Noémi Shoënberger Ban’s soft voice and Hungarian accent compelled the audience of more than 400 seated in the Glacier High School auditorium to lean forward at times to hear her. But Ban’s message, describing the death of most of her family during the Holocaust and how she survived, was one of strength and love that spans generations.
“I was so close to death in Auschwitz-Birkenau and I am alive; this is a gift,” Ban said. “I learned in that horrible place how precious, how important, how wonderful it is to be alive.”
Ban, 88, is an educator living in Bellingham, Wash., who traveled to the Flathead last week to give several presentations, along with a screening of the documentary on her life, titled, “My Name is Noémi.” Her visit was co-sponsored by several local groups, including Love Lives Here Kalispell.
Ban’s reasons for revisiting the tragedy she endured during World War II, as she explained at the beginning of her talk, are threefold: “I hope that in the end of my story you will see for yourself what hate and propaganda can do when it goes uncontrolled.”
She also tells her story, in all of its grim detail, as a way to refute those who question that the killing of 6 million Jews at the hands of Nazis in World War II occurred.
“What are you people talking about?” she said of Holocaust deniers. “I’ve been there, I suffered there; I am a witness.”
Furthermore, Ban tells her story as a way to feel closer to her mother and siblings, who perished at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
“I don’t even have a grave to go to,” Ban said. “So when I speak about them and their horrible fate, I feel I am sending my love to them and honoring them.”
Ban was 21 when Nazis entered the city of Debrecen, Hungary on March 19, 1944, and changes began occurring immediately. Living with her family in Szeged, Jews were forced to wear yellow Star of David patches on their clothes.
“I remember the first time I stepped outside with that big star on, I felt embarrassed,” she said.
Soon, the ghetto was created, and all Jewish people were consolidated into a designated area.
“We became prisoners in our own home,” Ban said.
Several weeks later, all able-bodied men were ordered to report to “labor camps.”
“I remember my father packing the backpack. My mother was helping him but as she was helping him she was crying,” Ban said, adding that her mother told her she had a “terrible feeling.”
Ban’s father left for the camp, and that was the last time he saw his wife or the rest of his children.
“It was a 25-year happy marriage,” Ban said of her parents. “They never saw each other again.”
Months passed in the ghetto as less and less food was made available, until one day the Jews were told to pack a small box of provisions, including one change of underwear, and prepare to leave.
“Then we had to walk through the whole city with that big yellow star, with that package,” Ban said, recalling that people lined the streets to watch them, some waving, some crying. “Most of them said: ‘Good riddance, get away.’”
Hungarian soldiers turned the Jews over to Nazi soldiers, who forced them, in groups of 85, into small cattle cars for transport. At either end of the car stood an SS soldier with two buckets, one with drinking water and the other for defecating. With that many people crammed into a small space, conditions deteriorated rapidly, particularly when it became necessary to relieve oneself.
“At the beginning, people were covering (themselves), then they couldn’t care less,” Ban said. “Whenever I speak about it, I almost smell that stench in that cattle car.”
The train eventually arrived in Poland, at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“We had no idea what Auschwitz meant,” she said. “We were happy when they opened the door and fresh air came in.”
From there, people were lined up and moved toward an SS officer in a shining uniform who directed some to the left, and others to the right.
“He raised his arm and sent, with one signal, my mom, the baby, my grandma, little sister to his left,” Ban said. “I was sent to the other side.”
As they drifted apart, Ban locked eyes with her mother.
“I looked in her beautiful eyes and her beautiful eyes was talking to me,” she recalled. “They said, ‘Noemi, take care of yourself, I love you.’”
“This was the very last time I saw them.”
Ban’s head was shaved and she was forced into barracks with about 100 people each. Breakfast and dinner consisted of one cup of “so-called” coffee and a slice of bread she later learned had sawdust mixed into it. Lunch was a bowl of soup the women had to share. When Ban attempted to refuse, she was forced to consume it. The soup made the women’s menstruation cease. Years later, after some of the women had been liberated, Ban said she learned several were never able to have children, “they were so destroyed inside.”
But Ban, somehow, gave birth to two sons after the war, and currently has six great-grandkids.
“Good genes or strong body, I don’t know,” Ban said. “And I feel victory, and I feel winner, and you know what? Hitler is dead, isn’t he?”
One day Ban and the other women asked a female guard where their families were. The guard pointed to the grey cloud billowing from a smokestack, and said, “Here are your relatives,” Ban recalled.
She wonders sometimes about how her family died in the gas chambers.
“If I think that my dear mom died seeing her own mom, her own children, die that way while she was suffocating, it’s hard,” Ban said.
Josef Mengele eventually selected 25 women, including Ban, to work building bombs in a Buchenwald, Germany factory. Speaking Hungarian to each other the women – mortified to be building bombs aimed at the Allied Forces they hoped would liberate them – deliberately wired the bombs incorrectly to make them duds.
“We decided, let’s make a little sabotage,” Ban said. “You never in your life could see such a beautiful mess.”
“For seven months, we made a lot of mess,” she added.
The women were encouraged when, one day, their guards wore street clothes, not Nazi uniforms – a sign the Allies may have been advancing. Shortly afterward, the soldiers began marching Ban and the other women east, deep into a forest, where a handful of the women managed to escape. Ban described hiding in the woods as a soldier approached; then they realized he was American.
“He was from Patton’s army,” Ban recalled. “This good man, I will never forget his voice, I will never forget his face, and I will never, ever forget what he said: ‘You are all free.’”
Weeks later, Ban was reunited with her father in Hungary, where she eventually married, became a teacher and moved to the United States in 1957 when the revolution against the Soviets began.
And though she spends much of her time relating her experience in Auschwitz, Ban has not allowed what happened to her family there to overwhelm her with animosity. Rather, she relates – as she did in Kalispell last week to the many children in the audience – the lessons she learned.
“I learned in Auschwitz, hate is wrong,” Ban said. “If I have hate in my heart, I would not be free.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.