an aunt, who was scared of repercussions so refused to help her. She then stayed hidden in the apartment of another cousin for several weeks, having to remain absolutely silent so nobody would guess she was there.  Iby was just 18.

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The cousin introduced her to a solicitor who worked in the Hungarian resistance. Iby stayed with the solicitor and his wife for several months and worked with them, helping Allied airmen to escape. Finally the group was caught, and Iby was held in prison for three months where she was subject to torture. On her release she was immediately re-arrested as an illegal immigrant and sent to a refugee camp in northern Hungary.  At this point Iby discovered that her family had also escaped to Hungary and was allowed to visit them in a refugee camp in Budapest. While there she met and became engaged to a Hungarian man on the basis that, once married, she and her parents could legally stay in Hungary.  Eventually allowed out on parole, she worked as a nanny for a family friend.

The Germans invaded Hungary in 1944 and the situation changed markedly. 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. It didn't matter that Iby wasn't supposed to be there, she was taken along with the rest. They were kept at a local brickyard then put on cattle wagons and began the journey to Auschwitz. Iby had never even 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 taking a risk - they had no way of knowing whether the offer was genuine or if they would end up in the gas chamber - but on this occasion they were given better clothing and 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 dying 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.  They saw American tanks in the distance. The German forces melted away and 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.

Iby and Bert on their wedding day 1946  Iby in 2010, copyright Paul Banks

Iby had a successful career, first in the education sector and later as a designer. She has a son, a daughter and three grandchildren. She now chairs the HSFA's Education Committee and is a tireless speaker for schools, community groups and other organisations, telling her story as a warning of the dangers of discrimination and persecution. She is an active member of her local church.

 

Yorkshire animation company Fettle Animations produced an animated documentary of Iby's story for Kirklees Museums and Galleries in 2012. You can watch the animation via YouTube.

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Videos

    • Chapter 1: Iby describes her early life in Bratislava (6 mins 44)

    • Iby chapter 1
    • Chapter 2: Iby flees Bratislava and goes into hiding in Budapest (7 mins 29)

    • Iby chapter 2
    • Chapter 3: The Germans invade Hungary and Iby is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau (8 mins 50)

    • Iby chapter 3
    • Chapter 4: Iby describes her time in Auschwitz-Birkenau (8 mins 44)

    • Iby chapter 4
    • Chapter 5: Iby works as a nurse and does slave labour in an armaments factory (8 mins 42)

    • Iby chapter 5
    • Chapter 6: Iby describes the forced march to Bergen Belsen and liberation by American troops (6 mins 11)

    • Iby chapter 6
    • Chapter 7: Iby works as a translator in Germany and meets her husband Bert (4 mins 07)

    • Iby chapter 7
    • Chapter 8: Iby discusses her faith and her views on Holocaust education (3 mins 20)

    • Iby chapter 8