Lily Elbert reveals horrifying reality of life at Auschwitz

Holocaust survivor who saved her sister from Josef Mengele, endured random death ‘selections’ and was forced to sort through victim’s belongings reveals horrifying reality of life at Auschwitz

  • Lily Ebert, 97, was one of last trains to enter Auschwitz carrying Hungarian Jews
  • Sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 before Altenburg, sub-camp of Buchenwald
  • American soldiers liberated her in 1945 before she found refuge in Switzerland
  • Lily, who later moved to Israel, told story in heartfelt new memoir Lily’s Promise

A Holocaust survivor has told the story of how she found the strength to live through the horrors of Auschwitz in an eye-opening new memoir. 

Lily Ebert, 97, was on one of the last trains carrying Hungarian Jews to enter Auschwitz in 1944, enduring months at Birkenau before being transported to Altenburg, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. 

She made headlines last year when, with the help of her great-grandson Dov, she was reunited with the American soldier who penned her a heartfelt note on a German banknote after she was liberated from a Nazi Death March in 1945.   

The survivor has told her story in a heart-wrenching new book, tiled Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live, which details the horrific reality of life in a concentration camp. 

Lily tells how she came was forced to sort through victim’s belongings for valuables to sell to fund Nazi death camps, and how she came face to face with the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele – who she once saved her sister from after he chose her to die in a random ‘selection’. 

In one moving extract, Lily recalled making a promise to herself to educate the world about the Holocaust on Yom Kippur in 1944, after reading prayer books which had been smuggled into the concentration camp.  

Lily Ebert, 97,  (second from right in 1945 after being liberated by US soldiers) was on one of the last trains carrying Hungarian Jews to enter Auschwitz in 1944, enduring months at Birkenau before being transported to Altenburg, a sub-camp of Buchenwald

Lily was born in December 1923 in Bonyhád, a town in southwestern Hungary which at the time had a Jewish population of nearly 7,000. She had a happy childhood as the eldest of six siblings in a middle-class family. 

She was a bright child whose parents valued her education, and when in 1936 she went to a Catholic school, Lily says her religion was respected – insisting ‘nobody ever made me feel different, or teased me for being Jewish’.  

‘I’m not sure we even knew there was such a thing as antisemitism when we were very young. It would have seemed a ridiculous idea’, she writes. 

But after Hitler’s rise to power in Austria,  Hungary’s autocratic government passed a series of anti-semitic laws and by the time the Second World War had broken out in Europe, Hungary shared a border with Germany. 

Lily (pictured at 97 after recovering from Covid) tells how she came was forced to sort through victim’s belongings for jewels to sell to fund Nazi death camps, and how she came face to face with the Angel of Death Josef Mengele

From 1938, laws were passed barring Jewish people from professions including law, medicine, journalism or engineering  – and the majority of Jews lost their right to vote. 

In April 1941 Hungary joined a German-led attack on Yugoslavia. Two months later Hitler occupied various eastern European countries following his attack on the Soviet Union.  

The social media campaign led by her great-grandson that helped Lily find her liberator 75 years on 

Lily first hit headlines in July 2020, after successfully searching for the family of the American soldier who gave her a banknote with a message wishing her ‘good luck and happiness’. 

She previously showed it to her great-grandson Dov, explaining to BBC’s Today programme: ‘I even didn’t know what I have with this note, how interesting it is and how interesting it will be for the whole world.

‘I got something from a soldier who did not have a piece of paper to write on… so instead he took out this banknote and he wrote good luck for future life.’

The words written on the banknote dated April 1945 read: ‘A start to a new life… good luck and happiness’ (pictured) 

Taking to Twitter to try and track down the US solider, Dov shared a selection of photos of the note and penned: ‘Yesterday my great-grandma showed me this bank note – given to her as a gift by a soldier who liberated her.

Inscribed, it says ‘a start to a new life. Good luck and happiness,’ Later on, she met up with those who freed her’.

The post was retweeted by the Auschwitz Museum’s account which has over one million followers, and went on to receive over 14.5 thousand ‘likes’ – before the US solider’s identity was finally revealed.

It was learned that the note was given to his great-grandmother by Private Hayman Shulman from New Jersey.

He was an American soldier and assistant to Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who was the first US Army Chaplain to participate in the liberation of Buchenwald concentration in April 1945.

The Hungarian-born survivor later spoke over Zoom with the family of the US soldier, Private Hayman Shulman, who died seven years ago. 

To Jason Shulman and his wife Arlene Lily said: ‘Your father showed me that there was good in humanity and gave me hope for a better future.’ 

Lily says that the ‘systematic massacre of Jewish civilians immediately followed’, with Jews in Hungary’s territory in southeastern Poland handed over to Nazi German death squads.   

By August 1941 Jewish men between 18-48 were sent to become slave labourers for the army and it become illegal in Hungary for Jews and non-Jews to marry or have sex.   

The German army took over Budapest on 19 March 1944 and within weeks Lily and her family felt their ‘freedom slipping away’. They were given curfews, forced to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing and made to hand over their cameras and radios. 

Soon came the order to move into the ghetto, where over 700 friends and family moved into a narrow street where they would live crammed into small buildings, only allowed to leave twice a week. 

Lily heard rumours of an elderly jeweller who found the state of dread and uncertainty he was living in so unbearable, he took his own life.  

She only spent one night in the ghetto before being sent away to a farm called Juhe-Manor, where she and other young Jewish women were forced to spend weeks doing hard physical labour. 

After a brief return to the ghetto, in July 1944, Lily was told they would be leaving again eventually travelling to Pécs, where they were marched to Lakics army barracks and eventually – onto the train that would take her to Auschwitz.   

‘We were all so tightly packed inside that at first we could only stand, trapped, overwhelmed by the worst smell in the world, except for one. Human excrement, sweat and terror and vomit, fresh and stale at once. You had to fight for each breath. I had never felt such panic’, she writes. 

‘Of course, people died. The heat was suffocating. There was so little to drink. Dry lips. Dry throats. People were sickening and ill before the journey started.’ 

She recalled being ‘locked in with corpses, a few more each day’ before eventually crossing the boarder into occupied Poland.  

Lily and her family were told to leave their belongings on the train before being divided into two lines of women and men and being presented to a man she later discovered was Josef Mengele, the angel of death.  

Just moments later, Lily’s mother and her little brother and sister Bela and Berta were sent left to be murdered in the gas chambers, while she and her sisters René and Piri were sent right, to the work camp. 

Lily and her sisters, along with their cousins Hilda Magda, Jolan and Boriska, were told to strip and prepare for a shower – where they were lined up naked and shaved of their hair and public hair.  

‘For some these assaults were too much to bear’, writes Lily’, A girl in the line front of us was driven insane, there and then. She lost all control. She couldn’t take the shame and fear and horror. They took her away.’  

Unusually, they were able to keep their shoes but were forced to put on clothing that had belonged to other Jews before going back out into the lager where they noticed the smell of burning bodies.  

‘What kind of factory is that?’ I asked one of the women prisoners who had arrived before us. ‘What are they making here? What’s this horrible smell?’ ‘They’re burning your families there,’ she told us. ‘Your parents, your sisters, your brothers. They’re burning them”,’ she recalled. 

Lily recalled her first roll call, which began in the middle of the night and could last for hours, where prisoners had to stand completely still, alongside corpses, while the SS counted them. 

She remembered a young girl whose sick mother could barely stand encouraging her mum to sit down and rest during roll call. 

When a Jewish prisoner functionary noticed, both mother and daughter were forced to kneel for so long the mother fainted. She was later ‘taken away’ never to be seen by her daughter again. 

The survivor has told her story in a heart-wrenching new book, tiled Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live

She recalled an ‘unrecognisable black liquid’ with a ‘chemical’ smell for breakfast, which was called coffee but was suspected contained a sedative called bromide,  and was served in one container for five people. 

Lunch was soup, again served in one container to five people while dinner was ‘dark brown lumps they called bread’ which had a ‘funny sour smell’. 

She would later tell how neither three sisters would have a period in the concentration camp, and how she stole raw vegetables from outside the kitchens to share with her sisters. 

Five or six hundred women slept in a place made to house fifty horses and Lily says people were so desperate for water they drank from the tap used to wash in the open latrines.     

They would have to endure selections, which an SS overseer would order where prisoner-functionaries, assigned by the SS, would line up prisoners and German officers would appear to choose who would get work and who would die. 

Lily recalled one day when the Angel of Death had called a selection which was ‘no question’ for prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers, where her little sister René was called. 

Her sister began to leave the line, but when Lily grabbed her hand to stop her, the SS guard didn’t notice she hadn’t followed orders and simply left her in the line. 

‘He kept going as if she were behind him, and soon enough the next girl was there in her place’, Lily said. ‘I suppose they didn’t look at our faces as we didn’t look at theirs. They were accustomed to obedience at the selections. He never knew, never noticed our defiance.’  

She made headlines last year when, with the help of her great-grandson Dov, she was reunited with the American soldier who penned her a heartfelt note on a German banknote after she was liberated from a Nazi Death March in 1945

Lily was once told by another prisoner that she should be wary of Mengele – insisting that despite being six years apart, she and her sister looked similar enough they could be at risk of becoming the subjects of one of his experiments on twins.  

In August 1944, the sisters were all chosen for work at another part of the camp, Sector BIII, where they became friends with a young Hungarian girl called Margot, who came from a village near Bonyhád.   

They worked sewing in the Nästube, mending military uniforms or making clothes from scratch – but from time to time was made to work in the huge storehouses they called Kanada. 

It was in these warehouses the stolen goods from murdered Jewish people were sorted and eventually sold on to fund the death camps.  

In late August 1944, Lily fell ill with scarlet fever – describing how most of the women in their camp had dysentery, while ‘typhus came and went, spread by lice and fleas on rats and humans’.  

One day, Lily heard that her cousin Magda had taken her life by running into the fence – admitting that while in Judaism the prohibition on taking your own life is very strong, she had often considered it. 

Lily’s great-grandson Dov (right) started a social media campaign to reunite Lily with the soldier who wrote her a note after she was liberated in 1945

‘Yes, secretly, we all thought about it, all the time,’ she said. ‘We lived with death. If the very worst happened, I was ready.   

Lily said that on holy days in the Jewish calendar the guards would try and ‘break us further’ – saying the lead up to Yom Kippur in September 1944 was the most ‘relentless time for selections we had ever experience.’

She recalled the women gathering around ‘one or two of the hundreds and thousands of prayer books that had arrived with all the transports’ to pray, revealing that this was the day she made ‘an important decision.’ 

‘I had survived. So far. All that time I had survived, and so many had not, and I thought there must be some reason for this. My life could not have been preserved for nothing’, writes Lily. ‘My mother and my little sister and my brother could not have died for nothing. So, on Yom Kippur 1944, I made myself a promise.

‘If I ever came out of that place, I was determined to do something that would change everything. I had to make sure that nothing like this could ever happen again to anybody. 

‘So I promised myself I would tell the world what had happened. Not just to me, but to all the people who could not tell their stories. And on the day I made that promise, I thought the world would listen.’ 

Lily’s ‘miraculous’ recovery after her battle with Covid in January this year   

Lily celebrated first walk outside in a month after making a ‘miraculous recovery’ from Covid-19 in January this year. 

The 97-year-old  contracted the virus in early January this year and was treated at her home in north London by her relatives who were able to use oxygen supplies. 

After Dov posted a picture of the survivor’s first walk, hundreds of Twitter users were quick to offer their well-wishes to Lily. 

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wrote: ‘What an inspiration. Wishing Lily a continued safe and speedy recovery, and best wishes to all the family.’

Another said: ‘That’s amazing. Go Great Grandma Lily. An inspiration to us all,’ while a third added: ‘Bless her. Fans my small flame of optimism into fire.’

Speaking to The Guardian, Dov confessed his family ‘have no idea’ how Lily contracted the virus because they had all been careful throughout the pandemic. 

‘She was able to have her first dose of the vaccine on 17 December but some time afterwards she was feeling ill. We kept her at home because we were worried about seeing her again if she went to hospital,’ he explained.

Lily’s local GP regularly checked in on her and relatives who were able to use oxygen supplies looked after her.

Dov admitted that there were some ‘dark moments’ during Lily’s recovery, but that his great-grandmother is now ‘100%’.

‘She has always been very positive. She is just a real survivor and a fighter and has been from a young age,’ he added.

In October Lily was tattooed with the number A-10572 before being moved with around 500 of the strongest other girls to Altenburg, where slaves keep a munitions factory running – working 12 hour shifts around the clock with even less food than in Auschwitz. 

Initially, she worked inspecting bullets with her sisters, revealing that in an act of defiance she would occasionally add faulty bullets to the supply in the hope a German soldier would be unable to fire his gun. 

Later she was tasked with cutting steel, but managed to get herself promoted a job on the line inserting the blades into the machinery and doing paperwork. 

As they worked in the factory, the girls could sense the course of the war changing and in February, Leipzig came under heavy attack. 

In April 1945, their factory was forcibly evacuated – with over 2,000 women and girls marched by the SS away from the Allies with no food, no water, no warm clothing or footwear. 

‘It soon became clear that there would be no mercy,’ said Lily. ‘Weak and enfeebled though we were, if anyone lagged behind for a moment, they were shot.’ 

She went on: ‘We began to pass through villages and small towns. It was so strange to see people who actually lived in houses. Again, that sense that the whole world had changed and yet here, for these families, life seemed almost normal. 

‘People came out of their houses and they looked at us. We looked at them. Nobody did anything to help. Nobody gave us food. Nobody gave us water. We just stared at each other, as though we were from two different planets.’ 

One afternoon after days of marching, with several dying on the journey, the women and girls noticed that the SS guards had simply disappeared –  moments later being discovered by US soldiers who didn’t have ‘the faintest idea what had happened to us.’

US soldiers gave survivors food they had, sweets, chocolate and corned beef, out of kindness – but many Jews died a few hours or days after liberation after eating the food they had been deprived of for so long. 

Lily and her sisters were soon taken to a small town called Schönberg and placed under the care of a German aristocratic family – who followed orders to feed and house them, but ‘didn’t lend us fresh clothes or offer to wash our squalid garments’.   

On May 4th, US soldiers took Lily and her family to the Town Hall, where they were given new identity papers, and in June men from the Third Army’s VIII Corps arrived. 

They warned Lily and her sisters Russian forced were approaching and they would be safer in the American Zone, eventually being placed back in Buchenwald freely as ‘displaced persons’.

The group slept in the room of a former SS guard, but struggled to shake off the horrors of the camp – being forced to drink out of the same communal soup  containers used at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

A rabbi told Lily of the chance to go to Switzerland, who had offered to take hundreds of Jewish child survivors under 16 and give them shelter. Lily forged a new age on her papers and agreed.    

Lily, her sisters and Margot chose to stay under the care of Agudat Yisrael, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish political party in Israel who provided for them as they stayed at the Hotel Alpina in the Swiss Alps.    

Eventually, at the age of 22 and 16 on her official documents, Lily decided to start a new life in Israel with the help of Agudat Yisrael. 

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