May 17, 2024
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From Holocaust Survivor to TikTok Sensation

Reviewing: “Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live” by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman. Macmillan. 2021. English. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-1529073409.

This book really hit home—and not just because I read the whole thing over Tisha B’Av. The protagonist of this largely autobiographical Holocaust book is a scion of the famed Engelman family from the Hungarian town of Bonyhad. The Engelmans lived there for centuries, where the Jewish community seems to have been established in the mid 1700s. The Engelmans were even the first signatories on the document that officially established the Orthodox Community of Bonyhad as a breakaway from the Neolog Community.

Throughout the generations, the Engelmans have proven themselves to be resilient, brave and steadfast Jews, and Lily’s story simply follows that trajectory. (By the way, other prominent members of the extended Engelman family include Benjamin Engelman, a well-known nuclear physicist in Jerusalem, and his son Mordechai Matanyahu Engelman, the current state comptroller/ombudsman of Israel.)

Lily’s story opens with a vivid description of her idyllic childhood and upbringing in the quaint Hungarian town of Bonyhad. She was the oldest of several siblings, and was doted on by her loving parents. Already from a young age, Lily shows herself to be a responsible and reliable doer, as well as a figure to whom her younger siblings looked up.

Although for most of Hungarian Jewry, the tragedies only began in 1944 when the Nazis occupied Hungary, for Lily’s family the first tragedy came in 1942 with the death of their father. On her father’s deathbed, Lily promised that she would take care of her siblings—a promise she truly kept.

And then in the summer of 1944, the Jews of Bonyhad were rounded up and confined to the makeshift ghetto—before they were quickly deported to Auschwitz, where most of them sadly perished (on the 18th of Tammuz). Lily, too, was forced into the ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz, along with her mother and siblings. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Lily’s mother gives over her shoes (in whose soles was hidden precious jewelry) as she realizes that she will not survive the camps, leaving it to Lily to figuratively walk in her mother’s shoes.

Along the arduous and grueling path that her story took, Lily held steadfast to her faith and to her responsibility to her younger sisters. She literally held the hands of her two younger sisters, Piri and Rene, as they survived together the concentration camp at Auschwitz and the forced labor at Altenburg. At the end of the war, they were liberated by soldiers from the American Army, who led them into freedom. Lily and her sisters were directly aided by the efforts of the legendary U.S. Army chaplain, Rabbi Herschel Schacter (1917–2013), who helped them find refuge and recovery in Switzerland; and from Switzerland they found their way to the British Mandate of Palestine through the efforts of Agudas Yisrael.

The Engelman sisters were later reunited with their lone surviving brother Imre (Imi), who eventually joined them in Israel after having been held up under the Soviets for several years. Lily’s mother and other siblings did not survive the horrors of the Nazis.

Lily and her sisters settled in the Holy Land and married, with Lily wedding a fellow Hungarian immigrant, Shmuel Ebert, with whom she established a family in Tel Aviv. Eventually, with Shmuel’s health failing, the Eberts moved to London, where they have by now established multiple generations of God-fearing Jews.

After the death of her husband, Lily became more open to the idea of publicly speaking about the Holocaust and her experiences during the war years. She frequented the speaking circuit and was a guest at schools where she lectured about the Holocaust. However, during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, all of this came to halt, as the lockdowns prevented public gatherings and essentially confined her to her home.

This is where the book’s co-author, Dov Forman, comes in. The 18-year-old is Lily’s great-grandson and a high school student in London. He teamed up with his spunky nonagenarian ancestor to research some aspects of her story on social media, and used Twitter to tell Lily’s story of surviving the Holocaust; his tweets reached over 70 million Twitter users in 2020 and 2021. They wrote this book together to bring her story to a wider audience.

It didn’t stop there. In February 2021, Dov set up a TikTok account to raise awareness among people his own age about the Holocaust and the consequences of hate. He posts videos with his great-grandmother answering questions about the Holocaust, Judaism, and advice for the younger generation. Today, 98-year-old Lily has close to 2 million followers. In January 2022 Lily and Dov were guests at Buckingham Palace, where a new portrait, one of seven commissioned by Prince Charles to honor Holocaust survivors, were unveiled. They met with Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. Lily said simply: “If I don’t speak, nobody can be heard. I am a witness.”

“Lily’s Promise” was especially meaningful to me because my own grandmother, Roszi Klein (nee Kuttner), also hailed from Bonyhad. In fact, my grandmother’s older sister, Sari Blau (nee Kuttner), who currently lives in Brooklyn, was Lily’s classmate and is even mentioned in her book (on page 162). Her husband, the late Leslie Blau (1921–2021), wrote “Bonyhad: A Destroyed Community” (Shengold, 1994), so many of the characters that appear in Lily’s story (like the endearing town doctor Dr. Litzman and the Engelman girls themselves) were already familiar to me through his work.

For those who want to be inspired by a tale of resilience, bravery and commitment, “Lily’s Promise” is an excellent choice.

By Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

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