It had been a long week – several long weeks all running together actually. So it was timely that Noémi Ban was speaking at the university this week – a coworker and I went to see the presentation.
Noémi Ban is a Hungarian born Jew – she became a United States citizen after she immigrated here. She was born in 1922, and she was 21 years old when the Nazis invaded Hungary. When you hear her speak, a palpable silence comes over the room. The only sound comes from her voice, thickly accented and still strong. She speaks simply, not going into too much detail about the emotions she must still feel vividly, even after all this time.
She tells the audience about how her family was deported to Auschwitz; told to bring only a small parcel with food, and a change of underwear. No valuables, not even wedding rings. She tells of the stench of the cattle cars they rode in for 8 days. With one bucket for water, and one bucket for a toilet. For 85 people. She explains how, on their arrival, they are told not to bring their parcel with them.
She doesn’t break when she explains how her family lined up at the entrance of Auschwitz, how she was the only one in her family who was sent to the doctor’s left side. How she didn’t know then what it meant to be sent to the right. It was only later that she found out the doctor’s name. Josef Mengele.
She speaks candidly about having her menstrual period on the day that she arrived in the camp. How she refused to drink from the bowl of soup that was sent down the line of women prisoners, because so many mouths had already been on it by the time it reached her. The guards told her that next time the soup was passed to her, she would drink. Or else. She understood what “or else” meant. The soup made her period stop within an hour. She didn’t know it at the time, but the soup contained toxic chemicals that permanently sterilized many of the survivors.
She speaks of how, after 4 months at Auschwitz, she was sent to Buchenwald and began working in a factory building bombs for the Germans. She explains how the Nazi guards didn’t seem too concerned with watching the women much, choosing to spend much of their time in an adjoining room. This gave her and the other women an opportunity to deliberately wire the bombs incorrectly, so they wouldn’t explode on impact. She laughs lightheartedly when she explains their sabotage, as if she were explaining a childhood prank. She tells us that she did this forced labor for seven months.
She maintains her composure when she explains that when the Americans were getting close, the Nazis forced the inmates at Buchenwald to march to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Noémi and several other women managed to escape from the march and run into the forest. She tells of hearing a man, and the profound relief she felt to discover it was an American soldier. She laughs when she tells of how she and the other women kissed and clung to the soldier, only letting go when he told them they might strangle him. She was liberated in April, 1945.
Her voice gets soft when she tells us that her father was the only other family member who survived the war. Her mother, sister, brother, grandmother, aunts, uncles, nephew, cousins – 21 family members in all, were all sent to the gas chamber. She cracks a little when she recounts how she had to tell her father about their fate – how she wanted to tell him because she didn’t want him to hear it from somebody else. She was 22 years old.
You would think the sad part of the story ends there, but it doesn’t. She tells the audience that after getting married and having two sons, she was living in Hungary during the Soviet occupation after the war. She became a teacher. And in 1956, she and her family escaped from Communist rule by hiding themselves in giant balls of yarn that were being shipped across the border to Austria. They came to the United States in 1957.
She gets angry as she talks about the people who say the Holocaust never happened. How she wishes she could sit with them and ask them to explain what was done to her. She ends her presentation by telling her audience that she learned to love life in Auschwitz. Everything else she has endured must pale in comparison to Auschwitz. Where she learned to love life. She ends with a statement that must seem obvious by now.
Life is precious.