It can be hard to admit there is no simple way to fix the world's problems. But perhaps the world would be one step closer to solving its troubles if more people adopted the mantra of Holocaust survivor Noémi Ban: do not hate.
Whenever Ban speaks to an audience, she leaves many awestricken by her love of life despite the tragic loss of her family and the horrific experiences she had while inside Nazi concentration camps. After hearing about all she went through, the final words of her presentation are profound.
"I love life," Ban says. "I do not hate. If I would have hate in me right now, I would be the prisoner of my own hate, and I want to be free."
Ban, who has lived in Whatcom County for 30 years, has borne witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust since the early 1990s.
She came to St. Louis, Mo., in 1957 with her husband and children after the Soviet occupation of Hungary.
After earning her K-12 teaching certificate, Ban landed a job teaching sixth grade, which she did for 23 years.
She did not share her story until many years later.
"I was really afraid to talk about it," Ban says. "The story was mine, I had to hold onto it. I didn't think people would want to hear it."
Ban says she finally felt it was time to share her story around 1991. That April she spoke to a small group of people at a Yom Hashoah gathering in remembrance of the Holocaust.
A reporter for The Bellingham Herald was present and called Ban a few days later, asking to write about her experiences. Ban's husband encouraged her to do the interview even though she was hesitant.
After the profile ran, Ban started receiving calls from local groups and schools asking her to come speak, and she felt it was time to serve as a witness. She's been speaking regularly since 1996.
A few years ago, Ban heard someone say the Holocaust never happened. For Ban, that moment reinforced the need to continue to share her story.
"I've been there, suffered there, lost my whole family there," Ban says. "I will be a witness."
Ban was 21 and living in Hungary with her parents, grandmother, little sister and baby brother when the Nazis took control of the area and started to systematically ship out thousands of people to concentration camps. After being separated from her father, Ban's family was shipped by train to Auschwitz, where Dr. Josef Mengele, who decided the fate of incoming prisoners, selected Ban as a laborer, but sent the rest of her family to another line, sentencing them to death.
Ban survived against the odds as she was moved from Auschwitz to Buchenwald and was eventually liberated.
Lively and gentle, Ban has the uncanny ability to lift an entire audience to laughter even in the midst of retelling one of the most horrific stories in human memory. Now 90 years old, she has always had a sharp sense of humor, and she says that is an important part of who she is.
There's a moment in Ban's speech when she talks about going for days without water. When the prisoners were provided water, they received a large bucket in the middle of the room with only a few cups.
Ban had a cup of water almost to her lips when she felt someone looking at her. A woman about her mother's age was next to her. Ban gave the woman her water, even though she was thirsty.
"In this horrible, terrible place where thousands and thousands of people were killed daily, it looks like I still retained my ability to be a human being," Ban says.
During the tale the silence is palpable, until Ban motions with her hands and the audience notices a large glass of water on stage next to her.
"Every time I tell this I get thirsty," she says. "Look, there is water. It looks good."
She smiles and asks the audience to excuse her while she drinks the glass of water, clearly enjoying every sip.
Ban now lives in Bellingham in a bright home in Fairhaven that overlooks the bay. She loves to read and plays the piano every day.
After speaking to schools, Ban frequently receives letters from the students. She reads every single letter before putting them away. This fall she got 300 letters alone from a group of Marysville eighth graders she spoke to.
Many students who grew up in the area watched Ban speak when they were in middle school, then high school, then at college.
"I say 'What are you doing here? You already heard me.' But just kidding, I like to kid," Ban says. "They say 'Look, we are a few years older, we learned about life more in our own lives, and I wanted to hear this part once more.' That is very important to me."
People often ask Ban for advice on how to deal with their own problems.
"I always tell them 'I am not a psychiatrist,'" Ban says. "Many times I say just a smile, reaching out, at middle schools I say no bullying, no teasing - all this could help. If you hear any kind of hateful statement then speak up. Don't let it go."
The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for someone we should salute next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.