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'How Can You Live With Hate In Your Heart?': Local Holocaust Survivor Sharing Story

There are a handful of Holocaust survivors in the Northwest who were old enough during World War II to remember the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.

Noemi Ban, 91, of Bellingham is one of them. Ban was a young woman when she lost most of her family at Auschwitz. She survived, and has been sharing her story of hope and forgiveness since.

Alone At Auschwitz

Ban grew up in Hungary. She was 21 when she was unloaded from a cattle car at Auschwitz in Nazi Germany along with her mother, grandmother, little sister and infant brother. The family stood in front of Nazi officer, Josef Mengele.

When families first arrived, they were separated. The very young, the old and the weak were often went directly to the gas chambers. Ban was strong and healthy; she could be used for labor. As a result, she was spared.

“My mom, my sister, my grandma, the baby were sent to his [the officer’s] left,” she said.

With a flick of his white-gloved hand, Mengele, who was nicknamed the angel of death, sent Ban off to the right. It was the last time she saw her family alive.

In Auschwitz, Ban was starved and learned the source of the black smoke she choked on every day. Then she went to Buchenwald to make bombs for the Nazis. There, she and the other women prisoners committed sabotage by reversing the wires inside.

“We took the green ball with the red wire and the brown ball with the yellow wire, and we made a mess out of it,” she said.

'If I Keep On Hating, Then I Will Still Be A Prisoner'

Ban’s suffering, her survival, her rescue by an American soldier and her escape to the U.S. where she learned English by reading Mark Twain — it’s a story that rivals the best Hollywood movies about that time in history.

Ban lost so much and has a lot to be angry about, but she isn't.

Ray Wolpow, a professor of secondary education at Western Washington University, says Ban has a deep well of empathy and sees life as a gift.

“Instead of looking at what’s so terrible, flip the pancake and look at what the potential is there; look at the other side,” he said.

Wolpow says Ban has been his “guide on the side” for more than two decades, helping him understand the effect trauma has on students and how teachers can do a better job reaching these kids. Ban learned early on how to deal with the horrible things she experienced during the war.  

“If I keep on hating, then I will still be a prisoner. The Nazis will still have me. And how can you live with hate in your heart?” she said.

The Power Of Her Story

Ban had a long career teaching middle school students. Today she lectures to hundreds of students at a time at WWU a few times a year about surviving the Holocaust. The free tickets get snapped up fast.

At one of Ban’s talks last November, Western student Olivia Leslie said it was her second time hearing Ban share her story.

“I’ve heard about these stories, but hearing them from people who actually went through it…it’s nice to hear Noemi, because she says you shouldn’t let that suffering define you; you should celebrate life,” Leslies aid.

Wolpow is fascinated by this pattern of people coming to hear Ban’s story again and again.

“When a large group of people come together to listen to a story about an atrocity, there is a form of redemption that tells us, ‘I can feel sorrow and joy at the same time.’ And when I’m doing that together, to listen in a community, then we can reinforce an inner feeling of, ‘We can make this a better world. There is hope,’” Wolpow said.

'I'm A Free Woman!'

A lot of this is covered in the book, “Sharing is Healing,” which Ban wrote with Wolpow’s help.

One of the funnier stories in the book took place back in 1995 when Wolpow accompanied Ban to Auschwitz for the first time since the war. They went into the basement of one of the buildings where there were bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and small windows.

All of the sudden there was a pop sound.

“I was stunned by it,” said Wolpow.

The lights went out. Wolpow looked for Ban.

“[I asked her,] ‘Noemi, are you OK?’ [She said,] ‘Ray, I am fine. This is what it was like!”’ said Wolpow.

They found a door. It was locked. Wolpow said they’d have to find another way out. But Ban had another plan.

“And this little woman picks up her leg and gives the door such a kick, and we walk back into the daylight together. And she’s laughing and says, ‘I’m a free woman!’ I said, ‘Show me what a free woman looks like.’ And she holds up her hands with a ‘V’ on each of her hands; victory! I’m free!”

Ban still gets many requests to speak. This Tuesday and Wednesday, she will give her lecture at Western Washington University. There are 500 tickets for each event, and every seat will likely be filled.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.