'That Anyone Survived Auschwitz Is a Miracle. Yet I Am Here'; as a Teenage Girl, Lily Ebert Endured Unimaginable Horrors in the Notorious Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Here, She Tells Louette Harding about the Traumas She Can Never Forget - and of Her Incredible Struggle for Survival Main Photographs DEBRA HURFORD BROWN
Lily Ebert was never meant to make 82 years. In the summer of 1944, aged 14, she was taken to Auschwitz, fodder for the Nazis' grisly 'Final Solution'. Today, telling her story at her flat in the comfortable London suburb of Golders Green, she is frail but straight-backed. Behind her shoulder, a cabinet of dolls in national costume - a miniature crowd of different races and creeds - smile in harmony.
There's a hint in her collection of a childhood that was lost. The eldest daughter in a close family of six children, Lily's early memories are of togetherness: 'Jewish Friday nights with the family, visiting friends.' Even when war broke out, Lily was so protected from its shadow by her mother and businessman father that it hardly touched her as she grew up in Bonyhad in southern Hungary. The Hungarian government joined the Axis powers in 1940 and sent troops to fight alongside the Germans and Italians in Russia, but by spring 1944, sensing defeat, it was eager to change sides. Hitler sent in his troops. 'It was a shock. The world knew and the Germans knew that the war was lost for Germany.' She says that 'luckily' her father had died in 1942 and that 'he is buried in Hungary' - a reminder that other members of Lily's family died unnaturally and lack graves. At the time, though, they reasoned, 'We will have difficult times but we will survive.' Restrictions for Jews were introduced overnight.
'Every day there was something new. First was the yellow star - everybody had to wear one.' They were moved to a ghetto. 'We lived in a big house in the nicest part of town and they put us in the poorest part, each family crammed into one room. Then you had to give up the radio, telephones, jewellery.' Lily's elder brother, Imre, concealed two of their mother's rings in the heel of a shoe. He also crammed in Lily's beloved gold pendant in the shape of an angel, which her parents had given her when she was small. Shortly afterwards he was sent, with other young men, to a slave labour camp. When I ask her how ominous these developments seemed, she grows understandably impatient. 'To be honest, I don't remember. So much worse happened afterwards that this part is really not important to me any more.' Her manner is taut: I think because she needs to tell the story 'her' way - the way she has steeled herself to tell it - because almost 70 years haven't dulled the raw pain. 'I start to tell my story and I feel it as if it were yesterday. Normally that does not happen; normally, even the death of someone close to you gets slowly less painful. But when something so extraordinarily terrible happens it doesn't work like that. This is a trauma you can never forget.' In July, Lily, her mother Nina, her three sisters and younger brother were ordered to move to Pecs, the regional centre from which Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 'By this time the Nazis had plenty of experience: they knew how to process mass murder efficiently and quickly. We were deceived continually and the deception at that point was that they would take us somewhere to work.' She pauses. 'Then they take you to the railway station in Pecs and load you into cattle trucks.' The family's only thought was to stick together. 'There were about 70 people in one truck - men, women, children, babies, ill people. They had taken people from hospitals. They did not have enough trains to take their own troops to the front but they managed to find trains to take the Jews to the camps.' Could she sit or lie down in the truck? 'You could sit. That much and not more. It was July by now, and it was a very hot summer. We are pushed into a truck, we have no food, they put in two buckets - one for water, one for human waste. They close the door. Now it is pitch black as well as hot. Today, if they took animals to slaughter in conditions like that, the whole world would protest. Quite a few died on the way - in our truck, in every truck.' Did you cry out for help? 'To whom? Who was listening? …