Holocaust survivor speaks to Kent Prairie Elementary
August 27, 2008 · Updated 4:11 PM
ARLINGTON Noemi Ban spoke slowly and with a distinct accent, but the fifth-grade students hung silently onto her every word.
The 84-year-old Jewish woman was born and raised in Hungary, and after surviving the Holocaust, she made it her mission to love life.
The fifth-grade students of Kent Prairie heard her account May 10 of the events leading up to and including her three months at the Buchenwald concentration camp, a testimonial she repeats often to ensure that the events themselves will never be repeated.
Bigotry, prejudice and hate have resulted in a lot of death and I want to see an end to it, Ban said. People have said that it did not happen, which makes me angry. I survived, but I still suffered there and I will be a witness to it until the day I die.
Ban also seeks to preserve and honor the memories of her mother, grandmother and younger brother and sister, all of whom died in the gas chambers at Buchenwald.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Ban recalled that her father warned he would be dangerous. When World War II began in Europe in 1939, that danger approached ever closer as the Nazis occupied ever more countries. When the SS arrived in Hungary in 1944, the lives of Ban and her fellow Jews and countrymen were changed forever.
The first order was to wear the yellow stars, Ban said. We had to march to the store and spend our own money to buy them. I felt so embarrassed, the first time I was looked at differently. After that, they created the ghetto for us and concentrated our people in it. Our familys house was on the border of the ghetto, so we could see out into the free world, but we were prisoners in our own home.
That prison became even more crowded when Bans family found themselves sharing their home with eight other Jewish families, requiring them to sleep in the hallways and wait in long lines to use the bathroom, or even to pour water. After three weeks, Bans father was sent off to a forced labor camp, along with the rest of the able-bodied Jewish men aged 18-55.
I tried to calm her, but my mother cried and said she had a terrible feeling she would never see him again, and she was right, said Ban, who at the age of 21 was comforting her mother and her grandmother, as well as her six-month-old brother and her 12-year-old sister. After three months in the ghetto, her burdens grew worse as her family dwindled further.
The Hungarian Jews were lined up outside their homes and allowed to carry one pillow, one bed sheet, one change of underwear and none of their valuables with them, as they were marched through the city into an empty factory, upon whose dirt floors they slept for 10 nights. This simply served as a prelude for their trip in the squalid cattle car trains, with each car containing nearly 100 Jews.
They did not tell us where or why we were going, but we jumped, Ban said. We hoped that, if we got away from this place, the next place would be better. It was not so. Every one was worse.
In the summer heat and semi-dark of the train car, the Jews were given one bucket for fresh water and one for all their sanitary purposes.
I still remember the terrible smell and the babies screaming, Ban said to the fifth-graders. Children your age were asking when dinner would come and where they could go to bed. My grandmother had nightmares every night, and once, she got up and said, Its mine, and they cant take it away from me. Under her dresses, shed hidden a silver candle holder. The SS would have killed us if theyd found it, but she couldnt leave it behind, because it was part of our religious tradition. I loved and respected her so much for her courage.
After eight days of train travel, the Ban family arrived at Buchenwald and was split apart forever.
The SS officer separating the line had a shiny uniform and a horsewhip, Ban said. With a raised arm, my mother, sister, brother and grandmother went to one side, and I went to the other. The last five or six seconds that I saw my mother, we did not talk. Instead, I had one last look in her beautiful eyes, which told me that she loved me and she wanted me to take care of myself.
Ban and the other Jewish women had their heads shaved, were herded into group showers where they thought they might die, and thrown rag dresses as they were marched out toward the barracks. Each barracks had six rooms, and at least 100 Jews were crowded into each room. Each night, they slept on dirt floors, and each day, they were forced to stay outside, no matter how hot, cold or rainy it was.
Breakfast was one cup of terrible coffee and one slice of bread, Ban said. Dinner was the same. Even after we found out that half of the breads ingredients were sawdust, we couldnt wait to eat it. Soup was for lunch, and we each had to drink from the same bowl, one after the other. People had sores and pus on their faces, and it smelled horrible. Sometimes, water was so scarce that we used coffee to wash our faces. The Nazis would laugh at us and say, Theyre not even animals. Theyd kill each other for water.
Ban paused to take a long drink from a glass of water she had on a stool next to her.
This is why speaking about this always makes me thirsty, Ban said.
Ban did not learn the truth about her familys whereabouts until she worked up the courage to ask a female Nazi guard.
She pointed to the gray clouds of smoke, so thick we were choking on them, and asked us, Do you see it? Do you smell it? Ban said. When we said yes, she pointed to the fires of the chimneys, and drew a line in the sky with her finger, connecting the fires to the clouds, saying, Here are your relatives. Here they go.
Ban escaped from Buchenwald when she was drafted into the German war effort, as she and several other young women were selected to work as bomb manufacturers. Once theyd learned how to assemble bombs properly, though, they set about sabotaging as many of them as they could get away with, without the Germans noticing. After she and her fellow workers were liberated by American troops, during the bombing of Berlin, she was reunited with her father, who had survived the war.
People ask me if I have hate in my heart, for what was done to me, Ban said. I have no hate. Hate is destructive to everybody, including the person who hates. I would not be truly free if I had hate. You children will be the ones who make sure this does not happen again. When I look at you listening to me, and see how sad your faces are, it gives me strength, because I feel the love, from you to me. I need that strength, because these are not easy things to repeat.