By Lexi Foldenauer
Bellingham resident, Noemi Ban came to speak at Whatcom May 26 to tell her story of overcoming the brutality of being held as a prisoner of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during World War II. Ban has traveled all over, from New York to Taiwan, to tell the story of her triumphant journey through life. She continues to captivate audiences, especially local ones, despite the number of times they may have heard her story.
I saw Noemi Ban years ago when she came to my parochial school to talk to the middle school students. I remembered bits and pieces of her story, but enjoyed hearing it again as a college student, feeling more able to comprehend the depth of her struggle.
Ban, who is now in her mid 80s is still telling her story more vividly than ever, making it feel as if you are accompanying her on a journey through time. Ban stood behind the chair that was set up for her on stage, eloquent and direct with her audience, not missing a beat or a detail in her story. She clutched the necklace she was wearing, comparing it to the size of the gold star that she, along with other Jews, were forced to wear like a brand each day to mark their religion.
Ban’s story shifted from packing for the concentration camp, and only being allowed to fit certain belongings in a small backpack, to being taken to a destination unknown. The destination began on a ride in a packed cattle car, where she would later be taken to a camp where she, and thousands of others, would be treated under inhumane circumstances.
“As human beings, we have hope that maybe the next place would be better,” Ban described, of being taken to the concentration camp, “but each place got worse and worse.”
Ban remembered the smell of the cattle car, and described to the audience how she can still remember it vividly, along with the sounds of screaming children and scared mothers.
“It is no longer a memory,” Ban says of her time at Auschwitz, “I feel I am there. I can see myself standing there.”
Ban has certainly been through quite the journey in life, and has experienced things that most people will never have to go through. The strongest message she conveyed to the audience was to not hate, and to practice peace toward one another.
“If I would have hate in my heart now, I would not be free,” said Ban, “Hitler would still have victory, and that is not a way to live.” It was clear that Ban’s message for telling her story was not to depress anyone, or seek sympathy, but to help people take control of their own happiness and start to appreciate life more.
Ban talked about how it is natural to cry and grieve in one’s life, but you must also be active in order to attain happiness. She related this message to the story of her reunion with her father, who had been sent away just before Ban and the rest of her family were sent to the camps.
Years after Ban’s mother, grandmother, sister, and brother were executed in the gas chambers after being separated at Auschwitz, Ban saw her father again for the first time in years. She talked about the grieving process they endured, but decided that instead of living their lives with remorse and hatred, they needed to do things for themselves. She and her father consciously continued on a happy and productive life journey, because they knew that is what the rest of the family would have wanted.
Ban later became a teacher and married, and is now a proud mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She has also won numerous awards, including being inducted in the Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
People often ask her if she has been able to forgive what happened to her and her family after all of these years. To that inquiry, Ban responds, “I am still working on it.”