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A 98-year-old Holocaust survivor built a massive TikTok following to combat deniers: ‘It happened’

Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert makes a TikTok video with her great-grandson Dov Forman. (CBS Mornings)
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Unlike her mother, brother and sister, Lily Ebert survived the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

After the camp was liberated, Ebert made a promise to herself: She would tell people what had happened there and, in doing so, change the world.

Now, at 98, Ebert is keeping that promise in a way no one could have imagined in 1945. With the help of her 18-year-old great-grandson, Dov Forman, Ebert is telling her story to millions of people on TikTok. Since their inaugural video on Feb. 9 last year, the two have posted more than 380 videos on the social media app, drawing in 1.7 million followers and amassing some 25 million likes in the process.

Success on TikTok led to a book they’ve co-authored — “Lily’s Promise” — which is due out in May. Prince Charles wrote a foreword for the book. And late last year, Ebert and Forman, who live in London, met Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street.

Ebert’s TikTok campaign comes as antisemitism resurges across the United States. Antisemitic incidents — harassment, assault and vandalism — have spiked 60 percent in the past five years, reaching near-record levels, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Those have been punctuated by high-profile events like the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh in 2018 and outside San Diego in 2019. Last month, four people were taken hostage inside a synagogue near Fort Worth but managed to escape.

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Jewish Americans have felt the shift. Three-quarters of those surveyed said there was more antisemitism in the country than five years ago, and about 60 percent reported having a personal experience with prejudice, according to a Pew Research poll conducted between November 2019 and June 2020.

Ebert said the rise of antisemitism and Holocaust denial makes talking about the atrocities all the more important.

“We have to be very strong and say it again and again and again: ‘It happened,’ ” she said.

Ebert, who was born in Hungary, told CBS News that Nazis took her and her family to Auschwitz when she was 20. Upon arriving, they saw people with no hair draped in rags.

“In the first second, we thought we had arrived in the hell,” she said in one of her TikTok videos.

Guards took her mother, brother and sister to the gas chambers the day they arrived, according to CBS News. In total, more than 100 of Ebert’s relatives died in the Holocaust.

In her videos, Ebert is open about the horrors of the Jewish ghettos and Auschwitz, where she was imprisoned for four months. In one, she talked about how the Nazis gave their captives so little food that some died of hunger. For breakfast, they gave prisoners “coffee,” a generous description for black water. At one point, the Nazis shaved their heads, which she described as “shocking.” Ebert told viewers about the smell of burning flesh and how, when she returned to the death camp years later, she felt like she was smelling it again. Female Nazis killed prisoners’ babies. In a video viewed some 25 million times, she held out her left arm to show the number Nazis tattooed into her forearm.

“My number is A-10572. That is what I was,” she said.

She summed up Auschwitz: “It was not for human beings.”

Part of the magic of Ebert’s TikTok videos is that, while they reveal the horrors of the Holocaust, they also show Ebert, having survived them, enjoying life. In one video, she played catch with someone off-screen. Others show her reveling amid the snow falling around her, picking out tiny succulents at a store, petting a horse and playing the board game Othello with her great-grandson. In one clip set to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from “Toy Story,” she rolled dough for baking challah.

At 18, Forman brings technical know-how and social media savvy to their venture. Videos of Ebert are set to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor,” Surf Mesa’s “ily (i love you baby)” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Happier.” Forman told CBS News he saw in TikTok a powerful tool that could amplify his great-grandmother’s story, helping her keep the promise she made when she escaped Auschwitz 77 years ago.

“I said to my great-grandmother, ‘If they can go viral for dancing, why can’t we go viral for sharing these really important messages?’ ” Forman told CBS News.

Each video is a race against time. Ebert said she knows that, at 98, she will die within a few years, depriving the world of one of the last firsthand accounts of the Holocaust.

“It will become a history,” she said.

The two distilled that history last week for International Holocaust Remembrance Day in a video that’s been viewed 1.2 million times in the past five days.

“The Holocaust was the biggest crime against humanity,” Ebert said in the video. “Never before were factories — factories — built for killing people. I was there in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I am a witness.”

Later, the clip cut to Forman looking at the camera, his arm around his great-grandmother.

“We implore you today to become Lily’s witness to the Holocaust,” he told viewers, “because when you listen to a witness you become a witness.”

That was Ebert’s cue to drive the message home.

“I am a witness,” she said, “and the world should never, ever forget the biggest crime against humanity.”