Title: Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live
by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman
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, going back to the community’s origin in the mid-1700s. The Engelmans were even the first signatories of 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. (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 Hungary town. 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.
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 her shoes to her (in the soles of which 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 her responsibility to her younger sisters. She 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 Alternburg. At the end of the war, they were liberated by soldiers from the American Army, who led them to 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 G-d-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 common guest at schools where she lectured about the Holocaust. However, during the Covid 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. He 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 eventually they wrote this book together to bring her story to a wider audience.
This book 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. 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.