Noémi Shoënberger Ban is an award-winning teacher and public speaker, respected and beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and synagogue senior. She is a native of Szeged, Hungary and has lived in Bellingham since 1982.
Noémi Ban was 21 when the Nazis marched into Debrecen, Hungary on March 19, 1944. Her father was sent to a forced labor camp and she and her family (grandmother Nina, mother Juliska, sister Erzsebet and baby brother Gabor) were sent on a transport to Auschwitz, arriving on July 1, 1944. She was immediately separated from her family, where they became victims of the Nazi genocide. Noémi spent nearly four months in Auschwitz before being picked by Dr. Joseph Mengele to be transferred to a sub-camp of Buchenwald to work at a bomb factory. She and eleven other women escaped during the forced march to Bergen Belsen in April of 1945. An American soldier from Patton’s army found them and informed them of their freedom. She arrived in Budapest in September of 1945 and reunited with her father, who also survived. Noémi married Earnest Ban in October of the same year and they settled in Budapest where Earnest was a teacher. A few years later, Noémi herself became a middle school teacher as well.
The Soviets came to power in Budapest in 1948. Life continued under the Communist regime, but Noémi and her family feared the growing anti-Semitism in Hungary. A few years later, Noémi, her husband, and two sons attempted to escape via train to Austria. They were tricked, caught at the border and forced to return to Budapest. However, less than a month after the first attempt, she and her family tried again. With a friend's help, they hid in giant balls of yarn shipped in the back of a truck from Budapest. They arrived in Sopron, Austria on December 29, 1956.
Noémi and her family arrived in the United States in February of 1957 and relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. Both she and Earnest went back to school to learn English and then pursued American college degrees. Earnest taught math and Noémi became a sixth grade teacher. Upon Earnest’s retirement, they came to Bellingham, Washington to be close to their son, Steven, a pediatrician. Earnest developed Alzheimer’s and passed away in 1994.
Shortly thereafter, Noémi began to speak publicly about her Holocaust experience. She has spoken across the United States and the world, from Taiwan to Ferndale, Washington. Notably, on a past trip to Hungary, she was asked to speak in Hungarian in Debrecen, the same place where she had been taken in 1944. In May of 2007 she was able to return to Poland and Hungary with her youngest son, George. Now both sons have shared with their mother by seeing first-hand where she had been imprisoned. Currently, she speaks throughout the Washington area.
Noémi is the author of Sharing is Healing written with Dr. Ray Wolpow. Sharing Is Healing details her experience during the Holocaust and is written at a 5th-grade reading level to accommodate young readers. She is also the focus of Jim Lortz's documentary My Name is Noémi. This documentary follows Noémi as she returned to Hungary and Poland with 30 Washington state teachers to share her story of survival with them firsthand. Noémi has been featured in numerous publications, including The Bellingham Herald,The Skagit Valley Herald, The Western Front, and Evening Magazine (a Seattle-based television program).
Copies of her book Sharing is Healing and the documentary My Name Is Noémi are available through the WWU school bookstore, Village Books in Bellingham, and her website, http://SharingIsHealing.com.
2013: Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Western Washington University
Graduation Speaker, Winter Commencement
2012: One of Bellingham Herald's "Ten Who Cared"
2010: Daughters of the American Revolution Americanism Award
2004: Excellence in Holocaust Education Award
Each year, the Board of Directors of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center presents its Excellence in Holocaust Education Award, recognizing the efforts of an individual who, through his or her actions, furthers the teaching of the Holocaust and its lessons.
In presenting this award to Mrs. Ban, the Center is recognizing her longtime and enormous contribution to statewide Holocaust education. Mrs. Ban has been instrumental in ensuring that the Holocaust not be forgotten not only in her community, but statewide and nationally. Each year Mrs. Ban shares her experiences with thousands of students. She has done so in a manner that has lead young and old to examine and understand what it means to be a responsible member of society.
Mrs. Ban is a role model for today’s youth. She goes beyond speaking about the tragedy of the past; and has translated the sorrow of her loss of her family- her “dear ones” into action. She is recognized as a passionate advocate for civil rights, diversity and social justice. Her words and actions have profoundly shaped the work of professors such as Dr Ray Wolpow and programs here at Western Washington University and Gonzaga University to name just two schools of higher education.
Mrs. Ban has been visiting schools, civic and church groups to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. In a year she may speak in more than 120 schools in several counties in Washington State. Now she will reach even more students through her recently published book, written with Dr. Ray Wolpow, called Sharing is Healing . This wonderful book is a first in a Holocaust book- being accessible for young readers. This book is included in each of our Holocaust Teaching Trunks created for elementary, middle and high school classrooms. The book is more than a memoir; it truly is a gift of love.
Mrs. Ban, you personify the mission of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center… teaching and learning for humanity.
2003: Washington Education Association Human and Civil Rights Award in the category of International Peace and Understanding
2004: Excellence in Holocaust Education Award, Washington State Education Resource Center
2001: Honorary Doctorate, Gonzaga University
1997: Golden Apple Award
1981: Teacher of the Year in Missouri
A Review of Ms. Ban's November 10th, 2008 Presentation at Western Washington University
(Reproduced here with author's permission.
Love conquers all
Holocaust survivor triumphs
by Christopher Key, Entertainment News NW
There is a quaint myth that I was raised with. It’s called journalistic objectivity. It is a myth because journalists are human beings and incapable of objectivity unless they have lost touch with what makes them human. In an age when objective journalism is a laughable oxymoron, it comforts me to know that I don’t have to pretend to pay homage to that standard. Trying to do so after hearing a talk by Holocaust survivor Noémi Ban would be an exercise in futility and a waste of words.
The immensely talented German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is best remembered for what has been cited as the greatest propaganda film of all time, The Triumph of the Will. The cosmic irony is that the real triumph of the will is demonstrated by survivors of the Holocaust Riefenstahl helped create. Noémi Ban exemplifies that triumph. The triumph of love over hate.
Tonight, she brought that triumph home to a standing-room-only audience at Western Washington University. I cannot begin to imagine the strength it takes for one who has survived such horrors to refuse the temptation to return the hate. Ban not only does that, but uses her immense talents as a teacher to bring it to an audience that only knows the Holocaust through history books. I am one of them. I was born after World War II. It is an immense and very moving privilege to hear history from one who experienced it firsthand. There are very few Holocaust survivors left and it behooves us listen to those who are still here, reminding us of the consequences of hate and how Holocausts still happen. Ban’s presentation was sponsored by the Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education.
The presentation began with a trailer from the upcoming movie “My Name is Noémi,” directed by the immensely talented WWU professor Jim Lortz. That film will debut on January 20, 2009, surely not a coincidence given the significance of that date.
A native of Szeged, Hungary, Noémi Ban was 21 when the Nazis marched into Debrecen, Hungary, on March 19, 1944. Ultimately her father was sent to a forced labor camp and she and her family were sent on a transport to Auschwitz arriving on July 1, 1944. Immediately separated from her family (where they became victims of the Nazi genocide) Noémi spent nearly four months in Auschwitz before being picked by Dr. Joseph Mengele to be transferred to a sub-camp of Buchenwald to work at a bomb factory. Escaping during the forced march to Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, Noémi and eleven of her campmates were found by a soldier from Patton’s army who informed them of their freedom.
Her story tonight ended at that point, but there’s a lot more to tell. She went back to Hungary after the war only to see the invasion of her country by the USSR in the 1950s. Once again, she escaped tyranny in rather dramatic fashion and once again she refused to hate those who made her life a continuing torment.
That triumph of the will caused tonight’s audience to break into spontaneous applause at many points and resulted in a standing ovation at the end. That’s gratifying because our society continues to live in denial of genocide. We deny that it can happen in America, but it did. Just ask any Native American. We deny that it can happen now, but it does, in Uganda, in Iraq, in Darfur.
Leni Riefenstahl died in 2003 at the age of 101. Her undeniable gifts as a cinematographer were overshadowed by how she used those talents to create the fear that is the basis of hatred. Those twisted gifts live on in the right-wing media that poisons our political and social dialogue in America today.
My companion for the evening was a dear friend who grew up during World War II and vividly remembers being called a “dirty Jew” on the streets of her hometown. Ban’s presentation had her in tears and provoked my own tears at how badly we treat each other. But Ban’s message is one of hope, one of forgiveness and redemption.
I asked my companion how I could possibly write about this. “Oh, my God,” I said.
“Precisely,” she said.