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Auschwitz II - Birkenau: Noémi's Return

This was the fourth* time Noémi had returned to Auschwitz. Noémi’s dear ones would never emerge from Auschwitz-Birkenau: her grandmother, Nina; her 12-year-old sister, Erzsébet; her six-month-old brother, Gábor; and their mother, Juliska. They likely met their death from the Zyklon B gas of gas chamber number five.

“I am a free woman now," Noémi said, "and I wanted to go back and try to follow every single step that they had to take...to have the opportunity to stay there, touch every brick and every wire."

The grounds of Auschwitz II, seen from the main watchtower

7/01/06 3:28 pm, in the main watchtower of Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Jürgen [a tour guide]: “All the buildings were basically coming from a factory in Germany that was producing horse stables. They were selling these originally as horse stables. So wherever you see a chimney, that is showing us how many of these buildings were here. This camp of Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, was never fully completed. The Germans had plans to extend this camp … three [gas chambers] were blown up by the retreating German army and the SS to try to eliminate the proof of the crimes that were committed here. It was obviously impossible. There were very many mass-graves also … we don’t know how many people died here … many of the people who arrived here were immediately sent for mass extermination into gas chambers, and we have no records at all about the numbers of those people who died immediately after their arrival… this camp was designed from 1942 onwards, and then extended in stages … They started [shipping Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in 1944] from March onwards, and July 11 was the last transport of Hungarian Jews. The camp was not only for Jews. There were other inmates in the camp. Gypsies for example. Priests, homosexuals. People who were resisting the Germans. Polish. It didn’t matter what nationality.

Recordings: Conversations during Noémi 's return to Auschwitz II - Birkenau

3:37 pm
Sean: We just saw the watchtower. Huge. I very much do believe that it could be 5,000 [500] football fields.

3:38 pm
Noémi : Further down, about when you see that pillar, that’s where Mengele was standing on the pedestal. That’s where he separated us. While were still here, in the cattle car, I was together with my dear ones, and we didn’t know what would happen to us … 20 minutes later I all of the sudden had to get out of there ... and 15 minutes later I lost my whole family. So I will show you the road where my dear ones, my mom, my grandma, my little sister and brother, had to walk the long, long road to the gas chamber.

3:46 pm
Noémi : Look around you. Look at this huge, huge place, full with prisoners, full with people ready to die ... if I close my eyes, I see the people everywhere, and German shepherd dogs, and the guards, and yelling, and kicking, and screaming at us. And we didn’t know what minute we would be dying. All these fences were electrified. So anybody who touched it … Many people died just because we were 62 to 65 pounds. Did you see the picture in the Hungarian Museum? That’s how we looked, and the rags on us. Just to be standing in place was a miracle. Many people gave up, let it go. They were picked up on the side of the road where they dropped ... thousands of people … we never knew what happened to them. Then, later we learned that they were taken right away to the gas.

Those people who know my story know why I am here and not in the truck, because I had three good friends. As we were standing in line, when they saw me, one day I was really very sick. I never gave up, but I was fainting. The big difference is that now I am not in Monroe, in the school telling that, but I am in Auschwitz - Birkenau telling it. While I was falling down, my friends, one on my right, one on my left, and one on my back, in one second they decided that they would risk their own lives to save mine. They were holding me up for three hours with that one rag on me. That’s how I am here.

Q: What was the average time that they would leave you all in roll call?

Noémi : Three hours, two times a day.

Q: Winter or summer?

Noémi : We were here in summer. We arrived on July the first.

Q: [Apparently a question about the three friends who saved her. Inaudible.]

Noémi : "I did see the three of them who saved me. I’m sorry to say the last one of them died last year."

We walk a while farther, heading towards the building to which Noémi had been forced, until we reach trees near the Western edge of the camp where there is a large map.

4:37 pm
Noémi : “This was my address … that was yours truly.”

Noémi had lived in section BIIc, in barrack 24. A legend below the map labels BIIc as “Transit camp for Jewesses, mainly from Hungary.” It was a “transit” camp because its prisoners were potential slave workers for German factories. Noémi explains that after her fourth month in Auschwitz, doctor Josef Mengele selected her and other Hungarian women to be shipped to labor in Germany. At this point we walked farther, towards the building to which Noémi and the other prisoners were first forced to go.

As we walked north, Noémi drank from a small water bottle. In her four months at Auschwitz, Noémi drank not one drop of water. The Nazi guards sometimes brought in tubs of water, for which the prisoners would fight and clamber over one another. Noémi once heard the guards remark, "They kill each other for water. They are are not human beings, they are not even animals, they are just little worms." After hearing that, Noémi refused to fight for the water. Several teachers now comment that the water bottle Noémi now carries through Auschwitz is a powerful statement.

Noémi : “See, I am in Auschwitz, and I can drink as much water as I want. That is a victory.”

We finally reach the building where Noémi had been forced to disrobe and then was shaved, showered, and tossed a rag to wear. Noémi said she had never felt so lost, so alone as she did in that building 62 years ago.

At the building’s exit we reach a guestbook where Noémi signs her name and writes the following message:


Back in the United States, Noémi would tell me that she wrote she was a proud citizen of the USA because many Europeans have anti-US sentiment, and she wants people to know she loves America, which liberated her from the Nazis.

5:19 pm

Sean: After Noémi wrote her message on the book in the station, the building where she had been undressed, shaved, and basically first turned into a prisoner at Auschwitz, after she wrote in that book she seemed agitated, like she had tears in her, eyes, and I put a hand on her shoulder and we hugged, I kissed her on the cheek, and she said, “Next comes the gas chamber. This is the hardest part.” And her voice had a quaver in it that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. I felt a real burst of sadness.

In that moment, I feel a deep, palpable sense of loss. Erzsébet, Juliska, Nina and little Gábor are gone forever. They were good, innocent people, and the Nazis murdered them. It was so terribly unfair for Noémi, for her family, for all 11 million victims.

We next walk to a memorial built outside the ruins of Gas Chamber Number Five. The Nazis dynamited the chamber in a failed attempt to cover their crimes. In front of that memorial, Noémi says in Hebrew the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the deceased, with her son Steven Ban and his daughter Julia Bakken. This was the first time Noémi could say the prayer at Auschwitz with a minyan, the traditionally required quorum of 10 Jews.

Noémi bends down and embraces the memorial. Many cry.

Before leaving, I place a white rose at the gas chamber ruins. I had thought this seemed appropriate, since The White Rose was the name of student group that resisted the Nazis. Lynn Stone later told me that Jews leave stones, not flowers, at gravesites because stones represent permanence, and because by putting a stone on a grave you are not sacrificing a living entity, a flower, to honor a loved one. Indeed, stones cluster around the base of the memorials above. I was embarrassed learning this, but realized my intention had been good and vowed to leave stones next time.

Noémi speaks with us as we walk towards her barrack. By this time the rain has abated and the sky is beginning to clear. I see small weeds with colored flower among the grass and see a stork standing in repose on a ruin. Most of the other wooden barracks in Auschwitz have been reduced to their brick foundations by 62 years of harsh Polish winters. Birds sing again in Auschwitz. One especially loud bird overhead that sings its heart out for more than a minute.

5:51 pm

Noémi : “I don’t have words enough, I can’t express enough how much it means that all of you are with me.”

5:58 pm

Sean: “I always thought it was so amazing that you managed to survive. I mean, not even including the danger you were in, but just the boredom, the filth,

Noémi : Oh, everything. Hunger. No water either. Not [being able] to wash ourselves. Everything was just taken away.

At one point, several children race past us, perhaps playing tag. I worry again about whether future generations will respect Holocaust sites and truly remember.

While in the camp, shaved bald and with only a rag to wear, Noémi had been forced to stand in formation outside her barrack for three hours, twice per day. Prisoners were given only bread mixed with sawdust to eat, and a rancid soup and a weak “coffee” to drink. Desperate to feel clean, Noémi sometimes washed her face with the “coffee.”

6:10 pm
Ryan Shupe: Where did they line you up?

Noémi : “In front of the barracks. And then we had to go to the inspection, and that was another march. And other than that we were sitting in the dirt and the mud and doing nothing … we occupied each other … we even started humming melodies … or we took the title of a book and asked who wrote it ... We tried so hard to keep our minds going because most of the time we were just [lets her head slump to the side to show how week and dazed they prisoners had been]. We were hungry, we lost weight in that time frame. Dangerous.

Ryan Shupe: Did you ever see anyone smile?

Noémi says she never did at Auschwitz.

Noémi : When my friends saved me, I asked them, Why did you do it? You could have been killed.” And the answer was, “because you were nice to us.” I said, “What did I do?” And they said “When we were sad, and we wanted to talk, you were listening to us.” And many times they asked me to tell stories … or we were just holding hands and listening and saying nothing.

Q: Your dear, ones, and the people who were sent off, and you, walked this path right here?

Noémi : No, no. Only they did. We didn’t know what happened to them. We didn’t have any idea, so even when we were hardly able to think, we were starting to ask, ‘where are they?’ The Nazi guards didn’t want to tell us.

Sean: Noémi , you’ve said that when that guard first told you that [your loved ones had been sent to the crematorium], you didn’t know if it was true or not. When did you realize it was true?

Noémi: Later on. I don’t know exactly.

Noémi sees the brick foundation of her old barrack.

Noémi: Here is twenty-four. Hi twenty-four. Oh boy. That was my barrack … We had rooms. I know that it had a window.

Q: This is just a draining ditch for water?

Noémi : Yes so this is behind the barracks. People were so thirsty, and it was full with water and smelling, they … drank water in there, the next day ... they died.

6:20 pm
Noémi : There was dirt and the window, and hundreds of us in a small little room.

Q: And you slept on the floor?

Noémi : Yes. On the floor.

Q: Noémi, where did you have roll-call out here?

Noémi : In front of it, and in between barracks … then we were lining up for the famous soup. It was here, the big pot of soup. We were waiting for our bowls. Instead the one in line got a big bowl, and we had to drink after her … and those who heard me speaking know that many of us refused it the first time. We were hungry, but we were still--in memory, too close to home--to be able to drink after each other. A Nazi guard came right to us and said, “There is no ‘no’ for you. You drink, or else.” We learned that "or else" meant "killing" in this place. The next day we started to drink, and that’s when I noticed that my menstruation stopped … it stopped for everyone.

Noémi explains that the Nazis intended the chemicals in the soup not only to stop menstruation, which would have stopped eventually, due to weight loss and malnutrition. They meant it also to sterilize the women. For some of Noémi’s friends, that is what happened.

Noémi: I, luckily, was strong enough, healthy enough … I have two boys, I have five grandchildren, and two itsy-bitsy little great granddaughters. When people say the Holocaust didn’t happen, I am getting, so, so angry, because I suffered there, I survived.

In front of the ruins of Barrack 24, Noémi poses for a photograph with her son Steven Ban, a Bellingham pediatrician and proud father of three daughters, and with her granddaughter, Julia Bakken. Noémi and Julia make victory signs.

Noémi : Thank you. Being alive is a big gift.

6:28 pm
Sean: I’m standing here in Noémi ’s barrack … What must it have been like for Noémi in the place I’m standing right now, for her to live here for three months during the summer, being starved, humiliated, forced to live in the dirt, being forced to sleep on the ground.

As the rest of the group walks away, I sit on the brick foundation of Barrack 24. I look around at the endless rows of brick chimneys and at the barbed wire fences. In the middle of Auschwitz II, while I can see how the Holocaust happened, I cannot explain why. It seems without purpose. Before leaving, I pick a small brick chip that had fallen from the remains of the Barrack 24's foundation. One day, I will return to Auschwitz and return the chip to Noémi 's former barrack. For now, I keep it as a physical reminder of Noémi ’s experience and of my obligation, of everyone’s obligation, to stop the repetition of the Holocaust.

*If one counted Noémi's return earlier in the day, this would be her fifth time returning to Auschwitz.

Writing, initial Web design and photos by Sean DeButts
Copyright © 2006, Sean DeButts