Holocaust survivor Noémi Ban dies at 96

Noémi Ban, the Bellingham survivor of the Holocaust who won awards, respect, and love for her effort to educate people, especially children, about that hateful era, died Friday, June 7, according to the website for the Ray Wolpol Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity, Western Washington University. She was 96.

A memorial service is open to all at 10 a.m. Tuesday, June 11, at Congregation Beth Israel, 751 San Juan Blvd. Graveside services, also open to all, are at 11:30 a.m Tuesday at Bayview Cemetery, 1420 Woburn St.

Ban always encouraged listeners to not become haters themselves. Whenever she spoke, she left many awestruck by her gentleness 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 were profound.

“I love life, “ Ban would say. “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 and her husband, Earnest, moved to Bellingham in 1982 to be close to their oldest son, Steven. Earnest Ban died in 1994.

She and her husband came to St. Louis in 1957 with their children after the Soviet occupation of Hungary. After earning her teaching certificate, she landed a job teaching sixth grade, which she did for 23 years. But she didn’t share her Holocaust story for many years.

“I was really afraid to talk about it,” Ban told The Bellingham Herald in 2012. “The story was mine, I had to hold onto it. I didn’t think people would want to hear it.”

She decided around 1991 that it was time to share her story. That April, she spoke to a small group of people at a Yom HaShoah gathering in remembrance of the Holocaust. A reporter for The Herald was present and called Ban a few days later, asking to write about her experiences.

Ban in house
Showed in March 2004, Noemi Ban, who survived the Holocaust, looked at family photographs in a hallway in her Bellingham home. Unfortunately, many of those framed faces did not survive the horrors of Auschwitz. Staff The Bellingham Herald

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 speak, and she decided it was time to serve as a witness.

She had been speaking regularly since 1996, and went on to co-found the Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education, housed in Western Washington University’s Woodring College of Education.

Lived in Hungary

Ban with Star David
Holocaust survivor Noemi Ban spokes to hundreds of classrooms, churches, and community organizations about her experiences during the Holocaust, and how people should not let hatred rule their lives. Staff The Bellingham Herald

Ban and her family lived near Budapest in Hungary, the last European country with a large Jewish population taken over by the Nazis. Germany occupied Hungary in mid-March 1944.

Ban was 21 and living with her parents, grandmother, little sister, and baby brother when the Nazis started shipping out thousands of people to concentration camps. After being separated from her father, Ban’s family was sent 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.

During her three months at Auschwitz, Ban came close to death once when she fainted while standing in line outdoors. To faint and collapse meant death. Fortunately, three friends held her erect until they were dismissed. One day, Ban and her friends were among 1,000 Hungarian women sent at Buchenwald and given a job of assembling components for bombs.

By early April 1945, with Allied troops on the move, the Germans began evacuating prisoners from Buchenwald. The Hungarian women began a forced walk, a death march, to Bergen-Belsen, another Nazi camp.

Surrounded by guards, they walked two days and two nights, emaciated women with shaved heads, thin prison uniforms, wooden shoes, no socks.

On the third day they stopped by some woods. The guards disappeared, then reappeared wearing civilian clothes. With the jittery guards worried about their future, Ban and 11 friends developed a plan.

One by one, over an hour, they stepped into the forest and walked in the direction of the march to meet up with the others. Once all 12 had escaped, they ran deep into the woods toward the approaching Allies. Exhausted, they took shelter in a hut.

A U.S. soldier behind enemy lines who found Ban and the other women told them something that took a moment to sink in - they were free.

Humanity amidst horror

Lively and gentle, Ban had an ability to lift an audience to laughter even while retelling one of the most horrific stories in human memory.

One time during a speech, Ban talked about going for days without water. When the prisoners were given 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.

During the story, the audience silence was palpable, until Ban motioned with her hands and the audience saw a large glass of water on stage next to her.

“Every time I tell this I get thirsty,” Ban said. “Look, there is water. It looks good.”

After speaking to schools, Ban frequently received letters from students. She read every letter before putting them away.

People often asked Ban for advice on how to deal with their own problems.

“I always tell them ‘I am not a psychiatrist, ‘” Ban once told The Herald. “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.”

Ban gets WWU doctorate
Holocaust survivor Noemi Ban, left, receives an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard during the winter 2013 commencement at Western. Ban was also the commencement speaker. Staff THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Honored, recorded

Years ago, Jim Lortz, who teaches theater arts at Western, invited Ban to speak to his Summer Stock students presenting “The Diary of Anne Frank.” He was so moved by her message that he made a nearly two-hour documentary about her, “My Name is Noémi.”

The film follows Ban as she revisited Hungary and the Nazi camps in 2006 and 2007, accompanied by family members and school teachers. Lortz has said he made the movie as a legacy for the Ban family, as a teaching tool about the Holocaust, and as testimony to Ban’s resiliency finding the good in life.

Lortz’s film was one of many ways that Ban was recognized for her work. Among them, she received an honorary doctorate from Gonzaga University in 2001, and in March 2013 she received an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Western at the school’s winter commencement, where she also gave the commencement address.

In 2003, Ban wrote “Sharing is Healing; A Holocaust Survivor’s Story,” an account of her experience written for young readers, along with Ray Wolpow, director of the Northwest Center for Holocaust Education at Western.

Five years later, The Herald asked people to describe their life in six words.

This was Ban’s reply: “Auschwitz survivor. Loves life. Teaching freedom.”