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The angel who survived Auschwitz

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“Pregnant women tried to kill their own babies. It was better to kill their babies than let the Nazis experiment on them,” says 98-year-old Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert.

“We have people asking us, ‘Why did you choose to go to Auschwitz?’ As if one could choose between camps,” says her great-grandson, Dov Forman. “They’re not being racist, they just don’t know.”

The pair is a force to be reckoned with, bringing Ebert’s story to social-media platform TikTok, where they have 1.9 million followers and 28.7 million likes. Ebert answers people’s questions about surviving the Holocaust, and their top five most popular videos have collectively been viewed by more than 50 million people. In a world in which the reality of the Holocaust is being softened in books and movies, and where many millennials have never heard of the mass murder of European Jewry, they are showing that it’s possible to educate about the reality of the Shoah to the TikTok generation.

Ebert and Forman, who live in the United Kingdom, are guests of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) Yom Hashoah event on Thursday, 28 April 2022. In a special interview with SAJBD President Mary Kluk recorded beforehand, viewers will be given a glimpse into Ebert’s story of survival and how she and her great-grandson have joined forces to fulfil a promise she made to herself in Auschwitz: if she survived, she would tell the world about the reality of the camps.

While she may be 98, Ebert’s playful, childlike delight in life shines through, both in her TikTok videos and in the interview. One can see why young people are so drawn to her and how she’s able to capture the attention of a generation that’s constantly distracted by Instagram, Netflix, and Twitter.

She still wears a tiny gold pendant of an angel that was given to her by her parents for her birthday as a child. The eldest of six siblings growing up in Hungary, she says, “The war was almost over and 99% of European Jewry was dead,” by the time she and her family were forced into a ghetto and then put on a train to Auschwitz. Her mother, younger brother, and sister were gassed on arrival.

Although they could take nothing with them, her brother hid the angel pendant in the heel of their mother’s shoe. How the angel managed to survive Auschwitz is an incredible tale. Ebert wears it in memory of family members who perished and as a potent symbol of endurance and hope. One could say that she’s another angel who survived Auschwitz.

Ebert’s great-grandson, meanwhile, is erudite, passionate, and proudly Jewish. Wearing a kippah and a smile, he shares how “Lily’s story is becoming a part of me. It’s hard to explain. I don’t just know it [her story], but feel it deep inside.

“I’m often taught about the dangers of social media – how hate can spread like wildfire online,” he says. “I felt that a space was missing for education through social media. As Lily says, you can’t explain the unexplainable, but she has to. We thought that if people could go viral with dancing and cat videos, we could too. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Foreman is one of Ebert’s 35 great-grandchildren. The pair spends nearly every day together and their project has brought them closer. They have shared joyful moments that they never imagined when they began like being invited to Buckingham Palace. There, they met Prince Charles, who wrote the foreword to their award-winning international bestseller, Lily’s Promise. The book has been called “utterly compelling, heartbreaking, truthful and yet redemptive, a memoir of the Holocaust, a testimony of irrepressible spirit and an unforgettable family chronicle”.

Ebert and Forman have collaborated with various departments of the UK government, including the department for education, the Foreign Office, and the Home Office. In November 2020, they spoke at the UK Parliament in favour of the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre. They have also appeared on international radio and television, giving interviews to more than 180 news outlets in more than 35 countries.

In the 2016 New Year Honours, Ebert was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to Holocaust education and awareness. Forman received the Points of Light award from the UK prime minister at 10 Downing Street in November 2021 in recognition of exceptional services to Holocaust education.

Forman, who is also a spokesperson for the USC Shoah Foundation, says there have been many incredible moments in their journey as social-media stars, but he also appreciates the quieter times, like being able to spend Shabbat together.

As the last of our precious Holocaust survivors leave us, it’s safe to say that with young men like Forman dedicating himself to Holocaust education, their stories won’t be lost. Forman says it’s an honour to have this role, and he’s grateful to play a small part in ensuring that future generations will be able to learn about the reality of the Holocaust and its lessons.

Yom Hashoah ceremonies will be taking place throughout the country as follows:

KZN: 28 April | Durban Jewish Centre | 17:00

CT: 28 April | Pinelands Jewish Cemetery No 2 | 12:45

Pretoria: 28 April | PHC Synagogue | 17:30

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