Lily Ebert is staring intently into the front-facing camera of a phone. In a serene cream-colored living room, she sits on a golden chair that matches both the curtains and the fully stocked bookshelf behind her.
Ebert, wearing a pale pink button-up shirt and satin flowered pants, has turned her living room into a makeshift set, answering questions from near-anonymous people who want to know the horrors that she's been through.
On the TikTok video she's filming, a question appears on the screen: "Did Lily know where she was being taken to?"
"I had not the faintest idea," she responds slowly, her hands clasped together. "Nobody in your worst, very worst, imagination. You could not believe that something like — even something similar like — can happen."
"It was an impossible possibility," she added.
At 99, Ebert is among the oldest Holocaust survivors in the world.
In 1944, she was 20 when she was brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration-camp network in Nazi-occupied Poland, and separated from her mother, Nina, and two youngest siblings, Bela and Berta. Ebert never saw them again and believes they were probably killed in gas chambers.
For a horrid year, Ebert suffered in inhumane living conditions. She was forced to work for the German military machine, assigned to mend men's uniforms, and later worked in a munitions factory near Leipzig, Germany.
Over the past two years, Ebert has found a new purpose for her painful memories: sharing her stories with young audiences on social media.
With help from her 19-year-old great-grandson, Dov Forman, Ebert fields questions from their 2.1 million followers and random TikTok viewers about what it was like growing up in Hungary, surviving Auschwitz, and then living in Israel and England after the war.
Business Insider talked to three survivors and their families, and the granddaughter of a fourth survivor who died in 2022, who are committed to detailing their lives during the Holocaust on TikTok. While they've counteracted the toxic denialism that flourishes on the app, they're also worried their stories will die with them.
"After my generation is gone, there'll be no more witnesses," Tova Friedman, who at 85 is among the younger living Holocaust survivors and who discusses her experience on TikTok, told BI. "So this is very important."
Today's levels of Holocaust awareness feel dire to survivors
Antisemitism on and off of TikTok has both highlighted the stakes and added a feeling of urgency for Holocaust survivors seeking to document their stories. Forman told BI he'd seen a ton of antisemitic clips on the app firsthand.
"It's incredibly worrying when I see these videos," he said, "knowing that the predominant amount of users on TikTok are young children."
Holocaust literacy among younger generations isn't particularly encouraging. As part of a 2019 survey, the Pew Research Center asked 1,800 US teenagers multiple-choice questions about the Holocaust. Only 38% of the respondents, ages 13 to 17, correctly identified how many Jews were killed (about 6 million), and just a third identified how Hitler became Germany's chancellor (through a democratic political process). More than half could identify which of several broad time periods the Holocaust took place during (between 1930 and 1950) and what Nazi-created ghettos were (parts of town where Jews were forced to live), but they still lagged behind adults who were asked the same questions.
Though TikTok's community guidelines prohibit antisemitism, the app's algorithm has also allowed for problematic content, like far-right disinformation campaigns and neo-Nazi propaganda, to evade consequences. In 2022, UNESCO and the World Jewish Congress found that 17% of the TikTok content related to the Holocaust denied or distorted the genocide.
Oren Segal, the vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, told BI that people's ability to spread antisemitic hate online has become "greater than in any other time in human history."
Recorded incidents of antisemitism offline have also been on the rise. A March report from the ADL tallied 3,697 instances of harassment, vandalism, and assault linked to antisemitism in 2022, a 36% increase from 2021 — and a record high since the group began tracking such incidents in 1979.
Segal said the ADL had tracked dozens of attacks that specifically mentioned Kanye West, the rapper now known as Ye, who in December praised Hitler on Alex Jones' Infowars show. Nechama Birnbaum, 29, the granddaughter of a survivor, told BI that in the immediate aftermath of Ye's rant she was inundated with hundreds of messages saying her grandmother was lying and calling the Holocaust a hoax.
Ignorant questions are often thrown at survivors
Ebert stumbled on virality somewhat accidentally, Forman told BI.
During a family dinner early in the coronavirus pandemic, Ebert showed her great-grandson a banknote an American Jewish soldier gave her in 1945 shortly after she was freed in a German village called Pfaffroda. The note had a promise for the future: "The start to a new life — good luck and happiness!" It had no signature.
Curious about its author, Forman told Ebert they might find the person if they posted the note online.
The resulting post went viral in July 2020, and in less than 10 hours they had identified the liberator as Pvt. Hyman Schulman, who died in 2013.
Forman realized just how powerful the internet could be when harnessed for good. He used X (then still known as Twitter) for several months before moving to TikTok, uploading the first video with Ebert in February 2021. Within three months, they had amassed over a million followers.
Ebert's channel is guided by a promise she made to herself in 1944, after she had been taken from her home in Hungary and imprisoned at Auschwitz. It was Yom Kippur, and she was with two of the surviving members of her family — her sisters Piri and René. That day, she swore that if she survived, she would make it her life's mission to ensure nothing like that would ever happen again.
"I thought I could do it single-handedly," Ebert reflected in "Lily's Promise," the 2021 bestselling memoir she cowrote with Forman about her experiences. "Perhaps I was a little optimistic. A little naive. But I really believed it."
After marrying in 1948 and having three children over the next decade, she began speaking publicly about the Holocaust. In the 1980s, she helped form a group for survivors struggling with the trauma.
Today, the popularity of the channel has allowed them to reach people around the world. Forman said he was shocked by the ignorance revealed in some TikTokers' questions, such as "What was the Holocaust?" or "Why did you choose Auschwitz concentration camp? Why didn't you choose a different one?"
Despite these challenges, Ebert said she's grateful to have the community and an outlet.
"If you are quiet, people don't know what you think about things," Ebert told BI. "So you have to talk, and in TikTok you get the opportunity to talk anything in your life, what you feel comfortable with, and that helps a lot."
In her book, Ebert wrote that she was proud her great-grandson had discovered "new ways" to share her life history with the younger generation.
"I know — I don't kid myself — I won't be here forever," she mused. "To be certain that Dov will take over my story, even when I'm gone, gives me peace of mind."
An emotional toll lingers for survivors who relive their worst days
Having your horror recounted for millions of people every week is likely to wear on Holocaust survivors, an expert in trauma told BI.
Tova Friedman was only 5 when she was taken to Auschwitz, and said some moments were distressing to remember. She added that her grandson Aron Goodman, 18, was "very careful not to prolong that" so she could " share everything openly."
In one of Friedman's most harrowing videos, she described being sent to a gas chamber, only to be inexplicably allowed to leave.
"We stood there naked for a number of hours, freezing, absolutely freezing," she said in the 43-second clip uploaded in October 2021. "And then they just sent us back."
Friedman said in the video that the guards were "screaming and yelling at each other" at the time but that she never learned what happened.
Her most popular video, with over 8 million views, shows the tattoo she received at Auschwitz. In the video, uploaded in October 2021, Friedman holds a white dog on her lap as she calmly recounts the experience.
"I was tattooed by a young woman whose hands trembled because she wasn't happy to tattoo children," she said as the camera panned over to her arm, revealing the scrawl of faded digits.
At Auschwitz, which consisted of both a series of labor camps and the death camp Birkenau, most arriving children were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Only prisoners selected for work were given tattoos, which were used to identify their bodies as they died under the daily brutal conditions.
Sharing such memories can be retraumatizing, and make a person feel as if they're experiencing the moment again, Nancy Smyth, a University of Buffalo professor who specializes in traumatic stress, told BI. Smyth added that when some survivors retell stories, it can feel less like a cut-and-dried past experience and more like vivid "flashbacks."
"As they're trying to tell their stories, they're probably reactivating some of those memory networks," Smyth said, though she noted she hadn't treated any of the Holocaust survivors BI interviewed. "When that comes up, sometimes you actually feel like you're back there."
Antisemitism adds to the emotional toll. By taking on hate in a medium like TikTok, survivors might expose themselves to fresh waves of it if they read the comments. Sporadically, there are still insidious dog whistles and overt Holocaust denialism in the comments on some survivors' videos.
This could activate survivors' trauma reactions and also make them fear society is heading down the same path again, Smyth said. "They would likely be experiencing a lot of physiological and psychological stress associated with that awareness," she added.
Many of the survivors' family members try to shield them from hateful comments. Forman, for instance, said he had received "thousands of hateful comments," which he deletes or reports.
Still, it doesn't mean survivors' family members aren't having emotional reactions to the hate speech they've just seen. Birnbaum said her grandmother's Instagram account got so filled with hateful comments that she had to delete it.
"Having worked with family members of Holocaust survivors, those folks have their own issues about this because it's this horrific event that has shaped the family," Smyth said.
TikTok's most recent Community Guidelines Enforcement Report, which covered January to March of this year, says about 2.5% — or 2.23 million — of all videos were removed from the platform for violating its hateful-behavior policy, under which antisemitism falls. That was up from the previous time period, October to December of last year, when about 1.97 million videos were removed for violating the same policy.
According to Andrea Rungg, a senior director of communications at TikTok, the company does not have a further breakdown of how many of those videos specifically dealt with antisemitism. Still, TikTok told BI that it was aware of antisemitism on the platform and had long tried to combat its spread by offering various hate-screening tools. According to Friedrich Enders, who works on TikTok's trust-and-safety team, these include informational banners on every Holocaust video and stopword functions that let accounts block hateful phrases. Creators and cultural institutions are also paired with liaisons, like Enders, who serve as direct contacts in the event they're spammed with hateful messages.
But these tools don't seem to be working as effectively as they should. Several survivors' family members told BI they continued to be subjected to antisemitic abuse and rhetoric on the app.
Enders acknowledged the platform has content-moderation flaws as his team tries to improve the technology to detect hate. He also said, however, that coded hateful lingo develops so quickly online that it's likely TikTok will "never be able to 100% get it right."
"We're always looking for new ways to improve," Enders said. "And we do have to get better, that's no question."
A network of survivors tell their stories to a young audience
Ebert's TikTok presence inspired other survivors to join the platform. One of them, Gidon Lev, and his partner, Julie Gray, who comanages their joint account, @thetrueadventures, began posting in July 2021, and they have amassed 450,000 followers. On TikTok, the 88-year-old shares about the four years he spent at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
At 6 years old, Lev was taken to the camp with the rest of his family and imprisoned there until the Red Army liberated it in 1945. He lost 26 family members in the war, and the only one who survived with him was his mother, Doris.
It can be difficult, Gray said, to know whether the videos she and Lev make are really making an impact — the TikTok algorithm can flatten sensitive topics, putting them on par with viral dance trends and influencers looking for notoriety.
"On good days, I tell myself that Gidon's TikTok presence might be an invitation to learn more for some young people," she wrote in an essay for The Times of Israel last fall. "On not-so-good days, I wonder if this is really it — the last chance — the one way we can get a young person, woefully ignorant about the Holocaust, to pay attention, even for 30 seconds."
Gray told BI that seeing a survivor like Lev living life — swimming breaststroke, browsing at the grocery store, and vibing to his favorite tune (Don McLean's 1971 folk-rock hit "American Pie") — helps create a connection with viewers, who may have never met a Holocaust survivor. "He is not in a museum or behind a lectern," she added.
Rosie Heilbrun joined TikTok in October 2021 with Nechama Birnbaum, her granddaughter. Known as the "Redhead of Auschwitz" on Instagram and TikTok, Heilbrun charmed viewers by offering beauty tips ("Don't be scared of a bold lip," she says in one) and date-night ideas ("Get your grandma dressed up and take her out to dinner"), along with recollections of her Holocaust experiences.
Birnbaum, who co-ran the account before Heilbrun died in 2022 at the age of 96, described her to BI as a feisty, loving, happy person — the type who "always dressed to go out."
Friedman joined the platform not long after Lev, thanks to the suggestion of her grandson, Goodman. The teen was inspired to start a channel after witnessing a slew of antisemitism online. He pointed to one video in which a woman claimed a Skittles bag with a kosher symbol on it was proof Jews were "secretly controlling things," he told BI.
The first time Goodman asked his grandmother to film a TikTok, they were at the traditional Jewish family Shabbat dinner in 2021. He told her he needed only two minutes of her time because that's all TikTokers could handle.
"He said nobody's going to watch it — maybe 10, 15 people," Friedman recalled of the video, which received 1.4 million views. "We were shocked at how many people were interested, and just from those two minutes."
Support gives survivors hope for an uncertain future
While antisemitism persists on social media, survivors say they've also received an influx of support.
The comment sections of their videos are overflowing with gratitude from strangers around the world: "I am so grateful to Tova for telling us her stories," one comment reads, while another writes, "Your survival is an inspiration Gidon, bless you from Sydney."
That support extends offline, too.
Birnbaum said her grandmother received hundreds of letters in the mail for her 96th birthday. Her family plastered the walls around her shiva, a seven-day period when Heilbrun's family mourned her death, with those letters.
"Social media really made her dream come true," Birnbaum said. "She died feeling like, 'There's people that heard me and people that heard my story,' and that gave her a lot of comfort."
These digital legacies give survivors' families hope — that even as the number of living survivors dwindles, descendants will pick up the mantle to continue to raise awareness. Both Forman and Goodman said they planned to keep spreading their elders' message.
Friedman told BI she was well aware that once the last people who experienced the atrocities are gone, "deniers can have a field day," making the work of her grandson more important than ever.
"It's an absolutely fabulous and scary thing that he's doing," Friedman added. "I hope he does it for the rest of his life — and then his children."
Mara Leighton contributed reporting to this story.
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