An Interview Auschwitz survivor, Iby Knill.
In one of the darkest moments of modern civilisation, over six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany in a state-sponsored genocide. This event (The Holocaust) killed over two-thirds of Europe’s entire Jewish population. The Nazis, in their single-minded belief of German racial superiority, targeted any group they felt as ‘racially or ideologically inferior‘ including Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians and so on), Socialists, Communists, Jehova’s Witnesses and homosexuals.
Believing that the Jewish people posed the greatest threat to their ideological plans, the Nazi party felt a systematic eradication of all Jewish people was the ‘Final Solution‘ to the ‘Jewish Problem‘. As Henrich Himmler was quoted as saying, “I may here in this closest of circles allude to a question which you… which has become for me the most difficult question of my life, the Jewish question.. I have resolved even here on a completely clear solution… The difficult decision had to be taken, to cause this people to disappear from the earth.”
The level of dehumanisation witnessed in Nazi extermination camps during was staggering. Killing was indiscriminate for those whom the party felt they had no use for, and many people were even used for human “medical” experiments. the account of one Jewish inmate at Auschwitz (Vera Alexander) recalls, “…I remember one set of twins in particular: Guido and Ina, aged about four. One day, Mengele took them away. When they returned, they were in a terrible state: they had been sewn together, back to back, like Siamese twins. Their wounds were infected and oozing pus. They screamed day and night. Then their parents—I remember the mother’s name was Stella—managed to get some morphine and they killed the children in order to end their suffering….”
it took decades for the Jewish people and the rest of the world to recover from World War II, and for most of us- it is impossible to imagine how the very few survivors of such atrocities could rebuild their lives, but some did. To learn more, I spoke with Iby Knill who- as a teenager- survived Auschwitz.
During her childhood in Czechoslovakia, Iby’s parents – alarmed at the persecution of Jews in Germany – smuggled her over the border to Hungary. She was caught by the security police and then imprisoned and tortured, not only as a result of her Jewish connections but for having entered Hungary illegally and for aiding the resistance movement. Eventually, Iby was sent to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. In June 1944, Iby Knill left Auschwitz-Birkenau by volunteering to travel as a nurse with a slave labour transport of 500 women. Once transported to Lippstadt, she was put in charge of a hospital unit and risked her life protecting the weak and helpless from the gas chambers.
After decades of silence, Iby recounted her experiences in her book “The Woman Without a Number”
Q: What did you recall about the outbreak of war, and when did you realise the severity of the conflict?
[Iby Knill] It goes back to Spring 1938, when Hitler occupied Austria in the Anschluss. My father had relatives in England, and he and I were on the point of going to England when the Anschluss happened and we couldn’t go, and we were stuck in Slovakia.
The result of the Anschluss was that Czechoslovakia mobilised and- at that time- the army were on bicycles not in tanks! All of the bicycle manufacturers were in the Sudetenland, and those factories refused to supply the government with bicycles directly for their mobilisation! I can remember quite vividly that my father arranged a huge quantity of bicycles from the Sudetenland, and then- as a business- sold them to the government for their mobilisation. The particular reason I remember is that all the bicycles had to be black, and not have any shiny surfaces. That’s what I remember about how things started!
Next came the horror of the occupation of what is now the Czech Republic, and the creation of the puppet-state of Slovakia- which shook us to the core.
At the time I was only 12-14 years old, and at that age- you don’t take note of politics as such. Also, you don’t have the same communication systems. You didn’t have mobile phones, television and so on- and not everyone looked at newspapers. Radio gave concerts and plays, not news. The amount of information of what was going on was minimal.
Q: What do you recall about the events that led to your arrival at Auschwitz, and did you know about Auschwitz before then?
[Iby Knill] We heard of camps but I certainly didn’t realise what the implications were.
We [Jews] were told that after the age of 16 you should no longer have any intellectual pursuits and that you shouldn’t go to school any more- so our education was interrupted. The Nuremberg Laws also enforced a curfew from 8pm to 6am. We [Jews] weren’t allowed to sit down on public transport or park benches because they thought we would contaminate them. We couldn’t go to any places of public entertainment, and we had to wear the yellow star.
My family was not religious, and so I hadn’t realised that we were Jewish! As a young girl, I was angry… I thought it was very unfair. I didn’t think we were any different, and was angry that we were being treated differently.
When we were told to leave school, we were then told to learn a practical trade. As a girl in the 1930s as a girl what was I going to learn as a practical trade? I was not going to become a bricklayer or a plasterer, so I took a course in graphic design! This actually worked out rather well as eventually in England I had a successful design business- so no learning is ever wasted from that point of view!
When the German soldiers came, we had to leave our apartment as we were in the area- near the Embassies- where the Germans wanted to live. They allocated us a one bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town. We obviously couldn’t take most of our possessions. At the time we had maids and cooks who came from one particular village. When they got married, their children or relatives came- it was a family progression. One of our maids who got married… her husband came with a horse and cart and loaded up all our furniture. My mother, with much forethought, filled a suitcase with photos and personal items and hid it in a barn on a farm, behind bales of straw and other such things. We got all of that back after the war.
This all took place in the winter of 1941. In February 1942, I escaped over the border into Hungary because they were rounding up the Jewish girls. I was hidden first by my cousin, and then after he was called up by the Hungarian army- I was hidden by the Marky family. We tried to escape via the routes used by air-crew who were shot down and unfortunately we got caught. There were 428 of us who got arrested. They interrogated us at the police station, and I ended up with a 3 month sentence at the Women’s Prison in Budapest. When they released me I was re-arrested as an illegal immigrant and sent to a detention centre, an immigration centre, and eventually a refugee camp in Northern Hungary. When you were arrested as an illegal immigrant, you were classed as a political prisoner and released on parole. This happened to me in March 1944.
On the evening of D-Day, there was blanket bombardment- probably to divert the attention of Germans. They had never anticipated air-raids in Hungary, so we had no trenches or shelters. People were told to stay in their homes and not to go out. During that night lorries drove up with German Einsatzgruppen, accompanied by the Hungarian police, and rounded up all the Jewish people in the area. They rounded up about 3,000 people- I had just been visiting there and so was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I finished up at a brickyard, and from there we were taken to Auschwitz Birkenau. We left of the 12th of June and arrived in Auschwitz on the 17th of June.
Q: What are your key memories of Auschwitz?
[Iby Knill] I remember the back of the lorry being pulled open, and being told to leave. They said that they were taking the old and ill people to a hospital, and everyone else had to get out- men to the right, women to the left. There were five of us women including two doctors. We jumped out, linked arms and- I know it sounds crazy- but we sang the Hungarian national anthem. At the time we thought [in a sick way] that it was funny. We were then shown the door into Auschwitz Birkenau.
I remember that we were told to strip and stand on little stools. All the hair on our body was shaven off and around the room SS men and women were laughing and joking at us. It was frightfully degrading, and was our first glimpse at being dehumanised. You were not treated as a person- but rather as a thing. They made you feel that you weren’t a person, but rather- to all intents and purposes- that you were a sheep being herded.
We came to realise- pretty soon- the real purpose of that place [Auschwitz]. First of all, the smell of the place… the smell of burning flesh…. it stays with you forever. It may sound strange, but to this day I don’t particularly like barbecues as a result… The smell was there all the time, it stays with you. Smells are very evocative, and remind you of things very much.
We were quickly made aware of what was going on. We were told that if you didn’t stand up straight, and if you didn’t look fit, you were just taken away and never seen again. The gas chambers and crematorium were smoking continuously. Thousands and thousands of people from Hungary were being brought there at an incredible rate.
Somewhere along the line, we were each given a number. There were so many of us, it was the only way they could keep track. The machinery broke, and I was not given a number. Mine should have been 75,245.
Q: How did you feel towards your captors, and those involved in running Auschwitz?
[Iby Knill] The huts themselves were run by Capos (trustees). Fortunately I was a linguist, and the Capo in the hut that I was were Czech and I could communicate with them. All the others in the hut were Hungarian and could not speak any other language. At this stage, you just thought of survival- the five of us stayed together, and because I could communicate I got maybe a little more soup than other people- a blanket that was slightly bigger. Because I could speak German, I could also communicate with the Germans, which was also an advantage. Being able to communicate with people was an advantage, and you took advantage of that fact to survive. Your only aim in life at that stage was to live one day longer.
We knew that the D-Day landing had taken place, and we were hoping it would not be that long before the Allies won the war and we would be liberated. We were now in June 1944, quite a way into the war- and close to the end. We were holding on and trying to survive.
Q: Did your experiences at Auschwitz change your views of death?
[Iby Knill] I honestly don’t know.
We were simply concerned with the moment, just surviving one day at a time. We could only live for today… there was nothing you could do about yesterday, and tomorrow may not exist. You were living in the here and now. It’s a state of mind that stayed with me. You can only deal with things as they are now.
Q: What did your experiences at Auschwitz teach you?
[Iby Knill] The most prominent lesson was that there is only today.
You have to live for today and make the best of today. Maybe at the end of the day you will feel like you have not hurt or damaged anyone or even that you have done some good. It’s been the lesson by which I have lived the rest of my life.
You can plan for the future, but not anticipate it. In reality there is only today, nothing else.
Q: Did your experiences at Auschwitz change your sense of identity?
[Iby Knill] Initially, after the liberation- everyone felt survivors guilt. Why did we survive when others didn’t? What do we now have to do in order to earn and deserve the fact that were still alive? This is common with survivors, and colours the way you look at life and your own actions. You evaluate things on that basis- and you try to be a better person. You try not to harm person… and try to not damage or belittle others, because you have experienced yourself what it is to be belittled.
I had a nervous breakdown for the first three years. Had it not been for a very understanding husband, I don’t think I would have survived. My late husband had been a soldier in the First World War and experienced trench warfare. He understood the trauma of what I was going through.
It took several more years to get some form of balanced mental state. I wrapped up those memories into a Pandora’s box, threw it in the sea and threw away the key. I would never talk about it or refer to it, nor would my mother who had also been in a camp. We would never mention to each other- anything about it. You pretended that period of time never existed.
During my time in Auschwitz, it was impossible to isolate good from bad- and so that period disappeared. To the extent that for those years afterwards, I could not speak German- which had previously been my main language. It is only now- since 2002 when I started my book- that I concluded that it was time to put down what I had experienced, and bear witness to it.
Q: What was the importance of sharing the stories of Auschwitz, and what can society learn from your experiences?
[Iby Knill] It’s very important for people to realise that you mustn’t allow a culture of us and them to develop.
When you look at young people- they play together regardless of their colour or background. Somewhere along the line they start to feel that other people are different to them. I’m not saying we should all revert to childlike innocence, but rather that this feeling of equality should remain… that we feel that under the skin, we are all the same…
I find it very important to talk to young people about it, and make them aware what the end result can be of this sort of culture of dehumanisation can be. I spend a lot of time talking to young people about the fact that people being different only makes life more interesting, and more valuable. It would be very dull if we were all the same.
Q: Do you think the messages from Auschwitz could prevent such a horror from occurring again?
[Iby Knill] Here’s hoping!
Unless young people get actively engaged in treating people as they wish to be treated themselves, it’s a very dark outlook for mankind. If we aren’t careful, we will destroy mankind.. I find it very frightening…
Faced with unbelievable circumstances, Iby survived- and she courageously now shares her story in the hope that society may learn from, and never repeat the mistakes of the past. Mistakes which- in the twentieth century alone- have claimed the lives of almost 80 million people in acts of Genocide and mass murder.
The hypocrisy of our species’ notional morality is such that we define ourselves as a civilisation while millions of us are arbitrarily slaughtered by our own hands. It is human culture that allows these crimes to take place, and it is human culture that will prevent them from happening again. It was humanity that uttered the words “never again” before watching as 20% of the Rwandan population (c.1 million people) were exterminated in 1994.
Iby is right that we must get children engaged in breaking the processes that allow society to train them into believing that people are different because of their race, gender or beliefs.
Each and every day, 350,000 new souls enter the world- opening their eyes for the first time as blank canvas’ for culture to form. The outcomes of that generation are the legacy of ours, and with that in mind we must take responsibility for the fact that if we are engrossed in discrimination- so too will they be.
Iby notes that, “...If we aren’t careful, we will destroy mankind..”
…only mankind can stop that happening.