Lily’s Promise: Hold­ing On to Hope Through Auschwitz and Beyond―A Sto­ry for All Generations

Lily Ebert, Dov Forman

By – May 16, 2022

One of the occu­pa­tion­al haz­ards for schol­ars of mod­ern Ger­man pol­i­tics is their abun­dant, per­haps even over­whelm­ing, expo­sure to all things relat­ed to Nazis, Hitler, and the Holo­caust. Being the only child of a Roman­ian-born, Hun­gar­i­an-speak­ing, Holo­caust-rav­aged, mid­dle-class Jew­ish fam­i­ly, I had a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with this top­ic well before becom­ing a schol­ar; it is safe to say that as a sev­en­ty-three-year old uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing in Ger­man and Euro­pean pol­i­tics, I am rea­son­ably acquaint­ed with this unique event in human his­to­ry. This per­tains not only to the macro-lev­el schol­ar­ship in Eng­lish and Ger­man devot­ed to ana­lyz­ing this epoch’s polit­i­cal sys­tems, gov­ern­ing regimes, eco­nom­ic rela­tions, and rival­ing ide­olo­gies, but also to many micro-lev­el accounts of per­son­al tragedies. So what could yet anoth­er per­son­al sto­ry tell me about this night­mare? What more is there to tell, to know?

Lily Ebert’s pow­er­ful book demon­strates solid­ly that there is plen­ty. The author’s abil­i­ty to offer stun­ning details lend this book its intel­lec­tu­al grav­i­tas but also its read­abil­i­ty. From the very begin­ning of Lily’s life in the small south Hun­gar­i­an town of Bony­hád, where one in eight of the sev­en thou­sand inhab­i­tants was Jew­ish in Decem­ber 1923, when Lily was born as the eldest of six chil­dren to the typ­i­cal­ly mid­dle class Jew­ish fam­i­ly of the Engel­mans, details in the descrip­tion of every­day life offer immense rich­ness. The author suc­ceeds in depict­ing Jew­ish life in Bony­hád in all its facets.

True to the form of the Jew­ish bour­geoisie in Hun­gary at this time, the Engel­mans honed their Ger­man in speech and read­ing, nev­er both­er­ing to learn Yid­dish. Strik­ing in this thick descrip­tion of Jew­ish life in this Hun­gar­i­an provin­cial town is the total absence of anti­semitism. 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.” Lily lives in a cocoon that appears to be utter­ly incred­i­ble in hind­sight but was very real for her. It is all the more jar­ring to read Ebert’s account of the sud­den demo­li­tion of this nir­vana in a mat­ter of a few days in May of 1944, when her world comes tum­bling down in an orgy of anti­semitism that results in Lily, her sib­lings, and moth­er being trans­port­ed in a cat­tle car to Auschwitz in ear­ly July.

Ebert’s descrip­tion of the unspeak­able inhu­man­i­ty of the train ride remains unfor­get­table. Like­wise, her time in Auschwitz, fol­lowed by a stint in a muni­tions fac­to­ry in Altenburg, capped by a death march lead­ing her to unex­pect­ed free­dom, high­lights Ebert’s fine abil­i­ty to depict the sheer increduli­ty dur­ing this night­mare. Even though all these chap­ters fea­ture a sin­gu­lar bru­tal­i­ty and inhu­man­i­ty, Ebert — to her great cred­it — writes with zero self-pity. Com­ing full cir­cle to the bliss of fam­i­ly life that com­mences this book, Lily Ebert’s Lon­don-based great grand­son, Dov For­man, authored three chap­ters. In these, For­man depicts how his social media prowess helped Lily find the son of her most impor­tant Amer­i­can lib­er­a­tor, Hyman Schul­man, who was then an assis­tant to Rab­bi Her­schel Schac­ter chap­lain in the Unit­ed States Army, father of Jacob Schac­ter, emi­nent pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish His­to­ry and Thought at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. But, more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Dov’s mas­tery of the Internet’s many plat­forms and youth­ful verve have giv­en Lily an added zest for life and a sense of fam­i­ly that she actu­al­ly nev­er lost, despite the hor­rors that she encountered.

Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Col­le­giate Pro­fes­sor of Com­par­a­tive Pol­i­tics and Ger­man Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. His books, arti­cles and reviews on var­i­ous aspects of Ger­man and Euro­pean pol­i­tics have appeared in 15 lan­guages. Markovits’s lat­est work is a mem­oir enti­tled The Pass­port as Home: Com­fort in Root­less­ness pub­lished by the Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ty Press in 2021

Discussion Questions

The publisher’s blurb describes this book as a sto­ry for all gen­er­a­tions” — and it is. Writ­ten by nine­ty-eight-year-old Lily Ebert, with chap­ters by her six­teen-year-old great grand­son Dov, this engross­ing, pow­er­ful, and poignant mem­oir fol­lows Lil­ly from her pre-war child­hood in Hun­gary to her life in Lon­don today. It moves quick­ly from what Lily describes as her joy­ous ear­ly life in a large close-knit mid­dle-class Ortho­dox Jew­ish fam­i­ly, to the shock of the Ger­man occu­pa­tion when, with­in two days, Jews were sub­ject­ed to a cur­few and forced to wear yel­low stars. With­in months, they faced ghet­toiza­tion and depor­ta­tion, first to a tran­sit camp and then to Auschwitz, where Lilly’s moth­er and two of her sib­lings were sent to the left while she and two oth­er sis­ters were sent to the right. It was so fast we couldn’t exchange a sin­gle word. That was it. Over.”

Although Lil­ly details the grim and degrad­ing dai­ly life she and her beloved sis­ters endured in Auschwitz, she believes she man­aged to stay alive because she was sus­tained by her faith as an obser­vant Jew, her warm mem­o­ries of her par­ents, and her fierce com­mit­ment to be there to pro­tect her sis­ters. She also cred­its her resilience in the face of bru­tal­i­ties to her strength and deter­mi­na­tion to live.

Lilly’s writ­ing about her love for and devo­tion to her sis­ters make this Holo­caust sto­ry appro­pri­ate even for ninth graders. Per­haps Dov, her great-grand­son, helped Lily to find just the right tone to make her voice warm and engag­ing, even as she recalls and recounts her painful experiences.

We learn that it was Dov who pressed her to tell her sto­ry for pos­ter­i­ty. Dov then turned to the inter­net to unearth a trove of mate­ri­als to help doc­u­ment her nar­ra­tive. He also dis­cov­ered new mate­ri­als and pic­tures of her dur­ing the Holo­caust and, almost mirac­u­lous­ly, locat­ed the US sol­dier who lib­er­at­ed her, a man who was then an assis­tant to the rab­bi who arranged for the sis­ters to be tak­en to Switzer­land to recov­er. This dra­mat­ic sto­ry – and Lily’s sub­se­quent new-found fol­low­ing on the inter­net – are includ­ed in the final chap­ters of the book.

Lily and Dov con­tin­ue to work togeth­er to pro­mote Holo­caust edu­ca­tion and were over­whelmed by the sup­port they have received on Twit­ter and social media” while they were writ­ing this book. Dov was recent­ly hon­ored with the British Points of Light Award for ser­vices to Holo­caust education.