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Lilian Levy

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
20 January 1946
Interview number:

Interview Summary:

Lilian was born in August 1939 in London. Her parents Hedwig and Adolf Dreifuss lived in Frankfurt a/M, where her father had a silverware factory in Hanau. He was arrested on Kristallnacht and imprisoned in Dachau for several weeks. He was released on the  condition he would emigrate. When he was released, her parents fled to Amsterdam. Her mother had lived there during WWI and both felt that the Netherlands would remain neutral in the expected war. They managed to get visas to the UK and came in the summer of 1939 and therefore Lilian was born at the Royal Free Hospital. Her father returned to Amsterdam to sort out his business interest and her mother and herself followed him, they took the last plane from the UK to Holland before the outbreak of WW2, not thinking the war would break out quite so soon. The family lived in Amsterdam and went into hiding in 1940 in Hilversum. In 1943 the family decided to come out of hiding because they thought that when showing that Lilian was a British citizen, the entire family would be allowed to relocate to Britain. The Dutch puppet government had announced – in what later turned out to be a lie – that British citizens would be exchanged with German prisoners of war. But instead they were deported to Westerbork and in late 1943 to Bergen Belsen.


Lilian stayed with her mother in the ‘Star Lager’. Lilian remembers that she was told that her mother had died and that some people took care of her. Only in the early eighties did she find out that a Mr Birnbaum and his wife took the Dutch orphans under their wing and even managed to organize a small ‘school’ in Belsen. Lilian was liberated in Tröbitz and put into an orphanage in Laren, Holland. Friends of her parents from Frankfurt, the Seligmans, visited her there and their daughter Lola, who was 12 years older than Lilian wanted to adopt her. Lola has provided her with a lot of information about her past and they have always stayed in close contact. However her aunt, her mother’s sister, wanted to raise her.


In January 1946 Lilian arrived in the UK to be reunited with her aunt. Soon her aunt realised that she was overwhelmed by raising a traumatised child in addition to looking after her sick husband. Therefore Lilian was adopted by an elderly German Jewish refugee couple, Frieda and Heinz Davidson (he was a pediatrician in Germany and re-sat his medical exams and became a GP in the UK). The couple had already one grown-up daughter, who was a dentist in London. Lilian grew up in Swiss Cottage and went first to South Hampstead Junior School and then Parliament Hill Grammar school. Later  she studied languages at the French Institute. Her aunt – whose son Ernie had stayed in Canada after the end of his internment there - kept in touch with Lilian and took her every Friday night to the Liberal Jewish Congregation (later known as Belsize Square Synagogue), founded by German Jews in 1939. The then rabbi of the Synagogue, Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger, had married her birth parents before the war in Frankfurt. Lilian found a home in the synagogue, especially in the Youth Theatre program, called the Phoenix.  She met her later husband, Herbert Levy, in the Phoenix, when he became its leader. They married in 1961 and settled first in Hendon and then in Golders Green. They had two children, Andrew and Hilary. Lilian helped her husband in the wholesale hosiery business and they stayed very active members of Belsize Square Synagogue. Lilian found out a lot about her history when her aunt passed away in 1981 going through all the war and post-war correspondence she had kept. Lillian managed to trace Mr. and Mrs. Birnbaum (who took care of her in Belsen) in Israel and they had a reunion in Israel.


Lilian’s husband Herbert became one of the main guides for the Anne Frank Trust. In this context she met many young German volunteers of the charity Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste whose convictions and work of retribution made her feel more comfortable towards Germany. While Lilian supported her husband, she could not manage to talk about her history and still finds it very painful to recall her past.   


Key words:  

Frankfurt a/M. Amsterdam. Bergen-Belsen. Westerbork. Tröbitz, Orphanage Laren. Adoption. Belsize Square Synagogue. Child survivor. Yehoshua Birnbaum.  


Full Interview


Well I’ve so often heard, “Let it never happen again.” But it does. It keeps happening again, wherever it is, all over the world. And… So I suppose it ought to be talked about. But even with all the talking that one does it does happen again. I think human nature must be pretty awful to let these things happen all the time. At the moment we have a refugee situation coming from the Middle East, Syria and so on. And I think peoples’ reactions have been less than warm and whole-hearted. I think we could afford to be more accepting, and perhaps that is my own view, or perhaps it’s because of my own experience. I’m not quite sure which. But I just wish we could be more receptive to other people who have trauma and need us.

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