Johannesburg - The old woman looks into the camera.
“My number is A-10572,” she says, pulling back her sleeve and exposing the tattoo on her forearm. “That is what I was. They did not call us by our names. We were no longer human. We were only a number and we were treated like numbers.”
Her name is Lily Ebert. She is a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor and TikTok sensation – perhaps the oldest influencer on the platform in the world with her 1.6-million followers. Her posts, like this one of the concentration camp number, have garnered more than 23-million likes.
She began posting during lockdown, encouraged and helped by her great-grandson Dov Forman. On Thursday, they spoke virtually at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies annual Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Day Commemorations), which took place at the Jewish section of the West Park cemetery.
Telling the world her story is the fulfilment of the second promise she made in Auschwitz as a 20-year-old. The first was to look after her two younger sisters after her mother, brother and other sister were dispatched to the gas chamber.
“I said if I survived, I would tell the world. I would change the world.”
She speaks not just to tell her story, but to tell the stories of those who didn’t survive, who perished in the Holocaust and especially the camps. The Holocaust, instituted by Nazi Germany, was the systematic persecution, enslavement, imprisonment and slaughter of Europe’s Jewish population. By the time World War 2 ended in 1945, 6-million Jews, two thirds of Europe’s Jews, had been murdered – in ghettoes and then in extermination camps like Auschwitz.
Ebert’s been speaking as a Holocaust survivor at schools and organisations ever since she walked out of Auschwitz in 1945, but it was during lockdown that she pivoted to social media, helped by her 20-year-old great grandson.
“As a young person I’m often taught to be wary of the dangers of social media, to hate the disinformation, the Holocaust denial and the anti-Jewish racism,” he said on Thursday, “but racism of all kinds spreads like wildfire on social media.
“I recognised that there was a space that was missing for education; a void to be filled to combat the deniers and the misinformation, to combat the people who said the Holocaust never happened – or that Hitler missed the Holocaust survivor.”
TikTok was the platform of choice.
“I thought if people can go viral on TikTok or Twitter for dancing and playing with their dogs and their cats then we can do for spreading these important messages.”
In another clip, Ebert explains how mothers would try to kill their babies rather than let the Nazi doctors conduct inhumane medical experiments on them. It was the most infamous doctor of them all, Josef Mengele, who had been the one to meet them off the train and select Ebert and her sisters to live and condemn the rest of her family to be gassed immediately.
Ebert is even more determined to tell her story now than at any time in the last 77 years since the end of World War 2.
“If our generation is gone,” she said, “this story is gone. But this story should not and cannot be forgotten for one reason only - that it should not repeat itself.”
For Forman, his great grandmother’s testimonies on social media aren’t just about ensuring that Jewish people never forget, it’s about making sure the world learns what happened in the first place.
“We’re lucky that in the UK and in South Africa it is mandatory to learn about it,: he said, noting that in the United States there wasn’t a federal injunction to do so, but that it was instead left up to the states themselves to decide whether to include the Holocaust in school curricula. More than half did not.
“On TikTok we get questions like why didn’t you go to another camp, why did you choose Auschwitz? They’re not being racist, they just didn’t know,” he explained. “Those are the people we have to reach out to because in 20 years’ time they might meet a Holocaust denier and say, ‘oh you might be right; it might never have happened’. And the reason they would say that is because they wouldn’t have heard a Holocaust survivor, they wouldn’t have read the books.”
It’s impossible to explain the unexplainable, he said, but his great grandmother had found the words. More than that, they wrote a book together, Lily’s Promise, How I survived Auschwitz and found the strength to live, and went to Buckingham Palace to meet Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, who wrote the foreword to the book, which has since become an international bestseller.
“I’m honoured I’m going to have the privilege to carry my grandmother’s torch, my great grandmother’s stories are becoming part of me, it’s hard to explain, but I just feel it deep inside,” said Forman
For Ebert, it’s not surprising that her great grandson feels that way at all, “it’s not a story, it’s life and life you have to feel”. Most of all it’s about spreading the message of hope.
“Never ever give up hope, because without hope you cannot live. I was not human, I was not treated as human in Auschwitz, I was not supposed to survive but now (here I am) 77 years later.”