South of the River – The Prisoner

Compass-SouthComment logo 2On Monday I went along to hear a remarkable woman called Iby Knill tell her story. She was truly inspiring, but I’ll come to that later.

Iby is 93 and a holocaust survivor. I thought I knew the story of the holocaust, the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ of exterminating the Jews of Europe, the cattle trucks, the gas chambers and the crematoria. Listening to Iby I realised that everyone involved had their own story with its own twists and turns. It didn’t make the crime any less, in fact it made the horror worse.

Iby was born in what is now Slovakia and didn’t even know she was Jewish until the Nazis took over and classified everyone. I’m not going to repeat her whole story, I don’t have space and anyway you should read her book – The Woman with No Number – but she made a number points that really struck a chord with me.

Iby Knill (seated) with Alison Lowe, CEO of Touchstone which organised the meeting
Iby Knill (seated) with Alison Lowe, CEO of Touchstone which organised the meeting

In 1939 the countries of eastern Europe were only 20 years old. Before that many of them were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So whether you spoke, Czech, German or Hungarian didn’t really matter you were all equal citizens. Getting rid of the Hapsburgs in 1919 might have been a step forward, but nationalism has a downside – you identify yourself as different and distinct from others. That can easily lead to rivalry and enmity.

She fled Bratislava and crossed the border into Hungary after her cousin was arrested and deported to the Eastern Front to ‘service’ the German troops. We have the benefit of hindsight, we know the history – of course she fled and was right to. Of course she didn’t carry any papers that could get her arrested.

I don’t know how many refugees and asylum seekers you have spoken to, but in my experience they all have similar stories. Whether it’s a professor from Afghanistan who fled ahead of the Taliban take over – they weren’t keen on academia; or the opposition politician’s brother from the Congo, where bullets are more important than votes. Sometimes you have to get out quick.

In 1942 she was arrested as part of a resistance group smuggling allied airmen home. This was one of many quirks of fate that might have saved her life. She wasn’t arrested as a Jew, or even as an illegal immigrant, she was a political prisoner. This meant she wore a red triangle instead of a yellow star and because she was arrested with a doctor she was classified as a nurse.

When she finally ended up in Auschwitz she was put to work in the camp hospital. Although life was brutal, they didn’t even have bunks in their hut, at least she got a shower once a week. But here’s the twist – the real showers were next to the gas chambers and life was so precarious that she didn’t know until the water started running which one she’d been marched to. How’s that for a method of psychological torture?

She volunteered to accompany slave workers sent from Auschwitz to an armaments factory in the Ruhr. When that ran out of raw materials they joined a death march to Bergen Belsen, but were liberated by the Americans as they lay in a field on Easter Sunday. She ended up working for the British in occupied Germany and married a British officer.

I said I would tell you why she inspired me. It wasn’t going through those experiences and surviving although that is pretty impressive. It is that she is now telling her story and why she is telling her story.

She said it took her 60 years before she could write her story. Why so long? Plenty of other survivors have told their story. The question is: how do you survive mental trauma like that. Think about it, in the course of five years you’ve lived through numerous experiences where you might die, where you thought you were going to die, where other people you knew did die. How to do you cope with that?

I guess Iby did what a lot of people in that situation do, she buried her memories and got on with her life. But you can’t bury things forever and then the question is what do you do with them. Iby answered that question by deciding she had a duty as a survivor to bear witness to those horrific events and tell her story. I’m really glad she did and that she did so with grace and even humour.

She also had some lessons for today. She was very clear that not all Germans were Nazis and not all Nazis were German. And that there are plenty of Nazis around in the world today. In her poem, I Was There, she makes a plea for people to value and respect difference and to build bridges based on understanding and respect to create mutual trust and genuine peace.

Now that’s something we can all strive for.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.


2 Replies to “South of the River – The Prisoner”

  1. Iby’s experience makes it very obvious why people fleeing for their lives sometimes arrive in foreign countries without the “right” paperwork. People who talk about “bogus”refugees need to understand that when one is fleeing for one’s life, what one brings is limited and often arbitrary – how do you know what you will “need”, when genuine identity documents might get you killed if caught? And what do you take with you when you are “packing for the rest of your life”?

    Because you will suffer soon and die, your choices
    Are neither right nor wrong: a spoon will feed you,
    A flannel keep you clean, a toothbrush bring you back
    To your bathroom’s view of chimney-pots and gardens.
    With so little time for inventory or leavetaking,
    You are packing now for the rest of your life
    Photographs, medicines, a change of underwear, a book,
    A candlestick, a loaf, sardines, needle and thread.

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