“For me, this word ‘promise’, it was a very special word…” Two promises have shaped Lily Ebert’s life. The first was made in 1942, when she was just 18. Sitting at her father’s deathbed, in their hometown of Bonyhád, southwestern Hungary, this responsible girl – “a born leader” – promised to take care of her siblings when he was gone.
Days later, Ahron Engelman was dead, leaving behind his wife and six children to support each other through their grief. Lily carried her promise in her heart, but the family had no idea of the global events that would soon overwhelm them. Lily would come to feel that her father was lucky to die when he did.
“I promised my father that I will look after my siblings,” says Lily, speaking to The Big Issue over video call from her home in London. “The trouble is, I could not keep my word.”
In March 1944, the Nazis arrived in Hungary. Lily and her family were first thrown out of their home and into an overcrowded Jewish ghetto. Not long after, they found themselves on a packed train to Auschwitz.
Many did not live to step off that train. Those who did were met by the Angel of Death – notorious SS officer Josef Mengele, who was responsible for conducting deadly experiments on the prisoners of Auschwitz and for deciding which of the arrivals would live and which would die.
With a casual gesture, Mengele directed Lily’s mother, Nina, and two youngest siblings, Bela and Berta, to the left; she and her two older sisters to the right.
“I thought only that we were separated,” says Lily, her voice cracking, even at almost 80 years distance. “But then later I found out that my sister, brother and my mother – my loving mother – they killed them, on this same day when they took them from me.”
Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, more than 434,000 Jews were deported from Hungary. Most of them were sent to Auschwitz, where about 80 per cent were gassed on arrival. As they tried to survive through unimaginably dehumanising conditions, Lily Ebert and her two surviving sisters, Rene and Piri, would again envy the dead.
But it was here, surrounded by starvation, thirst, exhaustion, disease, overwork, suicide, violence and cold, that Lily swore her other life-changing promise. In the filthy, lice-infested camp, where every day could be her last, Lily made a solemn oath that should she get out, she would use the rest of her life to tell her story. She would never allow the world to forget what happened to Europe’s Jews, and she would fight with every breath in her body to stop anything like that happening again.
It was this second promise, made in the darkest of times, that eventually led Lily – aided by her 17-year-old great grandson Dov Forman – to become one of TikTok’s most unlikely stars. On a platform better known for memes, pranks and cat videos, Lily and Dov’s ‘ask me anything’-style clips have garnered 1.3 million followers and 17 million likes by uncovering the real, lived experience of one 97-year-old Holocaust survivor.
“Does Lily remember seeing children being separated from their mothers at Auschwitz?” asks one recent viewer. “Yes,” answers Lily in the reply, “that was terrible. Even today, after more than 70 years, to talk about it – it hurts.”
In other videos Lily talks about the ‘bread’ they were forced to eat in Auschwitz (“it was not made from flour”), the smell of burning bodies coming from the crematoria and what happened after she and her sisters were liberated from the camp by American soldiers. Together, these clips form an extraordinary oral history of humanity’s most brutal hour.
“People know what they want to ask,” says Lily, “but sometimes they are afraid to ask. They don’t want it to hurt us. But the trouble is, if they don’t ask now, later, we will not be there to ask. And these questions must be answered.”
Lily Ebert is no stranger to telling her story. Ever since the day she was liberated from the Nazis, she has kept that second promise. She’s spoken in schools, met politicians, campaigned tirelessly.
When I went to Auschwitz, they said, “There is one way out – through the chimney.” I didn’t go out through the chimney.
“I speak about these terrible times because I know if we will not talk about it, the world will not know,” she explains. “And it was such a terrible tragedy that the world has to know about it. So that something like that should never, ever happen again.”
But when the pandemic lockdown came, like the rest of us, Lily found herself cooped up. She was faced with losing some of the last moments she had left for her mission.
Luckily, her great grandson had an idea. Dov had been learning in school about the perils of social media, but he was sure he could do something positive with the same tools.
“I’ve always been told how dangerous social media is, to try to limit your use on it. That is completely right, it can be very dangerous. If used in the wrong way, you can easily spread hate to millions of people,” says Dov. “But if used in the right way, you can spread stories about anything to millions and millions of people. As easily as you can spread hate, you can actually spread love much easier.”
And so almost every day, Dov has been visiting Lily to make a video for their TikTok channel. At first they had only 10 followers, but it soon snowballed. And kept snowballing.
“I think what we’ve shown over the past year and a half is that there is a space for education, there are nice people on social media,” says Dov. “I think in the past 60 days, we’ve had over 100 million views on our videos on TikTok, and 20 million views on Twitter. And so I think it just shows that we have to use the tools in the right way.”
“We never dreamed that something big like that would happen,” adds Lily. She is delighted that it has taken off. It is a way for many, many more people to hear the testimony of one of the few remaining people with first-hand experience of the concentration camps. “That is very important, because we are the last ones who can tell what happened.”
Following their TikTok success, Lily and Dov got a deal to write a book.
They immediately started work. But at the beginning of this year, it looked as though they may never complete the task. Lily had been hit by Covid-19.
“We were very scared that we wouldn’t ever be able to speak to her again,” says Dov. “It was very, very frightening.”
Lily was bed-bound for almost a month. She was so ill that she’s been left with no memory of her brush with coronavirus. But we can all see the first time that she was able to get out and walk again. Naturally, Dov shared it on social media.
It is in God’s hands how much time she has left, says Lily, but she believes she survived for a reason. “We have to finish our work on this world,” she says. “And it looks like I had a bit more to do.”
Says Dov, “When she was getting better, the thing she said to me and my mum was, ‘I’ve got to get up and finish the book.’ I think that sums her up: a true survivor and a true fighter. Straight away, she was saying, ‘We’ve got to finish this book. Let’s finish it.’ And we have finished it.”
The book, Lily’s Promise – featuring an introduction from the Prince of Wales – will hit shelves on September 2. As Lily and Dov speak to The Big Issue, it’s just a day since they first held a copy in their hands. They’re beaming as they hold it up to the web camera.
Triumphant, Lily opens the book to a page featuring a collage of photos of her with her family. “Look at that,” she says. “Thank God. How many are we here? Children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. And the aim was that we should not be there.
“That was, for the Nazis, the aim. They said: ‘We will kill all the Jewish people.’ Millions died. When I went to Auschwitz, they said, ‘There is one way out – through the chimney.’ I didn’t go out through the chimney. And there I am with my kids, not alone. With my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.”
After everything she’s been through, everything she’s survived, what is the one thing Lily would like us to learn from her story? “In one sentence: never, ever give up. As long as you have life, you have a future. So carry on.”
Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz And Found The Strength To Live by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman is out on September 2 (Macmillan, £18.99)