Life & Culture

The toothbrush made by a concentration camp prisoner

Lily wanted to be an artist, but was rejected by the Vienna Art Academy because she was Jewish. This well-crafted object shows her skill


This toothbrush is an everyday object in name alone. It was made by a woman called Lily while she was a prisoner in a concentration camp and as we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, it reminds us of her story of survival.

Born in Vienna in 1898, to a middle-class, secular family, Lily longed to become an artist. In 1919, she applied to the Vienna Art Academy, but the institute’s director told her she would only be let in if she converted to Catholicism, which she refused. She describes this incident as the only antisemitism she experienced in her youth.

At the age of 21, Lily married Ernst, and moved with him to Prague. His family was significantly wealthier than hers, and when she set up home in the Czech capital she acquired a governess, parlourmaid, cook and driver. She also tried to enrol at the Czech Art Academy, but this time it was her husband who put paid to her dreams. He asked her to stay at home and within a year she had the first of their two children.

In 1939, those children would travel alone to Britain on the Kindertransport: the couple were desperate to get their children out of mainland Europe. 

Three years later, in 1942, Lily and her husband Ernst were deported to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in the Czech Republic that the Nazis used as a propaganda exercise to conceal the true aim of the Final Solution. She was sent to work in a craft workshop, designing and creating boxes, lampshades and trays. After several months, she was moved to the camp’s painting hut where she made menu cards among other items for the camp commandant, and also artworks for her captors to sell.

It is possible that she made the toothbrush when she was in the craft workshop, where she would have had access to wood and string.

However, it is also possible that she made it the munitions factory at Oederan, a sub-camp of Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany, close to the Czech border. She was sent there after her brief imprisonment in Auschwitz, in 1944.

What is clear, is that the item has been made with the skill of an artist using the very basic materials that were available to her. The toothbrush is​ about the length of a hand, small enough ti keep it hidden from the guards. We should see its creation as an act of courageous resistance from a woman determined to retain her dignity in a place where the Jews’ captors did everything they could to strip them of it.

Lily was able to move to the UK in 1946, and was reunited with her children shortly after. She very generously donated this item to the museum in 1990. Her husband, who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1937, died in Theresianstadt.


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