They cried, laughed and recalled Holocaust survivor’s message to ‘confront hate with love’

Family and friends reflect on Noémi Ban’s life during her memorial service

Family and friends spoke and sang about the impact Holocaust survivor Noémi Ban's had on their lives during her memorial service at Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham, Wash., on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Ban died on Friday, June 7, 2019.
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Family and friends spoke and sang about the impact Holocaust survivor Noémi Ban's had on their lives during her memorial service at Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham, Wash., on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Ban died on Friday, June 7, 2019.

Nearly 400 people gathered Tuesday at Congregation Beth Israel to honor the memory of Noémi Ban, a Holocaust survivor who lived through the darkest of nights to teach tens of thousands of people about the power of love over hate and bigotry.

“Our hearts are broken,” Rabbi Joshua Samuels said during her memorial service at the Bellingham synagogue. “Noémi’s life was simply remarkable. We will miss her sorely.”

The Bellingham resident died Friday, June 7, after a brief illness. She was 96.

She was surrounded by her family and friends at the end, according to her obituary at Moles Farewell Tributes.

“Although it was her generous heart that gave out in the end, that heart touched our community and many other communities worldwide,” her obituary read.

Ban, a gifted teacher, spent the last roughly 25 years of her life as a celebrated public speaker — telling people what happened to her as she bore witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust so that others could learn about the dangers of hatred and bigotry that were allowed to spread.

She was born on Sept. 29, 1922, in Szeged, Hungary, to Samuel and Juliska Schonberger.

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Grandchildren of Holocaust survivor Noémi Ban speak during her memorial service at Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham Tuesday. Ban died June 7. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

She was 21 when Germany invaded her country on March 19, 1944. Within months, she and her family were shipped by train to Auschwitz in Poland. That was where her mother, grandmother, younger sister and baby brother were killed in the camp’s gas chambers.

Ban was allowed to live so she could be forced into labor at Auschwitz and later at the Buchenwald camp in Germany.

Her family members were among the estimated 550,000 Hungarian Jews murdered in the camp’s gas chambers, according to a Western Washington University news release.

Ban barely survived the Nazi death machine that murdered a total of 6 million Jews in Europe between 1933 and 1945. More than 1 million of them were children.

After the camps were liberated, she reunited with her father in Hungary and would go to on to marry Earnest Ban.

The couple came to St. Louis in 1957 with their two boys after the Soviet occupation of Hungary.

In 1982, they moved to Bellingham where their oldest son, Steve, lived. Earnest Ban died in 1994.

Steve Ban was among those paying tribute on Tuesday.

They laughed, they cried, they sang and they remembered the woman who embraced life and reminded them to do the same.

They talked of her sense of humor, her love of playing the piano and of dancing, her strength and her courage, and her life as a warrior against brutality, violence and prejudice.

Noémi Ban, 96, blows kisses at a thank-you letter she received from her great-granddaughter in Maine in her Bellingham home in 2018, before her death June 7 after a brief illness. Diane Sue Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“When I think of you ... I think of energy and life,” Ban’s granddaughter Rachel Tefft said, adding that laughing and being silly with her grandmother were her favorite memories.

Grandson Jeremiah Levine spoke of infinite lessons to be learned from Ban.

“You can find even in the greatest darkness something to enjoy in your life,” Ban had told him. “She loved life. I strive to carry some of her optimism with me.”

Ban was a retired school teacher when she decided to publicly talk about Auschwitz and Buchenwald — a role that would bring her before hundreds of audiences from the Pacific Northwest to Europe to Taiwan, according to WWU.

Ban also helped with the founding of what is now the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity. Fellow Holocaust survivors and Bellingham residents Fred Fragner and Magda Dorman also were part of that effort.

She is survived by sons Steve and George, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

There was an outpouring of messages on social media when word spread of Ban’s death. Many people had heard her speak in Whatcom County schools — as young students and later at WWU.

Noémi Ban, 96, smiles as she reads a thank-you letter from her great-granddaughter in Maine in her Bellingham home in 2018, before her death June 7 after a brief illness. Diane Sue Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Here’s what some people said about Ban, in their words, in messages posted on social media or shared with The Bellingham Herald.

Professor Sandra Alfers, director of The Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity at Western Washington University

“Our hearts are heavy as we mourn her passing. But Noémi’s message to us was clear and remains pertinent, perhaps now more than ever: to confront hate with love and to speak out and act against anti-Semitism, bigotry, discrimination and hate. She was a gifted teacher, a compassionate advocate for Holocaust education and a genuinely kind human being,” Alfers said to The Bellingham Herald in an email.

“We will miss her and her voice of reason dearly. And we will continue to make sure that her memory and message will be remembered at Western Washington University.”

Ray Wolpow, retired professor from WWU’s Woodring College of Education and founder of the Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education

Wolpow also worked with Ban on her book, “Sharing Is Healing: A Holocaust Survivor’s Story.”

“I will be forever grateful to Noémi for her willingness to bear witness to the unfathomable events of the Holocaust and for sharing her award-winning teaching talents with our community and me,” he said in a release from WWU.

“Her messages of resiliency and hope; of the responsibilities that come with freedom; of the dangers of even a little bit of hatred; and of the importance of remembrance; resonate in my heart and the hearts of tens of thousands who have heard her story.”

Survivor Noémi Ban of Bellingham talks about the importance of remembering the Holocaust and how she survived the Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII.

Rabbi Joshua Samuels, Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham

“It is quite hard to put into words the impact Noemi Ban had on our community and on the lives of the thousands upon thousands of people she touched with her story. Noemi had a profound influence on all of us who knew her and our hearts are broken. There has never been, nor will there ever be a human like Noémi,” Samuels said to The Bellingham Herald in an email.

“This was a person who had lived through the worst nightmare in the history of the world and ended up teaching about loving — not hating — as well as forgiveness. We hear that time heals wounds, but I have a feeling that this doesn’t apply to the void so many of us feel right now. What I do know is that her memory will forever be a blessing and hopefully the balm we need to heal and carry on.”

Maria Holmes, Bellingham resident on Facebook

“Words cannot even express how amazing and special this woman was. I had the pleasure and opportunity to hear her speak in high school and as an adult. I have so much respect and love for her. She will be deeply missed. Thank you, Noémi Ban, for sharing your story with the world. May we never forget the Holocaust, and all those who died and the few that survived. Thank you for your bravery and determination to keep on living.”

Christine Perkins, executive director of the Whatcom County Library System

“Noémi Ban was a remarkable woman who showed us the power of sharing one’s story — it allows you to live and not hate. WCLS is grateful for her generosity in sharing her time with library audiences,” Perkins said on the library system’s Facebook page. “She will be missed, but what she taught us will not be forgotten.”

Noémi Ban in her Bellingham home in 2018, before her death June 7 after a brief illness. Diane Sue Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Wendy Jones, chief corrections deputy with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office

Every few months over two years, Ban would come to the Whatcom County Jail to talk to a small group of inmates, male and female. As she did elsewhere, she shared her story of loss and love.

Her central message was that she didn’t hate anyone despite what happened to her, Jones said.

“She’s an incredibly moving speaker. It really resonated with a lot of these offenders. She was telling them, ‘You have a choice,’ ” Jones said to The Bellingham Herald. “She was a unique and wonderful woman and she wasn’t afraid of any of the inmates at all.”

That included inmates who were white nationalists, Jones said.

“She said, ‘Well, even people who have that feeling may change their minds,’ ” Jones recalled. “It’s difficult to deny the Holocaust when you’ve got a woman sitting there who lived through it.”

What struck Jones was Ban’s message, one that she said she’s heard from the Dalai Lama, the pope and other religious leaders:

“You need to approach people with love and take them as they present themselves,” Jones said, “and that’s what she did.”

Diane Sue, a Bellingham resident and friend who had been working with Ban on a memoir of her life

“I hope people remember how much Noemi cared about other people, and how much she appreciated every single person who took the time to hear her story. She was committed to sharing her message of hope and healing with as many people as possible. She was such an incredible role model of continuing to have a purpose of life well beyond the retirement years. I am grateful that she was able to live with purpose until the very end.”

Sue said Ban’s last presentation occurred on Thursday, May 23, when she spoke to about 250 eighth-graders at Park Place Middle School in Monroe. She answered their questions, gave them hugs and took pictures with them.

Sabah Randhawa, WWU president

“Noémi dedicated her life to teaching some of the most profound and timeless human truths: that love is stronger than hate, kindness more powerful than cruelty, and that compassion and understanding will overcome bigotry and ignorance,” Randhawa said in a release. “She was also the living embodiment of that wisdom. The thousands of people she inspired through her teaching is a wonderful legacy of hope and remembrance.”

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.