For years, 97-year-old Lily Ebert has been speaking to groups about her experiences and educating the next generation about the horrors of the Holocaust. When the pandemic forced her to stop appearing in public at live events last year, Lily teamed up with her then16-year-old great grandson Dov Forman to find ways to tell her story during Britain’s lockdown. The result has been a series of videos that have gone viral on social media, and a book about Lily that has climbed to the top of the best-seller lists in Britain is about to be released around the world.

My relationship with my great grandma has always been very close,” Dov explained in an Aish.com exclusive interview. He grew up in Northwest London in the heart of a large, Orthodox Jewish family, and his Great Grandma Lily has always been a vital presence in his life.

Lily Ebert with her great grandson Dov Forman celebrating on TikTok

“She’s very much the queen of the family,” Dov describes. Lily’s husband died when his children were young and since then, Lily has been the “head of the family.” Today, at 97, she continues to live independently, spending Shabbat and Jewish holidays with her relatives. “She comes to us nearly every week for Shabbat,” Dov explains. “She’s got a really young personality.”

Dov is interested in history and has always been interested in learning about the Holocaust. Though Dov knew his great grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, he didn’t know all the details about her remarkable story until last year.

During the first lockdown in 2020, my great grandma had to adapt. She kept saying, ‘Let’s do something – how can I carry this story on, Dov?’” Dov came up with a plan for Lily to address his history class over Zoom. The event was a success. Lily spoke for nearly two hours, detailing her harrowing experiences during the Holocaust. The experience was very emotional for Dov and he wrote about it for a local Jewish newspaper and tweeted about it to his small number of twitter followers. (Dov estimates that he had about ten.) They had no idea that they'd eventually reach millions of people.

Lily Ebert’s experiences in the Holocaust were horrific. When the Nazis took over her hometown of Bonyhad in Hungary in 1944, they forced Lily, along with her mother, her brother and her three sisters, into a cattle car which took them to Auschwitz. When they arrived at Auschwitz after their harrowing journey, “everyone was half-dead.”

In Auschwitz, Lily and her family were met by the notorious Dr. Mengele, dubbed the “Angel of Death” for his cruel and sadistic experiments on prisoners. At the train tracks in Auschwitz, Mengele waved his hand at each new prisoner: a wave to the right meant that prisoners would be kept alive as slave laborers; a wave to the left condemned them to death. Lily’s mother Nina, her brother Bela and her sister Berta were waved to the left to be killed. Lily, along with her sisters Renee and Piri, were given a life-saving wave to the right.

As she walked into Auschwitz, Lily noticed a roaring fire in a massive chimney, churning out a thick, foul-smelling smoke, and inquired what sort of factory fueled such a massive chimney. Lily’s fellow prisoners told her: the chimney was billowing smoke from the bodies of Lily’s mother and siblings and the other Jews who’d been ushered to the left. If Auschwitz was a factory, its primary product was large-scale death.

Lily survived the war, working as a slave laborer in a munition's factory. She was liberated in 1945 and eventually moved to England where she reared her family.

They dehumanized us,” she explained. Facing death all around her, starved and beaten, Lily made two promises: that she would look after her younger sisters and that she would never let the world forget what she’d seen. “I promised myself that if I survived by some miracle, I would tell the world what happened there… The next generations should know so that something like that should not be repeated to any human being ever.” 

One recent Shabbat while she was visiting Dov’s family, Lily showed Dov a banknote that was given to her after liberation, which she’d saved all these years in a photo album. A few weeks after being liberated, she met an American soldier in the German town of Pfaffroda. He wanted to give her words of encouragement and write her a note, but the soldier didn’t have any paper with him. Instead, he pulled out a German banknote and wrote on it. Lily also had a picture taken with some of the GIs who’d freed her.

Lily always treasured this note and photo. “This soldier was the first human being who was kind to us after this terrible life and I knew that somebody wants to help.”

Dov tweeted about the banknote: “Yesterday my great Grandma (Lily Ebert – an Auschwitz survivor) showed me this bank note – given to her as a gift by a soldier who liberated her. Inscribed, it says ‘a start to a new life. Good luck and happiness’. Later on, she met up with those who freed her....” To his surprise, it immediately went viral, being viewed by over a million people within hours.

One of the people who read the message got in touch with Dov, suggesting that the GI might have been Pvt. Hyman Schulman, a Jewish American serviceman who worked as an aid to Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a leading American rabbi and the first Jewish chaplain to enter Buchenwald concentration camp.

Dov told Britain’s Sky News, “I joked with my great grandma that I’d be able to find the soldier in 24 hours. And lo and behold, with the help of Twitter, we managed to find him in 24 hours, which is just amazing.” Hyman Schulman is no longer alive, but Dov spoke with his relatives and helped arrange a Zoom call with Pvt. Shulman’s children in New York, bringing Lily and her family together with them virtually. “It was really special,” Dov recalled. “It felt like we were family.”

The meeting between Lily’s family and Hyman Shulman’s family sparked media interest around the world. Suddenly, more people wanted to hear Lily’s story. “We got onto international news,” recalls Dov. “We were on something like 50 channels in a week… So we decided to write a book.” With Dov’s help, Lily began to dictate her life history. Dov wrote down her Holocaust experiences, with the goal of publishing a book about it one day.

Then, in January of 2021, disaster struck. Lily became gravely ill with Covid-19. “She got really ill to the point where we weren't sure she ever would recover.” Yet even while she was sick, Lily was determined to finish the book. “She could barely get out of bed but she got up and said ‘Ok, we’ve got to finish.' That sums her up,” Dov explains.

On January 21, 2021, Dov sent out a tweet alerting his followers that Lily seemed to be on the mend at last. “My 97-Year-Old Great Grandma, Lily Ebert BEM – Auschwitz Survivor, has just recovered from Covid- 19. Today she went on her first walk in a month after a miraculous recovery. A fighter and survivor.” That Tweet was eventually viewed 40 million times in various forms. (Note: BEM is a British medal, given in recognition of meritorious service to the nation; Lily received it in 2015 for her work in Holocaust education.)

At the time I was seeing so much anti-Semitism on TikTok,” Dov recalls. Dov had an idea: why not make videos about the Holocaust with Lily and put them on TikTok, the popular social media channel for teens? “I wasn’t seeing anything about the Holocaust there and I thought if anybody can do it my great grandma and I can.”

Dov set up a TikTok account and he and Lily created their first Holocaust video. “Our first video got 400,000 views,” Dov says proudly. "Now we have over a million followers.”

Lily holding Dov when he was a baby.

In one TikTok video, Lily addresses the question: “Is there anyone who was with you in the Holocaust that you wish you could talk to again?” Looking into the camera, wearing a pink suit and a white hat, Lily nods and answers in lightly accented English, her eyes filling with tears:

Yes, my mother. Because we went into this terrible place (Auschwitz) together and I came out from it alone. They (the Nazis) took my mother. It is so interesting how old you are. It makes no difference. I’m already in my 90s so you normally wouldn’t have a mother or even a grandmother. And even so – nothing you miss so much in life than your mother. When you think of your mother you are again a young child. A young child who has protection and who is looked after. A mother is someone who gave you your life and kept for you your life – that is a mother. And when this person is not here anymore, then you really feel the loss. No matter how old you are, mothers you are the most important things in the world.

@lilyebert

We went into the #concentrationcamp together - I came out from it, alone. They took my mother ���� #holocaustsurvivor #learnontiktok #blowthisup #foru

♬ original sound - Lily Ebert & Dov Forman

That video received over half a million views. "There’s so much ignorance about the Holocaust,” Dov notes. "Our videos are a way to counter some of that incomprehension. Each video sparks numerous questions from viewers which we attempt to answer in future segments."

Dov notes that with the generation of Holocaust survivors now reaching very old age, making an effort to hear their stories is more important than ever. “In the future people will be able to say well I know this happened because a Holocaust survivor answered me on TikTok.”

Lily and Dov's book has just been published in the UK. Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live quickly became one of the top ten bestsellers in Britain. It will be released in the United States in May, 2022.

I often say this will be one of the last memoirs written by a concentration camp survivor,” Dov notes. “It’s about a 97-year-old and a 17-year-old, and how she survived Auschwitz… It’s also how she fulfilled the promise of telling the world and rebuilding her life with no parents, no family. Holocaust survivors spent their life educating us about the Holocaust, and now it’s our turn to carry that on.”

On a whim, Dov sent an email to Prince Charles, describing the project: he was surprised and gratified when Prince Charles responded, offering to write an introduction to the book. In his introduction, Prince Charles writes about his own grandmother, who was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for sheltering a Jewish family in Athens during the Holocaust. He also describes his close friendship with the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

"My great grandma never questioned her faith… She often says having that hope and faith gave her something to hold on to and helped her get through. She says that God didn’t do this – people did…”

Dov is especially gratified that the videos of his great grandma have inspired people to connect with their Jewish heritage. "Viewers have reached out to us, describing how they have been moved to start lighting Shabbat candles and deepening their own commitment to Judaism. My great grandma shows the power of what one person can do.”