‘I was sent to Auschwitz on my wedding day – the Nazis even took my ring’
Teenager Ibolya Knill was wearing bright red high-heeled sandals when she was rounded up by Nazi troops in surprised raids on Jewish homes in Hungary.
A week later, the 19-year-old was to marry, and in the pocket of her carefree summer dress nestled a pair of wedding rings she had just had engraved with the date of their big day: June 12, 1944.
Tragically, that date was to take on a very different significance.
For when the morning of June 12 finally arrived, Ibolya – known as Iby – still wearing her red heels and by now filthy summer dress, found herself crammed “like cattle” into a wagon heading to the notorious death camp Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Where there should have been flutters of girlish excitement in her stomach, now there was just a heavy, gnawing sense of dread.
There was no way of getting word to her fiancé, Gaspar, and there was no reasoning with the guards.
“I went to them and said, ‘Today is supposed to be my wedding day’,” she recalls.
“They said it made no difference. I didn’t talk of [Gaspar] again.
"There were a group of us in the wagon who decided to stick together. But we also decided to talk of nothing from the past, not our families or friends. It was our way of coping. I didn’t tell them.”
Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops.
Iby, now 96, remains bright and resilient as she reflects on the devastating turn her life took.
Originally from Bratislava, in what was then Czechoslovakia, she was born to a Jewish mother. After the Nazis invaded, she was smuggled to Hungary, where she lived with non-Jewish family of her father, carrying false documents that stated she was not a Jew.
But in March 1944, the Nazis also invaded Hungary. Iby was at the house of a Jewish friend that was raided, and she did not have her fake papers on her.
Even with them she would have been in a precarious position, as she had been arrested and interrogated over her involvement in the resistance.
She was also frightened of being caught out as an illegal immigrant.
She confided these worries in a man she had recently met, Gaspar. He proposed, in the hope Hungarian citizenship would keep her safe.
Iby recalls: “We had only known each other for a matter of days, but I think he fell in love with me.
“Under the circumstances, that was enough. People didn’t know what was going to happen to them, and life moved quickly.
“He gave me money to buy the wedding rings and to get them engraved.”
She would never see Gaspar, or those rings, again. Before she got on the transport to Auschwitz they were stripped from her, along with her earrings.
The conditions of her five-day transport were appalling, and by the time she arrived at Auschwitz, exhausted and terrified, Iby had every reason to feel utterly crushed. But instead, anger surged. Pushed onto the railway platform of the death camp, she linked arms with friends she made during the journey.
Scared and starving though she was, Iby – in her defiant red heels – burst into the Hungarian national anthem, leading the group in song as they walked towards the camp’s notorious Angel of Death, Dr Josef Mengele.
This was the man responsible for deciding which of the frailest new arrivals to send straight to the gas chambers.
Her act of courage protected her and her new friends. She says: “We didn’t think we had anything to lose, and had been told to look lively if we wanted to live. Mengele laughed – he thought it was funny. I remember him – a very smart chap, with two dogs and two women in uniform behind him.
"He just waved us on through the gate. I was so angry. And that anger stayed with me. It helped me survive.”
After her brush with Mengele, she was pushed into a “huge room”.
“They stripped me of everything but my high heels – prisoners kept their shoes – they looked absolutely crazy.”
She is able to laugh a little, despite the horror of the memory.
“Prisoners in striped pyjamas came and cut the hair all over our bodies.
“We were pushed into showers and dressed in rags.”
Iby was not tattooed with a registration number, because the tattooists ran out of ink. She has since found it out: 2502; it remains ingrained in her mind.
She was marched to Birkenau, the largest of the sub-camps within Auschwitz, where prisoners were crammed 500 to a hut.
Chillingly, “There was no trees, grass or birdsong,” she recalls.
Iby, who now lives in Leeds, West Yorks, has never returned to Auschwitz – and has no desire to ever go back. “I’m told it’s still the same, the atmosphere has stayed the same,” she says.
They lived in just two rooms – one containing buckets for toilets and another to sleep in.
“The only way was to lie like spoons, heads on hips,” she says.
“You had to fight your way out if you needed to get to the buckets in the night. But you wouldn’t be able to get back in. You’d have to sleep standing by the wall.”
The prisoners called the green-flecked soup they were served from buckets ‘grass food’.
“But the thirst was worse than the hunger,” she recalls.
The only way she and the others knew which day it was, she says, was because once a week they were taken to be showered.
The showers were in the same location as the notorious gas chambers – and Iby had no way of knowing to which they would be taken.
Worst of all, she explains, was the smell that pervaded the camp.
“The whole place smelt of burning flesh,” she says adding that she cannot attend a barbecue to this day.
She had no idea what had happened to her family, until one day a prisoner emptying the buckets told her that her mother was in Auschwitz, and searching for her.
They never saw each other in the amp, but were reunited after the war.
Later, Iby found out her father had been in Auschwitz, too. “But he was gassed – the very last time the gas chambers were used.”
Iby herself left the death camp after “40 days and 40 nights” – still wearing her red heels, with her rebellious spirit burning bright.
Pretending to be a nurse, she volunteered for a slave labour transport to another camp, in the hope it would be better.
As she waited to be loaded onto a wagon, a teenage girl approached.
Iby recalls: “She was a twin. She and her sister and watched their parents go to the gas chambers, and were being experimented on by Josef Mengele. They knew that after that they would die.
“She asked me, if I survived, to tell the story of Auschwitz. I promised I would.”
Iby was finally freed by American troops on Easter Sunday, 1945 as she made a death march to Bergen-Belsen.
And in December 1946 she finally had her wedding day.
She had volunteered to work as an interpreter for the British military – where she met British officer Herbert Knill, and quickly fell in love.
She moved to Britain in March 1947 and the couple had two children, and three grandchildren.
For decades, it was only to Herbert, who has since died, that Iby confided her experiences of the Holocaust.
But when her children were in their 40s, she began to talk about her story – finally keeping her promise to the Auschwitz twin.
To Gaspar, she will always be grateful, she says. She looked for him after the war, but was told he had died as a Nazi slave labouring in a Serbian salt mine, as many Hungarians did.
But, she admits, matter-of-factly, she does not think of him often.
“There is no purpose in it,” she says, stoically. “The past is gone. There is only today.”
She has always remained that brave girl in red high heels, refusing to be shackled by her history.
* Auschwitz Untold: In Colour is on More 4 tomorrow and Monday at 9pm and on C4 on Wednesday at 10.30pm.
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