As a teenager in the 1930s, Iby Knill was denied higher education for being Jewish. Decades later, following the horrors of the Holocaust and internment at Auschwitz, Iby decided to return to her studies.
She became one of The Open University’s first ever students, completing her degree aged 50, and went on to achieve her MA before her eightieth birthday.
Now, aged 95, the remarkable Iby reflects on her journey and the lessons she hopes the next generation can learn from.
The years before the War
“When I was sixteen and living in Slovakia, I had to leave school,” says Iby. “Jewish students were not allowed to attend academic institutions beyond this age. My family and I were soon forced to leave our apartment and our business was nationalised.”
In 1942, Iby’s mother arranged for Iby to flee the country after hearing that local Jewish girls were being taken by German soldiers. Iby crossed the border into Hungary, only to be arrested as an illegal immigrant. She was involved in the Resistance movement, arrested, tortured and spent months in a prison and then a detention camp.
Arriving at Auschwitz
When Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, restrictions intensified even further. Iby and hundreds of others were loaded into cattle wagons and taken to the camp she would soon know as Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“When we arrived, men in striped pyjamas opened the doors and told us to leave the sick, the old and the children. Men and women were separated. I and four other women – two of them doctors – linked arms and moved past Dr Mengele. We had arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
“We were told to strip, had the hair shaved off all over our bodies and were then pushed into showers. We were given some clothes and taken into the camp. Two hundred and fifty women went into each hut, there was so little room we had to sleep squashed up like spoons. If anyone was taken ill, they were taken to the hospital hut and usually then to the gas chambers. Worse than hunger was the thirst. It was summer and there was no water at all.”
Knowing she would die at Auschwitz-Birkenau if she stayed, Iby and her friends volunteered to go with a slave labour transport to work as doctors and nurses. Over five hundred others were transported and stayed at the armaments factory in Lippstadt until it was evacuated in March 1945.
“We were marched toward Bergen-Belsen, with those lagging behind shot immediately. I had problems in my hip and couldn’t walk. My friends supported me and helped me to keep going.”
“After nights of walking and days hidden in barns, we could see American tanks in the distance. The German guards started to crawl back into the woods and eight hundred and thirty women in rags surrounded the tanks. It was Easter Sunday 1945.”
Life after liberation
After the war, Iby worked for the Military Government as an interpreter, before marrying Bert, a British Army Officer in December 1946. The newlyweds came to England the following year, where Iby has lived ever since.
It was during her time working in the Department of Education in Leeds that Iby finally decided to return to the education that had been cut short.
“I could not progress further in my career without an academic qualification,” Iby explains. “It was my boss that suggested The Open University. Balancing a full-time job, two children and the OU degree was not easy. I slept five hours a night during the week and spent the weekend studying. Yet I was determined to get the degree in the shortest possible time – completing it in four years. My husband had retired from the Army and was a great practical help and emotional support.”
Iby completed her Bachelors degree from The Open University in 1974. Iby’s husband and daughter joined her at her degree ceremony in Manchester to watch Iby collect her degree.
‘Knowledge is a marvellous thing’
Hearing how Iby describes education, it is no surprise that she returned to her studies again some years later, completing her MA in Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds University aged 77.
“Education is a life-long progress, one needs to keep the little grey cells working: if you don’t use them, you lose them. And knowledge is such a marvellous thing, there is so much to know and such joy in learning. It’s never too late to start and once started one just has to continue!”
It was during her MA degree that Iby was inspired to begin talking more openly about her traumatic experiences during the Holocaust. Before then, Iby had kept her past a secret from almost everyone else, including her children.
“It was only after my husband’s death and after my children left home that I felt the need – and the duty – to recall my own past and to record my own history,” she says.
“My tutor inspired me to write my first book and my story was also featured by the BBC in 2010. My book, ‘The Woman Without A Number’, was published in the same year. Only with the help of friends who supported me throughout the trauma was I able to write my story.”
As well as writing new books – one about her late husband who lived and fought in both World Wars – Iby also spends her time delivering educational talks to people of all ages about her experiences. Over the past ten years she has spoken to thousands. “We have to learn from history,” she says. “If we don’t, future generations will make the same mistakes.”
Byline: Carly Sumner
Carly Sumner is a Digital Content Officer in the Development Office at The Open University. She loves telling stories and has spent the past 10 years writing about everything from nappy bags to balance transfers. She holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Media Studies from Coventry University. When she’s not writing, Carly enjoys reading, sharing good food with great people, and all things colourful.