Profile feature: Auschwitz survivor Iby Knill

Sitting on the living room sofa and surrounded by legions of books, memories and old pictures, the first unavoidable thought that comes to one’s mind when meeting her for the first time, it is the desire to have her lucidity and wisdom if one is lucky enough to turn eighty-seven in such good conditions. Writer, lecturer, polyglot translator, traveller, curious and active member of her community, Iby Knill gives the impression of having never wasted the time in her entire life. Now she keeps herself busy with interviews, conferences and speeches all over the world. The reason, being one of the few Holocaust survivors alive, and the publication of her book The woman without a number, which tells her story after sixty years of silence.

The publication of a book about her experiences during the World War II was the least likely thing to happen for Iby over the last sixty years. Since she moved to England in 1947 – following her marriage to British army officer Bert Knill – she decided to leave her past as ‘ex-inmate of a concentration camp and ex-Jew’ behind. Neither of those facts was to be told to anybody in her new country of residence, it was baggage neither she nor her husband needed.

In the following years Iby managed to bury the past and move on with her life in England. She admitted she had a happy family life – she has a son, a daughter and three grandchildren-. Neither she nor her husband talked about her experiences in Auschwitz again; as if those had never happened. Iby also had a successful career, first in the education sector – she was Lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University – and later as a designer. Asking her about the subconscious – dreams or nightmares – she says she learnt to control it as well ‘by taking pills or other remedies that help you out to not let that to come out.’

The book has changed my life tremendously. Ten years ago, publishing it was the least likely thing to happen. But I wanted to write it for my children and grandchildren. I am doing now something that needed to be done.”

For fifty years I lived the life of an Army Officer’s wife. I made his family and its history mine. It was only after his death and after my children had left home and made their own lives that I felt the need – and the duty – to recall my own past and to record my own history.”

Iby Knill
Image: Iby Knill and her husband on their wedding day.

The events were actually precipitated last year when Iby enrolled on a MA course in Theology. During one of the modules called ‘Topics in Christianity’, fellow students were constructing a sort of line of what was sin and what was evil. When the term Holocaust came to light, the lecturer said only people who had lived through that horror would be able to talk about it. Thus was the beginning of The woman without a number.

It was not an easy process to go into the painful past, though. Thanks to the encouragement of her supervisor on the MA course, and the support and love of her friends, Iby managed to finish the manuscript and she then put it away.

I had written it and that was the most important thing. I could not bear to look at it, to read it or revise it. Yet there was still much I had not included. Even today there are sections I cannot look and experiences I could not bear to describe.”

Last October she was featured on the BBC television series ‘My Story’ and following that, a publisher in Leeds – where Iby is based – brought out her autobiography. The book is now in its third edition and will be translated and published in Slovakia.

The book is historically very important because it contains social history of that period. It is now definitely – contracts have been signed – being translated into Slovak and will be published in Slovakia. It seems nobody has yet written about what the situation was in Slovakia or about the situation in Hungary 1942-44 for Jewish people. I am now in the process of contacting people in Hungary and hope they will also want to translate the book for them.”

Although every time she talks about her past it takes two days to get over it, following the publication of the book Iby spends most of days talking and sharing her experiences especially with young people. She is now a tireless speaker for organisations, community groups, and schools, telling students her story to make them aware of the dangers of discrimination and persecution.

Many young people ask me if I consider myself lucky, I think I am fortunate, that is different.”

She recently spoke to an invited audience of MPs and Peers in the Palace of Westminster – on invitation of the Speaker of the House, who is the highest ranking commoner – and on 18 April she will be interviewed on BBC Radio Leeds on the programme ‘One to One’.

As you are getting older, activity is not the same. I usually visit three places a week, I listen to the news, I travel, and I am involved in many activities. I also have speaking engagements booked until September.

2011_04_01_Auschwitz survivor Iby Knill profile feature II
Image: Iby Knill at present.

On 26 January Iby hosted the Untold Stories event at Dewsbury Town Hall as part of the theme for Holocaust Memorial 2011. She was speaking and joining by students from four Kirklees schools. Every 27 January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. During the last years this date has been an ordinary one for Iby but now it is a tough day. Last year it was especially emotive as it marked the 65th anniversary of the liberation. She attended different events hosted at Leeds and Huddersfield Town Hall and also at Victoria Theatre in Halifax (West Yorkshire).

Iby is a writer and member of the Leeds Writers’ Circle – it was the enthusiasm of her friends and fellow writers who also persuaded her that the book was worth publishing – . English is her fifth language and she wrote the book all by herself with just some minor changes made in it. She defines her style as a much disciplined writing and usually writes short stories and poetry. She also chairs the Education Committee in the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association (HSFA) and is an active member of her local church, being involved in some ecumenical events.

I have faith but I am not religious. You can say that God can allow this thing to happen so he is omniscient but not omnipotent. I am involved in some ecumenical events, and I also lead some services in my church.”

Asking about her opinion on the recent rise of the far right in UK politics – and the parallels in the rest of Europe – Iby focuses on the need to teach people to understand, tolerate and respect each other. Otherwise, there is no future for mankind.

I am concerned about the possible rise of feelings against ethnic minorities. When there are economic problems and high levels of unemployment there is a temptation for uneducated people – and others – to try to find a scapegoat and that is often an ethnic minority. When I speak to students it is a special point I make as do others from the HSFA.”

She also believes that the chances that something similar can happen are high.

Of course I think a similar horror is likely to happen again. Intolerance is very dangerous for people and politicians never learn from the past.

Although she smiles as she speaks, these last words have a pessimistic – or sadly realistic – tone. Her voice sounds like a person with sufficient moral authority to give her credit for all what she is doing. The generosity of sharing her past with the world is just one reason why Iby’s story is worth knowing, not only because it is an inspirational example of courage and resilience but also because it can help to avoid repeating the same mistakes of the past.


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