This book is an extraordinary account of a young woman’s life as she fought to survive through the Second World War. What makes it so remarkable is the level of detail of everyday life and the way that events unfold. Iby Knill’s life story is as fascinating and as complex as a film script – from a daring escape across the border to another country (from the Slovak Republic to Hungary); hiding out illegally in Budapest and working for the Hungarian Resistance until capture; life inside prison and detention centres and then on to the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the labour camp of Lippstad, and to liberation. Her life story starts in Slovakia, moves into Hungary, Poland, Germany and finally to England.
The factual style of writing makes for easy reading. The author writes to paint a picture of what is happening but doesn’t use her own emotions to sway you. I found this more powerful than any emotive language that she could have used. There is often an overwhelming sense of sadness through what she doesn’t say.
The book takes in more than life endured in the camps. It is divided into three parts – firstly the escape, capture and camps; secondly, life directly after the war and what happened to Iby; thirdly, life before the war and then how it all changed. This order of the three sections makes for interesting reading and a deeper understanding of the pressures that led Iby to try and escape her home country, forced to leave her family behind. I also enjoyed reading the childhood section which gave a good view of what life was like in Bratislava before the Nazis arrived, and also when and how the power and invasion of the Nazi threat pervaded everyday lives. The book has a central section of eight pages of photos which also help the reader view the past.
I watched the BBC programme about Iby Knill, ‘My Story’ which was broadcast in October 2010 when she was interviewed by Frank Gardner and she didn’t tell anyone her story until a decade ago. She is now a speaker for schools and other public groups, using her experiences to educate people. I think it is more than commendable that, having gone through these years of nightmare experiences, then picking herself up and starting a new life in England with her husband and children, that she has had the strength to relive these horrors to write this book. It is a very worthwhile read and I would highly recommend it.
By Vonnegut Val
I purchased this book having heard Iby Knill speak about her experiences. I was not disappointed and I wasn’t able to put it down until I’d finished it.
Having read (or started to read) other survivor accounts of the Holocaust, I was really glad that the book didn’t dwell on some of the truly awful things which happened. Instead it has a real focus on the story of a survivor and so the determination and will to survive of the author carried me through the difficult bits. I must admit that I have begun the autobiographies of other Holocaust survivors and never completed them because I didn’t feel able to.
The part of the book I enjoyed most was the section after the War when the author worked for the British army (and met her future husband), but of course that section of the book works so well because it is such a contrast to what happened in the camps. It was really wonderful to see that the author was able to marry and have children afterwards – not that it lessened the pain of what happened – but it proved that she was able to rebuild her life.
I think I will always be grateful that Iby Knill has been able to share her story, in such a dignified way, both by speaking about it and writing about it. It was only after reading the book that I was aware of the conclusions one can draw from her story. She doesn’t say,’Your problems are smaller than mine were and I was able to rebuild my life’, but one takes it to heart anyway… I think that is the mark of a good writer and speaker – someone who can use their own experience to help others in such a way that they don’t feel lectured at but helped.
I would recommend the book to teenagers and above (I think younger readers would struggle to relate to the subject material in a meaningful way).
Iby’s story in The Woman without a Number is one of courage, strength of character and a clear sense of identity. The way in which Iby has told her story is unique to this kind of testimony. She weaves her past with her present in a way which leaves pictures of her life and experiences in the mind of the reader.
In not telling her story for 50 years, at first it’s surprising that Iby remembers her childhood and hometown so clearly – but by the time the book is finished you have a sense of the determined lady that Iby is. The way in which the book starts in the third person and moves back and forth in time is incredibly powerful and shows the life, culture and traditions which have been wiped out through hatred and persecution.
This book made me empathise, laugh and cry, but mostly, it inspired me. Iby works tirelessly in the field of Holocaust education and I would happily recommend this book to anyone.