Noémi Ban keeps a busy schedule with an exercise class three times a week, visits with friends and family, and public talks about the importance of love and tolerance in a world that can be filled with lethal hatred.
As one of 100,000 U.S. survivors of the Nazi death machine against Jews, this is an especially busy time for Ban, because Holocaust Remembrance Day ends Thursday evening, May 5.
On Tuesday, Ban spoke to a packed audience at Western Washington University. On Wednesday, she spoke at Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham.
Ban and her family lived near Budapest, Hungary, a country the Nazis occupied in March 1944. Ban was living with her parents, grandmother, little sister, and her baby brother when the Germans started shipping thousands of people to concentration camps.
Her father was sent to a labor camp. The others were sent by train to Auschwitz, where Ban, a healthy young adult, was chosen to be a laborer. The rest of her family was put to death.
Ban came close to death at Auschwitz when she fainted while standing in line outdoors — weak workers became dead workers —but three other prisoners held her upright until they were dismissed.
Ban later asked the women why they had risked their own lives to save her. The reason, Ban was told, was because she had listened to them, held their hands, and given them a shoulder to lean on. Small gestures of humanity amidst hatred.
Ban was later sent to Buchenwald to assemble components for bombs. By spring 1945, with the Allies closing in, the Germans started evacuating Buchenwald. Ban and other prisoners began a forced march to another Nazi camp, but they escaped into some woods where they were found by Allied soldiers.
“I loved life,” Ban said. “I didn’t want to die.”
Ban is now 93 and a half years old. She proudly emphasizes the half year, proud that she still has the mental and physical ability to share her story of survival, in part so her slain family, and others like them, will be remembered too.
“I cannot bring back my dear ones,” she said. “I can talk about them. ... I am honoring them and sending my love.”
When Ban gave the commencement speech at Western in spring 2013, she asked students, “Do you really know what freedom is?” She held up a glass of water and said she saw freedom in it.
The freedom to drink clean water whenever she’s thirsty. The freedom to speak to them. The freedom to have grandchildren (and, in her case, great-grandchildren).
The freedom to remind people not to hate others, because to do otherwise would leave her as hateful as the Nazis.
“That doesn’t mean I can forgive,” she said. “I cannot forgive.”
Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291.