When I switched on Radio Two this lunchtime, I was excited to discover that Jeremy Vine was chatting to Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert, whose book, Lily’s promise, has recently become a Sunday Times bestseller.
Hearing Lily talk reminded me of my own my family history and my great grandparents, who died at Auschwitz. It also brought back a lot of childhood memories, as I used to spend hours flicking through the pages of my grandmother’s diaries, which she wrote after leaving Vienna at the age of 14.
I’ve always been aware of the Holocaust’s impact on my family, as ‘Nana Ilse’ was a Viennese Jew, so I grew up listening to stories about her escape from the Nazis. When I was 13, I remember my German teacher coming round to our house and translating Ilse’s diaries for us, while we drank endless cups of tea. The pages were full of longing for Vienna, but they were also very amusing at times. It seems that Ilse was a pretty feisty young lady!
Ilse Schneider grew up in a Jewish area of Vienna. We have a few photographs of her parents, and we even know which road they lived on. We also know that my great grandfather, Stefan, was a composer who enjoyed acting with a local theatre group.
In 1938, the Nazis marched into Austria to annex the nation for the Third Reich, transforming life for Vienna’s Jewish population. By 1939, Stefan and his wife Martha had decided that the only way they could keep their daughter safe was to arrange for her to leave via the Kindertransport, an astonishing rescue effort that evacuated Jewish children and brought them to the UK.
Once their daughter was safe, my great grandparents also left Vienna behind, fleeing to Yugoslavia, which was part of the Italian occupation zone. To begin with, the Italian forces protected Jewish refugees, but by 1943, the Germans had taken over. The final address we have for Stefan and Martha is an Italian concentration camp, as Ilse had sent a letter to them via the Red Cross. Here’s the reply she received:
“We were very pleased about your message from April. We are in Italy and very happy. Your message was our nicest birthday present. Much kisses and love, Mother and Father.”
That was the last time Ilse heard from her parents. We now know that Campo Concentrato J.L was usually a transit camp for Auschwitz, so we believe that Stefan and Martha died there.
But the story doesn’t end in 1943. According to records provided by World Jewish Relief, my Nana began a new life in England, supported by a guarantor and a lady called Mrs Scott, who treated Ilse as her own daughter. We know that by 1941, Ilse was top of her class in every subject and was keen to do secretarial work. She lived in Wokingham until 1943, when she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service in Yorkshire and met my grandpa.
On the 1st of September in 1944, Ilse Schneider married Bill Stagg, at St. Paul’s church in Wokingham. They went on to have four children (including my mum), nine grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren.
Lily Ebert’s tale must be a hard one to tell, even after 70 years. But she tells it because she wants people to know the importance of tolerance, human kindness and love. And because she promised herself that if she survived, she would “teach the youngsters that something so terrible should never be forgotten or ever happen again.”
Lily, you’re an inspiration.