By Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, Inkandescent Women magazine
It was Yom Kippur, 1944, when Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner Lily Ebert promised herself: I will survive. She swore to tell the world her story for everyone who couldn’t. Today, this remarkable 98-year-old is the co-author of the powerful memoir, Lily’s Promise, which she wrote with her 18-old great-grandson, Dov.
Since the book’s publication in September, the duo has become a TikTok sensation with nearly 2 million followers.
Lily admits that it took decades before she found the courage to tell the tale of her happy childhood in Hungary, the death of her mother and two youngest siblings on their arrival at Auschwitz, and her determination to keep her two other sisters safe.
“I always wanted to pay tribute to my family, and the millions of others who have nobody to remember them,” explains Lily, who after the war built a new life for herself in Israel, then in London. “But I didn’t want to speak of the horrors for years because I didn’t want to upset my children who I deeply loved.”
In the 1980s, she knew the time had come to speak out. She took her story to students, politicians, and workplaces. When the coronavirus pandemic rocked the world, Dov convinced Lily it was now time to take her message to a global audience.
“I know there would come a time when I can’t do this anymore, and Dov proved he could help carry on my legacy,” says Lily, whose portrait is one of several Holocaust survivors recently unveiled at Buckingham Palace.
Soon-to-be a high school graduate Dov explains: “I cannot recall a time where I was not aware that my great-grandmother was a survivor — not only of Auschwitz but of Nazi enforced slave labor and the Death March. Her experience is a part of me and all of Lily’s many descendants. So as soon as lockdown rules eased, I was struck by a newfound determination to absorb and preserve her testimony while I still had the chance.”
Dov knew social media was the ideal medium to share her important story. “Our message of hope is: Never, ever give up. Be tolerant of each other and remember nobody is better or worse than you; we are only different. Appreciate that.”
Being young in spirit is the secret to Lily’s longevity, insists Dov. “My friends would come round to play football, and Lily would come into the circle and kick the ball back to us. Her superpower is to be a force for good. As we enter the next generation of Holocaust education, social media will be a powerful platform for education and change.”
But there was one caveat from Lily, says Dov. “After I showed her what TikTok was all about, she said: “I’ll make videos with you — but I’m not dancing.”
Lily lives near her large and loving family, including 35 great-grandchildren. She is a founding member of the Holocaust Survivors Centre and was recently awarded the British Empire Medal for services to Holocaust education.
A Q&A with Lily Ebert and Dov Forman, authors: Lily’s Promise
What inspired you to write this book?
Lily: When I was in Auschwitz, I made a promise to myself that if by some miracle, I survived, I would tell the world what happened to me and my family in the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I promised myself that I would tell the world my story, in the hopes that the world would learn about the consequences of hate but also have hope, even in the worst situations.
Lily’s Promise is dedicated in honor of my mother, younger brother, and younger sister and also to the millions of others, who have nobody to remember them. For many years I never spoke about my experiences. I didn’t want the young children, even, to hear this terrible story. I didn’t want to hurt them. But I realized that it was more important than my story should never be forgotten. At first, it was very painful to even talk about it, but as more time passed it became a bit easier. Since the 1980s, I have been speaking to students in schools, to politicians, and in many organizations and workplaces across the world.
But I know that there will come a time when I can’t do this anymore. The publication of Lily’s Promise, reassures me that my testimony will never be forgotten. I am so happy that in the last few years I have been able to share my story alongside my great-grandson, Dov. He will continue to share my family’s story when I am no longer able to.
Dov: I cannot recall a time when I was not aware that my great-grandmother Lily Ebert, was a survivor – not only of Auschwitz but of Nazi enforced slave labor and the Death March. Her experience is a part of me, and of all of Lily’s many descendants. Being separated from Lily for two months during lockdown helped me realize how precious she is, and how precious my time is with her. It occurred to me during our separation that Lily was of a similar age to me when the Nazis invaded Hungary, in March 1944.
As soon as lockdown rules were eased, I jumped at the chance to spend time with Lily again. I was struck by a newfound determination to absorb and preserve her testimony, whilst I still had the chance. I’m just graduating high school, and my experience learning history has shown me that the Holocaust cannot be done justice in a classroom, through a textbook. We need stories, of real people and real lives. This is why Lily tells her story as often as she can. However, the pandemic meant Lily was no longer able to speak at schools or at other events, where she used to share her testimony of the Holocaust. So Lily and I turned to social media.
One of the many relics Lily had shown me while sharing her experiences as a German banknote inscribed with ten words of hope: ‘The start to a new life – good luck and happiness!’. It was given to Lily in 1945 by an unnamed American liberator from the Death March. It touched my heart. The soldier who had given the banknote to Lily was the first person to inspire hope in her after she endured hell on Earth. It was one of the first possessions Lily owned after being liberated. Its monetary value may have been negligible, but it was – for Lily – worth holding on to for seventy-six years. The moment I saw it, I understood it was invaluable.
On the fifth of July in 2020, Lily and I posted a picture of the banknote on Twitter. I remember joking with Lily that, through Twitter, we would find the individual who gave her the banknote. The tweet went viral. It sparked international media attention. After only eight hours, we had identified Private Hayman Shulman (an American G.I.) as the soldier whose words were written on that banknote. A few days later, a meeting was organized between Lily, myself, and the family of Hayman Shulman. Meeting the Shulman family on Zoom was nothing short of a miracle for Lily. It was another of life’s affirmations – the Nazis didn’t win.
But Lily’s survival was rare: most, including her family members, perished. Lily made a promise to herself in Auschwitz. If she managed to survive, she would do all she could to share her testimony; for herself, and for all those who could not. I realized during lockdown that it would soon become my responsibility to carry on the story, and so we began writing her memoir together I feel honored to have written Lily’s Promise together with her. It is the fulfillment of this same promise that she had made to herself over 75 years ago.
Why did you choose this time to write “Lily’s Promise”?
Dov: The overwhelming response that Lily received on social media made me want to write her story down, in full, so that everyone – across the world – could learn from her incredible messages of love, kindness, tolerance, and hope. The number of survivors is dwindling; this is our last chance to hear their testimonies. Lily’s Promise could be the last memoir written by a survivor. Elie Wiesel said: “When you listen to a witness you become a witness” (Elie Wiesel). We are now all Lily’s witnesses.
Lily: I had to wait for Dov to be old enough to share my story with so many people across the world, using social media! He has taken my story to a whole new level and shown me that when used in the right way, social media can make a positive impact. I was also not ready to share my story in the detail needed for a book until very recently but I realized that if I didn’t write Lily’s Promise now, no one else would be able to.
How long did it take to write the book? What was your process?
Dov: Lily’s Promise has been 77 years in the making. The book is uniquely accurate and detailed because Lily was 20, an adult when she was deported and imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau. We began the process in September 2020 (Lily’s Promise was first published in the UK in September 2021). It required a lot of attention to detail to ensure accuracy and a lot of sensitivity. . For Lily, the Holocaust is lived experience, and having to recall these, often very painful, memories means having to relive them in her head. I spent a month interviewing my great-grandmother together with a historian. We then transcribed these interviews and used other resources (including an 8-hour interview that Lily had done with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation) to begin writing. We also trawled through the archives to find as many supporting documents and as much information as we could about Lily and her family. We were very lucky to have the support of various museums across the world, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, and the Auschwitz Memorial state museum. We are so overwhelmed by the response that Lily’s Promise has had, and continues to have, across the world and we are so excited for the US audience to be able to read and learn from Lily’s memoir.
What is the most powerful takeaway about the story for Dov?
Dov: My great grandmother has instilled in me the importance of being kind and giving to others. She has taught me not to be a bystander and to stand up to hatred wherever we see it in society; the Holocaust did not start with the Final Solution and the Gas Chambers of Auschwitz, it started with words and basic hatred. The most powerful takeaway for me is that no matter who you are or what community you are from, or what have been through in your life, you can make an impact on the world.
What advice/words of wisdom would Lily most like to share?
Lily: Never ever give up hope – as long as you have hope, you will have life. Be tolerant of each other and remember nobody is better or worse than you, we are only different. Appreciate that.
What do you hope readers will learn and remember most from the book?
Lily: It makes no difference what the color of your skin is or what nationality you are because for all human beings one thing is for sure: our blood is red, and when you cut us, it hurts. That’s what I want children to remember when they hear my story. If we don’t keep remembering, we can’t change the future. I know—I don’t kid myself—I won’t be here forever. To be certain that Dov will take over my story, even when I’m gone, gives me peace of mind. I’ve kept the promise I made myself in the camp. I’ve told the world what happened. And Dov will keep my promise too. But it is also up to you, the readers, to learn from my story and use the lessons of the past to build a better world.
How did you come to be TikTok stars? How do you feel about it?
Lily: I’ve been educating people about the Holocaust for many years. I’ve spoken in schools, workplaces, in the Houses of Parliament, and even at Buckingham Palace. It was Dov’s idea to start using social media to reach a new audience. You can learn from everybody and I’ve learned a lot from Dov. I came from a different generation, so I could never have dreamt that we could reach as many people as we do on social media. The TikTok video where I answer questions about the tattoo I was given in Auschwitz has had over 20 million views. So many of the people who have watched the video didn’t even know that they gave us tattoos in Auschwitz. We were not human. My name was not Lily Ebert anymore, we were seen as just a number. Our goal on Tiktok is to teach people about the Holocaust but also about how we can only have peace with tolerance and understanding. We also want to spread messages of love and positivity and about how even if you face the worst trauma in life, things can always get better.
Dov: The first time I went to my great grandmother to suggest we make a TikTok account to share her story, she’d had no idea what I was talking about. After I showed her what Tiktok was all about, she said: I’ll make videos with you, but I’m not dancing. Lily is so young in spirit. When my friends come round to play football, she’ll stand in the circle and kick the ball back to us. She’s very wise about life too. My generation is often taught about the dangers of social media, but I believe that its positive potential is often overlooked. What my great grandmother and I have managed to achieve on social media shows its real power as a force for good. As we enter the next generation of Holocaust education, social media will be a tremendously powerful platform for education and change.