Iby Knill honoured for breaking her Shoah silence


A 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, who kept her past secret for half a century, has been honoured for her work telling young people about the Shoah.

Iby Knill would not speak about her traumatic wartime experience for decades until a chance comment inspired her to break her silence and become a Holocaust educator.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1923, Mrs Knill escaped the Nazis who had occupied her country by fleeing to Hungary in 1942. After a period spent fighting with the Hungarian resistance, she was caught and sent to Auschwitz, where her father was eventually killed.

She was later was part of a group that was transferred out of the death camp as slave labour to an armament factory in Lippstadt, Germany, from where she was eventually liberated by American forces.

She then met her husband Bert, a British army officer, and in 1947 the pair embarked on married life together in Britain.

For 50 years, I made my husband's family history my own

From then onwards, she focused on the future. The couple settled in Yorkshire where they had two children and Mrs Knill worked in civil defence and for the Department of Education. After retirement she became a textile designer and language tutor, having spent years studying for a degree in translation.

However, her wartime experience remained a secret - even from her own children - as she battled with the legacy of being a Holocaust survivor.

"My husband obviously knew about it," she says. "He was actually a tremendous support in the first few years when I had nervous breakdown after nervous breakdown, because trying to bury something like that takes enormous emotional strain."

Then, 17 years ago, everything changed when Mrs Knill signed up for a masters degree in theology and religious studies.

She says: "The class had to debate 'what is sin and what is evil' and one of the students said 'where do you put the Holocaust?' At this stage nobody knew of my background which put me in a difficult position. I just said 'I was there'."

Once her secret was out, she was persuaded to write about her experiences which later became a book called The Woman Without A Number, and her story featured on BBC One in 2010.

Mrs Knill, who at 92 still travels the length and breadth of Britain giving talks to young people about the Holocaust, said: "For 50 years I lived the life of an army officer's wife. I made my husband's family history my own.

"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.

"It was actually precipitated by the question from a fellow-student on my MA course. Only with the help of friends who supported me throughout the trauma of recalling the harrowing details of what happened to me during the war was I able to write my story."

Mrs Knill will receive the award of honorary doctorate for her services to Holocaust commemoration and education from Huddersfield University next month - two weeks before her 93rd birthday.

"I think the Yorkshire expression would be 'chuffed', she says, describing her reaction.

Explaining why she continues to give lectures, which in recent weeks have stretched from York to Devon, she says: "What motivated me is a concern that it could happen again unless you explain to young people the circumstances and what led to it. The future is in their hands."

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