By Jake Knight
Imagine being taken from your home, separated from your family, whom you may never see again, and forced to work, starving and afraid for your life, for those who hate you. Then imagine that there are people who don’t believe this ever occurred.
“About three or four years ago, I started to hear statements saying that ‘the Holocaust didn’t happen at all,’” said Noemi Ban, 91, a Jewish-American Bellingham resident and Holocaust survivor who shared her story Feb. 12 at Western Washington University.
“I get angry when I hear that, and I hope that I can see one of them eye-to-eye and I ask one question: ‘What are you talking about? I’ve been there, I’ve suffered there and my whole family got killed there!’ Nobody, nobody should tell me that the Holocaust didn’t happen,” Ban said.
Born in Szeged, Hungary, Ban was separated from her family after the Nazis invaded her country on March 19, 1944, and was forced to work in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland, 460 miles away.
Ban, then named Noemi Shoenberger, was 21-years-old and living with her parents, a younger sister, baby brother, and her grandmother at the time of the German invasion.
“We were afraid, and we didn’t know what would happen,” Ban said. “We didn’t have to wait too long” to find out, she added.
Within weeks of the invasion, ghettos were formed and families were required to take in extra residents. The Shoenberger family home was just within the boundary of the ghetto and they took in eight families. “We became prisoners in our own home,” Ban said.
Ban said she remembers looking out her window and seeing that the “other side of the street was free,” because they were viewed as acceptable by the Germans.
Weeks passed and an order came that would forever alter the Shoenberger family.
Every man 18 to 55 years old had to go outside, line up, and relocate to the concentration camps, she said. That included her father Samu, who was 48-years-old.
“My mother was crying,” Ban said. “‘Maybe he will come back soon,’” she said, trying to calm her mother down. Her mother said, “‘Noémi, I have a terrible feeling I will never, ever see him again.’” Ban’s mother was never reunited with her husband.
Three months after Ban’s father was separated from the family, soldiers told the Shoenbergers to pack up “one pillow, one sheet, one small package of dry food and one pair of underwear,” and march to a factory on the outskirts of town. They stayed there until they were forced into cattle cars to be transported to their next destination: Auschwitz.
The cattle cars were small and packed full of people, Ban said. In these cars, devoid of privacy, there were two buckets at each end, one with water to drink, and the other for the 85 passengers to use as a toilet. “I still smell that stench in that cattle car,” she said.
Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, the Shoenberger family was relieved to get out of the train car. When they looked up they saw a sign that read “Auschwitz.” Not speaking Polish, “we didn’t know what Auschwitz meant, we were happy that they opened the door and a little fresh air came in,” Ban said. The soldiers told them to “get out,” leave their belongings behind, and line up, she said.
Now lined up, the Shoenberger family was separated by a Nazi officer in a white uniform. Ban said the officer, Dr. Joseph Mengele, sent her family to the left where they were to be killed, and Ban to the right to work and starve. Mengele was the officer most closely tied to this selection process during the Holocaust.
“We couldn’t speak to each other anymore, but I remember … seeing my mom, holding that little baby, and I looked at her eyes, her beautiful eyes, [and] her beautiful eyes were telling me, ‘Noemi take care of yourself, Noemi, I love you’,” Ban said. “I never, ever, in my life have felt so lonely.”
In Auschwitz, Ban said she and the rest of the prisoners survived on meals of bread made with sawdust, coffee, and a community bowl of soup.
She said the soup contained ingredients that caused Holocaust victims to become sterile. “They wanted to be sure that in case we survived, we shouldn’t be able to have babies. … I must have good genes,” she said. “I had two sons, five grandchildren, and eight great-grandbabies.”
With that statement the audience of nearly 500 people stood up to applaud Ban. After a minute or so of applause, Ban continued with her story.
She said she remembered the prisoners in Auschwitz were so deprived that when they were given water, they fought with each other for it. She overheard a guard saying, “look at them, they are not human beings! Not even animals! They are little vermin! They kill each other for water.”
After hearing that, Ban gave up her water to another woman. “It proved to me that I am still a human,” she said.
“In the German soldiers’ eyes we no longer were humans, but just a number,” Ban said.
At one point, Ban said she remembered passing out, but was saved by her friends who held her up whenever an officer came by; sick prisoners were often killed. “I had friends,” she said. “I learned that even in a horrible place like Auschwitz there were still wonderful human beings.”
Ban also recounted the day she and her fellow inmates learned what happened to their families from a female guard. She said to them, “Do you want to know? Do you see that cloud? Do you smell that terrible smell?” They replied yes, and the guard put her hand out into the smoke said, “Here are your relatives!”
After suffering for nearly four months in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ban was relocated to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany to work in a bomb factory. In the bomb factory she said she and 25 other workers devised a plan to sabotage the bombs by mixing the wires so they wouldn’t detonate.
“We were so happy, because finally we were able to do something about this terrible power,” she said.
Seven months had passed at the bomb factory when the Germans came to the conclusion that the Allied forces would win the war. Ban and the other prisoners were forced by the Nazi officers on a “death march.”
She said that at one point, someone noticed the officers changing into civilian clothing. Ban and 11 other prisoners strayed from the line, one-by-one, and hid in a forest where they were found by an American soldier.
After World War II ended, Ban reunited with her father in Budapest, Hungary. He had changed his name to Gabor in honor of his infant son who had died in the Holocaust. In Budapest she also met and married her husband Earnest Ban, a school teacher.
She later became a teacher after she came to the U.S. She wrote on her webpage that she moved to Bellingham to be closer to her son, Steven.
Ban said people ask her if she has a lot of hate inside after what she went through.
“I always say ‘no!’ I don’t have hate in me. You see if I would have hate in me, I would be a prisoner of my own hate. I would be my slave,” she said.
“How can you live with hate? If I would have hate, the Nazis would win,” Ban said.