Lilly Malnik pulled up her sleeve, revealing black numbers tattooed on her left forearm.
The Clarksville resident said she’s never considered getting rid of the identification tattoo she received upon arrival at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp nearly 80 years ago.
“I want the world to see and know what happened,” said Malnik, 94. “If I erase it, I erase everything.”
On Sunday, Malnik shared her story with an audience at the Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life in Columbia, at an event presented by Chabad of Ellicott City.
She spoke about the importance of remembering the Holocaust and the more than 6 million Jewish lives it claimed, including those of her mother, brother and sister.
Malnik’s words have resonated far beyond Howard County thanks, in part, to her granddaughter Miriam Ezagui, who joined her onstage. Last year, Ezagui asked her “Bubby” (grandma in Yiddish) if she would share her Holocaust memories on TikTok.
“I did not have to ask her twice,” said Ezagui, 36, who lives in Brooklyn. “She was so willing to share what she always has been.”
Ezagui’s TikTok channel, which had about 10,000 followers before she posted videos with Malnik, now has more than 1.4 million.
One post from last June, in which Malnik describes drugs given to female inmates at Auschwitz to prevent them from menstruating, went viral with 23.3 million views. A Canadian professor who saw the video included Malnik’s testimony in a study of infertility among Holocaust survivors.
With Europe’s largest conflict since World War II still raging in Ukraine and antisemitic incidents on the rise in the U.S., Malnik said it’s always possible for the past to repeat itself. But she hopes that by raising her voice, future generations will be empowered to fight whatever form hate takes and to never forget what she and other Holocaust victims experienced.
“If we don’t talk about it, it will be forgotten and could happen again,” Malnik said. “I forced myself to do it because I feel it’s an obligation for me to show the world what evil can bring.”
From Antwerp to Auschwitz
Malnik was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1928 and still vividly recalls when Nazi armies invaded the country in spring 1940.
Malnik was in the hospital with tonsillitis in 1942 when the deportation of nearly 25,000 Belgian Jews began and her sister was sent to a concentration camp. Her brother and mother were discovered and taken away next, never to be heard from again, while Malnik went into hiding with the assistance of non-Jewish neighbors.
To earn money, she found work at a factory and beauty salon. While working at the salon, she had a close call when a Nazi officer asked for a manicure and massage.
“I did not know how I didn’t cut his fingers because my hands were shaking,” she said. “He left me a nice tip.”
While visiting her aunt and uncle in the outskirts of Brussels in 1944, Malnik awoke one morning to banging at the door and the sight of two Nazi soldiers aiming rifles at their windows. The family was rounded up and sent to the town of Malines for six weeks before being packed into cattle cars on what Malnik would later learn was the second-to-last transport of Jews out of Belgium before its liberation.
Malnik recalls that upon arrival at Auschwitz in occupied Poland, individuals who had been suffocated or trampled to death on the journey being pulled from the car. The remaining passengers filed into a line and were sorted by Dr. Josef Mengele, an S.S. officer nicknamed the “Angel of Death,” who performed a range of fatal experiments on prisoners.
“My aunt and uncle went to the left, which meant the oven,” said Malnik, who came face-to-face with Mengele on two other occasions.
The 15-year-old Malnik had her head shaved and was showered and tattooed twice. She believes her second marking was made after her initial number was found to belong to a still-living inmate.
Word eventually spread to Malnik that the advancing Allies had entered Belgium.
“You can imagine how I felt knowing that Belgium was liberated,” she said. “I was looking up to the stars that night and crying.”
Malnik recounted numerous stories from her time at Auschwitz, from befriending a gentile French girl named Christiane, who had been caught by mistake, to standing for hours at roll calls as ashes from recently incinerated prisoners rained down on her. While working in the camp’s kitchens, Malnik said she once snuck out a pail of potatoes to feed a group of newly arrived Hungarian Jews who were slated for the gas chamber the next day.
As the Soviet Union’s Red Army approached in early 1945, Malnik and other inmates were evacuated on a death march to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. It was there that the French girl Christiane died of typhus, and Malnik subsequently contracted the disease.
She weighed 70 pounds by the time British armored units finally liberated Belsen’s 60,000 remaining prisoners in April 1945.
“I don’t know if I would have had another week to live,” Malnik said. “My days were numbered.”
After spending two months in a field hospital, Malnik was taken back to Belgium by the Red Cross. She made her way to the U.S. in 1947 and reunited with her father, who had immigrated there prior to the war.
‘She’s always uplifting’
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After she arrived in Washington, Malnik met and married her husband, Abe, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania. The couple raised three boys and was active in the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Abe died in 2007.
Despite the horrors she has witnessed, Malnik has always maintained a strong sense of humor, according to her family, which now includes six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“She knows how to laugh,” said her son Leon, 71, who also lauded her Belgian-French-inspired cooking prowess. “She always has a smile. She’s always uplifting.”
That warmness is on full display in Ezagui’s TikToks, in which Malnik is seen with a twinkle in her eye, singing Yiddish lullabies, putting on makeup and hugging her great-grandchildren, in addition to recounting her time in Auschwitz.
At the Chabad event, Eli Rosenbaum, the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, who was tasked with identifying and deporting Nazi war criminals, spoke to Malnik and her impact. He recounted how he met Abe Malnik in 1995 when he served as a witness in a successful denaturalization case against Jonas Stelmokas, a Lithuanian police officer who participated in the 1941 massacre of 9,200 Jews of the Kovno Ghetto.
“You and Abe were not supposed to survive Hitler – and survive him you did – and built this beautiful family in this great country,” Rosenbaum said. “Your husband reached a lot of people. You have reached many more people, because you have lived long enough for the technology to exist for that. You have opened your heart to so many audiences.”
To view the full event, visit: https://www.chabadellicottcity.com/Holocaust.