Thursday, 15 October 2015

Indefatigable in spreading a message of hope

Iby Knill - 'The Woman Without a Number'

Headingley Library, Tuesday 13th October

Partnership event as part of the Headingley Festival of Ideas: Change

Sally Bavage writes: 
                       Photo by Richard Wilcocks
Iby, going on ninety-two and appearing a generation younger in both spirit and energy, kept a full house in Headingley library rapt with attention for well over an hour, reading from her own work and answering a series of penetrating questions as well as joining in the debate and commentary. Iby often talks to school and college audiences who are studying the Holocaust, and regularly skypes young people from Brazil to China. She also addresses adult audiences of four hundred plus. Daunting at any age but she is indefatigable in spreading her message of hope.

She addressed the Headingley Festival of Ideas theme by outlining how changes during her life had altered the directions she took. She first read to us from the introduction to her memoir The Woman Without a Number (now in its eighth printing by local publisher Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd, available from Iby's website as as well as online and as an e-book), detailing her escape from Czechoslovakia to Hungary as a teenager. Other facets of her life include working for the Hungarian resistance and making small acts of rebellion in surviving despite Dr Mengele in Auschwitz and a slave prison camp where it was less 'Arbeit Macht Frei' but more 'work or die'. The book lacks self-pity entirely and does not dwell on the horrors she encountered; she does, however, make Sebastian Faulks' heroine Charlotte Gray look a bit of a wimp.

She continued the theme of Change with a snippet read from her new book, working title The Woman with Nine Lives and due out in January 2016. Adjusting to her new country was not always easy, for although she spoke fluent English she did not always understand the culture. She went on to have two children, and many careers,but settled in Leeds decades ago. She is a 'loiner' by choice.

Discussion and commentary then focussed on how the writing of the memoir after sixty years of silence had come about, what differences it had made both to her and her children and how we can all contribute in ways small and large to change mass genocide and the movements of refugees from war and oppression which are still going on.

Despite the topics raised, Iby handled the discussion with delicacy, warmth and vigour. Is there a just cause for war? What is the difference between sin and evil? As she said, “Atrocity knows no nationality”.  Iby's poem, which she read out as a conclusion, perhaps sums up her philosophy that "under the skin we are all the same - and each one of us can make a difference"? You can read this, and many other details, on Iby's own website at

A final illustration of her determination to broach a difficult subject without a trace of self-pity: when I enquired about her use of a stick to assist her painful hip, she calmly told me it was caused by a blow from a rifle butt. With a smile, no drama. Chastening.

With grateful thanks to the staff from Headingley library who supported this event. Iby's book is available for loan from the library. A donation has been made on her behalf to the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association.

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