Audience members have the opportunity to ask Noémi questions during her presentations at Western Washington University. The questions below are a compilation of answered questions at the event, as well as the remaining questions that we were unable to answer at the event.
- April 29 & 30, 2014
- February 11 & 12, 2014
- November 13, 2013
- May 9, 2013
- February 19, 2013
- November 8, 2012
- April 25, 2012
- February 16, 2012
- November 8, 2010
- February 8, 2010
- November 9, 2009
- April 21, 2009
- February 25, 2009
- November 10, 2008
Q: Are there any objects – music, food, that trigger memories from Auschwitz? If so what are they?
A: Two things, it is really not the food because we really didn’t have any. The fact that we had to drink after everybody, we were hungry. We were still close enough to our real life to bring ourselves to drink after so many people. To this day, I cannot drink after others. If I have a plate of something ordered – it’s so natural to say- “Do you want to taste mine? – and I cannot share my plate. That memory is so clear after so many years. Another thing was a lot of Germans had dogs. I still – to this day- am afraid of dogs. When I go to the park and people have dogs with them I am afraid.
Q: What would you say to current US leaders, the UN and the International Community in general that seem to be dismissing the Holocaust and becoming more anti-Semitic?
A: This question shows that we live in freedom. Because under dictatorship no one would dare ask that question. Me? What would I say to them? I am a teacher and a Holocaust survivor. I would say, here in our community, I am saying it every time I speak. Just because we are living in freedom doesn’t mean there isn’t racism. When I came to the US in 1957, the question of black people was very much alive. Myself, my son and my husband, we had to listen and learn about what was going on. Now, things are much better. If we want to be honest we have to say it loud and clear. There is still racism. It’s still alive. If I could speak to these people, I would tell my own experience. To wake up. Don’t say it will be better, because I know, I grew up with that. Be aware of it. Wake up. Make sure to know that being racist, or having any kind of genocide is not okay. I love my freedom here but the danger, in my opinion, is saying, “Don’t worry it will be better”. Don’t postpone it. Talk about it. Use the freedom we have here. And maybe it will get better. Speak up!
Q: How do you think Hitler could mobilize so many people in such a short amount of time?
A: After the first World War, in Germany especially, people were angry. They lost their jobs, life was hard, and their kids couldn’t go to school. It was that way, but not for everybody. Then came Hitler from Austria and he told everyone he would take care of it. He needed someone to be guilty. Jews were poor and worked in factories. People were sad and were cheated on and here comes that man with the big voice that says, “I can help you”. He had a plan to get to the people –to their kids- and he took their kids to camps, and swimming pools and schools, to play tennis. People who didn’t have a lot of things began to see their kids dressed up nicely and they were thankful. And the Jews didn’t ever have that. That’s how he got to people, through their stomach, their heart. He created a one-party system. It became the party. Anyone who went against that party was an enemy. And Jews were picked up in cattle cars and killed in the gas chambers in the camps. My basic feeling was really about how to love life. I had a beautiful childhood. I played the piano, spoke fluent German, my father was a principal. Something in my childhood made it so I could keep going. Hitler was able to create the Nazi party so fast because many people lived in fear. People joined the Nazi party out of fear. They felt they were doing the best thing, they were very proud of themselves. I often think to myself, if Hilter was alone in a room what would be see? A human being or some sort of evil?
Q: What would you say are some crucial events or steps that helped you survive?
A: First, when my three friends saved me. I learned that in a place of killing there were human beings. They risked their own life to save mine. That gave me courage. The other one was when I got water. There was a woman, and she didn’t have any. Instead of drinking my cup I gave it to her. That was important to me. I never wanted to give up. I knew how beautiful life is. I didn’t want to lose it. Many people, first physically couldn’t help it. It sounds horrible but Josef Mengele’s selection [to make bombs] saved us. Because we would’ve died in the camp. When we decided to make trouble while making bombs [by switching the wires], it made us feel better. We were able to do something against them. When we were in the death march we decided to step out. We wanted to stay alive. When Mengele selected us, we must’ve had some sort of body language, [hands on hips]. Our posture. That’s how we survived.
Q: How has your experience made you a better teacher?
A: It made me want to become not only a better teacher but to be a better human being. Because these people are, if you look at them, they are human beings. But I don't know when they look in the the mirror, what they see: a human being or evil? Or they don't know that's who they are? But for me, I was sure, that if I were ever to be liberated, because that was [when I still in the Auschwitz], then I wanted to be the best human being I could be.
Q: Have you ever seen the Charlie Chaplin film, the Great Dictator?
A: No, I was living in Hungary. And we didn't have that film there.
Q: In those few days after you were separated from people, how did you cope with being alone?
A: Here, people have to see that when we were separated, we were not alone. We were thousands and thousands of us on both sides [of Dr. Mengele]. And then they separated us. We had no idea that we got separated forever. When I did see them—my grandma, my mom, my little sister and brother—I took care of them. In the kettle car, in the ghetto. When I looked back to them I thought, "I know you need me. But because we got separated, I hope you will take care of yourself. I am the one who is alone. But I am young; I will take care of myself." Little did I know that the next morning, they killed them in the gas chamber. And to the whole end, almost, we didn't know what happened to them. We would keep asking, "Where are they?” Nobody answered. Finally, you know the story about the woman: "You really want to know?" And that's when we learned they were the reason for the fires. So it was that…you wanted to take it in stride. For an example, yesterday, my granddaughter took me out to the airport. Neither of us is a crybaby, but because I was with her for four days, and it was so wonderful working together, I felt something, kind of like [I was] crying. But over there [points east], we were afraid. We didn't know what or who were these people and what they will do? And it was not even possible to think that even if you don't die, you would be taken to another factory to make bombs, when those who were asking, “Where are they?” were killed. With a normal brain, could you think of that fate? No. No. So it is a different kind of being alone and saying goodbye. Because we didn't know.
Q: From 1945-1956, what was it like to live in Hungary in the Soviet bloc, behind the Iron Curtain?
A: What was it like in Hungary? They called it the Cold War. The Soviet Union was with the western world in the Second World War, but when the second world war was finished they started the Cold War, which meant that all of the Eastern European countries, got occupied by not the Nazis, but the Soviets. But the people, many people, most of the people, hated the Nazis. Sorry to say it, but there were those who didn't, and that's why we were sent to Auschwitz. But Hungary was the very last one out of the Eastern European countries to send them to Auschwitz. Then the Soviets came in. First of all, we learned, who were those Communists? Stalin, he was also a dictator. Only they were saying that they'd come in as our liberators. And they were saying Leninism, Marxism, are the "best" in the world. Everybody will have the same things in physical, mental, every kind of being. Everybody's equal. It was a lie. Because those who came to occupy Hungary, and the Hungarians who agreed with them and became communist, they had different stores, different busses, different houses they were living in. Compare to us, "the people."
For example, I was a teacher by then. After I worked, in the afternoon, I had to stand hours for one dozen eggs, or one loaf of bread, because the people who owned those grocery stores didn't actually own it, the communists owned it. So they were not interested to please you. But many times it happened, that I had been standing an hour, and there were six people still in front of me, and we're ready finally to go in, and the man comes out of the store and says, "You six of you—go home! We don't have any more. All gone." And all these things sound like they're pitiful and small, but it builds up to an everyday thing. For another example what was the voting like? When somebody had to be elected for something, they collected us. We lived in a house with four stories and in the lobby we had to line up. One person who was a communist, took us to the voting place. Here we got a ticket, and on it one name. And then they said to put an x next to it, and throw it into the bucket. That was the voting. [[At home if you turned on the radio, on time on it, you had to listen to what? One hundred percent victory! And they lie and lie.]]
Another thing: we were in the grocery store, and everywhere they had Stalin's picture up. And my older son, who is a pediatrician now, he was four years old, and he was with us. This time we were about to go in, and as we were standing there, our little boy looked up to the picture and said, "Mom! Dad! That must be a big gangster!" In Hungary, four years old, he heard about gangsters. So that must be what Stalin was. My husband picked him up, took him out, and said "Shh. You cannot say that.” For weeks, if we heard some steps in front of our door , we were afraid that they were coming for us. We had heard that if a child had said something that they didn’t like, they took one of the parents to jail. Because where did she or he hear that? They must have taught him that Stalin is a gangster.
So there were many, many other things. And so in 1956, the revolution broke out. College students, professors, many people just couldn't stand it anymore. And they got to the radio, I remember. This is the time when I speak to lower classes: Radio? Why didn't they occupy the television station? Why? Because we didn't have television. Can you imagine—I survived that, too! But the thing was that people couldn't stand it and war broke out again. 1956 and 1945 are not so far away. The war was still in me, all the memories. And also, when that good-looking American soldier, had said that we are free, I decided I wanted to come to America and thank the American people that they fought and died for my freedom. So this looked like the time because Hungary and Austria have a common border and that's when we decided to escape.
But that was the background that made us want to go. To leave your home again, like when I had left my home for the ghetto because of the soldiers, but we left now because we wanted to. But it was still leaving, closing the door, knowing that we might never come back. And that wasn't easy but it was important to do it. And I'm very happy that we made it. But that was the situation.
I can tell you one more example. I was a teacher by then, and three communists came into my classroom listening. I was teaching history and literature. We were reading a beautiful poem and analyzing it. But it was a Hungarian poem. And then, after they were listening, I saw them go into the principal’s office. They told him that this was beautiful teaching, and that I did a good job. But why didn't I say one word about communism, Stalin, and how wonderful they are? I should have somehow put it in when we analyzed the poem. Communism? This poem had nothing to do with that. Why? So, see, these kinds of things made me angry. They are telling me to put Stalin in this poem?
Q: I am a mental health counselor...what benefits do you have from your experience?
A: In Auschwitz, I learned that life is precious. This is very positive, appreciating life, because I was at the edge of every single second to die and somehow I survived. Somehow they took me to work. I worked with this hand: no gloves, no mask. It was a poisonous and chemical thing, making bombs. But still, I survived. And that is the most important part. And also, I learned that we cannot give up. If something looks so hard that you think you cannot do it—yes you can. In theory, if you are alive you can do whatever you want, if you don't give up. Don't say no if it's a little bit hard. I know we have problems. A problem could even be a lot of homework. I don’t make up that I will be happy today. No, no, we have problems. But how do we deal with these problems and never ever give them up. And if I’m able to be alive and love life after all these things I’ve been through, I think it must be possible.
Q: How often do your experiences come up in day-to-day life?
A: You have to go back—I got married, had two kids. My boys, they knew I was in the Second World War, but not until junior high, that I told them [everything]. I was very careful that because I am a survivor, I don’t want to make it a burden for these kids. It was most interesting when I learned more and more about it. Then when I went to college, and learned to speak English, and went back to get an affidavit to teach, and went to college in Missouri. The history teacher or someone gave me a lot of things to work on. Projects, composition, you know. But you know with me: push the button and I have stories! But spelling was hard. And my sons were the best spellers in the classroom. Why? Because they grew up in Hungary, where the words are written down the same way you say them. Only one or two little exceptions. And as I made my composition, Steve and George would check my spelling. They had to check mom's verbs. And then one day, [they read it and said] “but what is that? What is this saying?” I said, “Now let's sit down, we have time. I’ll tell you.” And so, in my family my husband knew because he was also in the ghetto. But these two kids didn’t. And that's when I learned that you have to watch them, and don’t make it a burden for anyone to listen to a survivor about what happened. Only tell them if they either asked for it or want to hear it. But the fact still remains a fact that any time somebody is talking about different things, but things that were close to what happened, I see it. I feel it.
It could be for example, when they took us out for dinner in St. Louis, Missouri, and they gave us a lot of food. And after Auschwitz, I don't like to leave anything on my plate. And the waiter did see that something was left and said, “Ma’am, could help you? Is something wrong?” I said, “No, it's just a lot of food and I don't know what to do with it.” And what he said was, “Don't worry! I'll give you a doggy bag.” What did I say? “Sir, excuse me, but I don't have dogs,” because I didn't know what a doggy bag was. And see here again, in Hungary we didn't have doggy bags. And that poor man had to hold his face. When he went into the kitchen he opened the door and started laughing, saying, “Help! There's a crazy woman. Somebody! I want to give her a doggy bag, and she says she doesn't have dogs!”
But there’s another thing that's very important that some survivors are doing it, and were doing it, which I don't agree with. It is that boys and kids, they are kids, and when something happens, they break something, they do something you don't want them to do [it happens]. But the thing is that whenever a survivor's kids did something that's not okay, they were saying, “Why are you doing that for me, who suffered?” Oh, that's wrong. That's enough of a burden—to be the children of a survivor. As much as I try and my husband had tried not to do that. To use it against them? No.
So, the answer for that, that whenever something happens, when I cannot help it—it even happened today. My daughter was here and she was showing me how to put a wire in a machine, and she said, “See? The end of this black cord is yellow and it should go there, where it is also yellow.” What did I remember right away? The bombs. Because they were color coded. And I remembered when we were messing it up. I cannot help it—right away it clicks in. And there are many other things. But I try not to use it, with raising kids or making a burden. But I cannot help it. It's memory, and the kind of memory which will be with me always.
Q: After the Holocaust there was another genocide involving Germans who were not in the German Army. They were known as the Donauschwaben. What do you know about them?
A: I knew about the Donauschwabens, that were German people. But I didn’t know about this. First of all, right after the World War was over, I was still in Germany. Then I got home, and I learned it later in history. But I didn't really know anything was wrong or was bad then. And look back to that and be realistic. We know that racism and that kind of hate exists today, tomorrow, and all over. But people are always asking me what should we do? And I speak in the community and say, “Give a smile. Give love, and don't act poorly, and always remember that racism is still strong and it still exists.”
Q: What was the scariest moment?
A: The scariest moment was, but I didn't know it, that my family would be killed when they separated me from them. I was scared to death not even knowing that this would happen. It was just as I looked at them. And of course I learned later that this was the last time I would. I didn't know then, I was just concerned very much for what would happen to them. I could not be with them, and I was not worried about myself but the separation. And of course, maybe because memory is very important, when I learned what they did with them, it became even more scary. This is what mattered when I learned they were taken away from me and killed. And that was the scariest. I was very scared when Mengele came and when I almost fainted away and the girls saved me, but if I think back, the first thing was that they were taken away from me.
Q: Do you have a favorite song or type of music?
A: I have to say classical music. However, there are also musicals like Oklahoma! and things like that. But, I always favor what I play [on piano]: Chopin, Mozart, Franz Liszt (a Hungarian composer), and Tchaikovsky. I also love to listen to Pavrotti, the singer, operas or operettas. But I really love those composers. I play piano every day. You never realize what it does for you. When you sit down and play the piano, it relaxes you and takes you to another place.
Q: How did survivors find their families after being liberated from the camps?
A: I can only tell one survivor’s story, not other survivors. I have no idea how others found their family. It would be good to go to the library and look through books or ask other survivors how they found them. Because every survivor is an individual and had different ways of finding their people. Also, for many survivors, including myself, most of the family was killed.
When I arrived to Budapest from Germany, I didn’t know who had survived and who was alive. I knew that my father’s brother was teaching in a high school and they lived in Budapest. They never had kids and I was their favorite kid whenever I went to Budapest. So, I thought, maybe he is alive. I knew where he was teaching. Budapest was a big city, and I started to walk. I had no car and no money for a street car or a bus. I kept walking. How did I look like? My hair was starting to grow [but still short] and I still only had one dress [made out of a tablecloth that I had to make myself when I was liberated]. I went to the school to the office. There was an office and I asked the secretary if my uncle was still working there. I just said his name, and she looked at me strangely. Then I said I was his niece and she didn’t even let me finish my sentence. She screamed and ran into the classroom and pulled him out. I learned from him that my father was alive.
Q: What were your first words to your father when you were reunited? Where did he think you were?
A: Until I found him, I had no idea that he was even alive and he had no idea that I was alive either. We were both in labor camps. When I found him, the war was over and some survivors had slowly got home. Some people told him that maybe they had seen me. But, he didn’t know. These people also really didn’t see me, they just wanted to tell him to make him feel better. Or maybe they thought they saw me, but we all looked so different. When I saw him, I felt like he had the right to know about our family. I had to tell him the truth. So I did. I wanted him to hear it from me.
Q: What does it mean to forgive?
A: First of all, I am saying that I don’t hate. Forgive? I am still working on it. It is still not done. I don’t know if it will be done 100%. But what does it mean to forgive? Whoever wrote this question, I hope that she or he did not have any reason in their life to forgive, because many times you don’t have to go to Auschwitz Birkenau to have something happen to you that you have to try to forgive. Life gives a lot of occasions that you have to forgive. What I do know is how to not hate. Because, as I say in my speech, if I would hate in me, I would not be free. What kind of life would it be to be hateful? To wake up in the morning and hate? If I still hated, the Nazis would still be winning. That’s why I say I am free. I also learned (and this is also part of forgiving) that through doing all of this – going to Western, Whidbey Island, other places, to speak – I am sharing, and I am healing. You don’t have to go to Auschwitz to use this. If you have someone to talk to and share what is bothering you and what is hurting you, it is easier to heal.
Q: When you were standing in line waiting for Mengele, what did you think was going to happen to you? Where did your mom think you were going?
A: We didn’t know what was going to happen. Who is thinking that we will be separated? We only knew what was happening when it did happen. As we were standing there, I was watching him, and I did see some movement at the front of the line, but I didn’t see which type of person was going each direction. I didn’t even think about it. You have to also remember that this was after eight days in that cattle car, and before that the factory, and before that the ghetto. There was so many things happening to us. We couldn’t believe it. It was all so fast. We just didn’t see what was at the end.
Even then, when they separated us, that when I looked back, and they were all standing there: my baby brother with my mom, my little sister and my grandmother. I was thinking, “I am alone. I am alone.” Up until then, I was the one who had taken care of them as much as I could. I was thinking then, at least, that thank God they are together. They will help each other. They were together. I was alone, but I thought, “I am young, I can take care of myself.” Even when it happened, I didn’t know that the next day they were killed.
I had no idea what going to happen to me. We never knew what was going to happen to us. It was only when it happened that we knew.
Before that, there were so many things happening that we had no explanation for. We didn’t know where we were going or what we doing or why. Well, we had an idea of why. But, we didn’t even know what Auschwitz meant. When this happened, I remember that we had to undress and they shaved us and then we had the shower – we still didn’t know. When we took the shower, it was all men guards. They were commenting and laughing and all that. They didn’t touch us – we were lucky.
Q: Did you ever get used to feeling that sense of unknown?
A: That was their secret and their philosophy. Until it was happening, we didn’t know it was going to happen. When we were there for a while, as you know, we had no food. Only one slice of bread, one sip of soup, no water. We started to lose weight and we started dying. Many people fell down and died. When we were in Auschwitz Birkenau, many people were not strong enough and just gave up. I had a strong body, strong genes, and I very much wanted to live. I was angry. Where was the whole world? Did they know that thousands and thousands of people were killed? We would say this loudly in Hungarian.
Q: Are you afraid of death?
A: In the camp, there was nothing else but death. We were between 50 and 60 pounds and we were grown-ups. We didn’t know how long we would be there. We knew that people were being taken away, but we didn’t know where. To think about death was be normal. We were dying. We didn’t know when it would end.
I knew that I had hope that someday something would happen. I was young and I wanted to live. I’m sure there was some body language in us, because of when Mengele came back and thousands and thousands of us were lined up [and he chose workers for the German labor camps and he chose me]. In my opinion, all of us looked the same. But, this man, this Mengele, was a physician before he became a killer. He must have had looked for some body language [to choose us]. Some of those who collapsed and died were ready to die. They gave up. In my body language, somehow, there was something about my look or the way I stood that he saw. Why did he care? Not because he loved us, but because he needed these Hungarian girls to work. He knew there was a difference between the way people were standing. I was not ready to die.
When I think about now, this is interesting. Whenever I go to speak, when I tell them my honorable age, they can’t believe it. When I think about it, and it is very seldom, [I try to make myself stop]. Even if I live to be 100, that is only 9 more years. I feel like it’s not fair – I don’t want to go anywhere! There are many more things to do! Then I say to myself, zip it. Be happy for every day. Be thankful that you’re 91 and you’re still alive for your great-grandson. Many people who died at 80, 82, 75 – people say that they’ve lived a very full life. That is not enough for me! I am here! Therefore, I am not afraid of it, but I absolutely don’t want to think about. There is so much to do!
But, whenever I do think about it, and when it happens, I am honestly thankful. Not only because I reached 91, but how. I have to be thankful.
Q: When you went back to Hungary, what was it like going back to an area that didn’t want you there only a few years before?
A: First of all, you have to know that I didn’t speak about my experiences in Aushwitz Birkenau until I got to Bellingham [many years later]. [I taught for many years and never told my students or anybody about being a survivor.] Why didn’t I talk about it? I was still afraid. Plain as that. Afraid of what? I didn’t know who was a Nazi or who still was. I didn’t know what they thought of us, if they still hated us. Also, that experience [of Aushwitz] was still too heavy to put into words. [After the war], when I went back to [our home], my father had already visited. He told me that the house that we had lived in was bombed to pieces and it was still there in ruins.
When I went back with Jim Lortz [to film My Name Is Noemi] there was a university there. They asked me to speak, and I told my story for the first time in Hungarian. That made me feel much better.
I have to remind too that in Germany and Hungary, not everyone was a Nazi. We had many non-Jewish friends who were not Nazis.
Q: What are your favorite memories?
Noémi: 1. When the American soldier said that I am free. 2. When I held my first baby in my arms. 3. Coming closer to the United States across the Atlantic Ocean and seeing the Statue of Liberty. Thank you for the question.
Q: Why do you think the Nazi soldiers went along with it? Why didn’t they resist?
Noémi: To answer this question we would need to meet and talk about history and discuss it because it is a difficult question. There are many possibilities.
Q: Did you know that they intended to kill you?
Noémi: No. Their policy was to never tell us what they wanted to do. Whatever happened to us, we only knew about it when it happened. We have to remember that Germany was a dictatorship. All of you here, and myself, thank God -- we are in a democracy. I have freedom. Here, we are able to learn what people are planning to do. In a dictatorship, that was their strength. They didn’t tell you anything.
Q: Did you ever hear of anyone escaping Auschwitz? Or do you know anyone who tried?
Noémi: No, because I was a prisoner. What I knew was the electrified fence, the dogs, the guards, and myself dying.
Q: What do you think of the current political situation in Hungary?
Noémi: Of course, the reason I came to the United States is because the situation was similar to what I hear is happening in Hungary. Naturally, this makes me feel very sad and I am happy that I raised my children here in America.
Q: As someone who has gone through so much, do you find it difficult to connect and relate to other people?
Noémi: It took me a long time to be able to talk about my "story". I was afraid. But when I started to talk about it, I had no problem to connect with people. As a teacher, my whole life is to connect with others.
Q: After you were liberated, what happened to you?
Noémi: This is a good question but it has a long answer! After the soldier found us and told us that we were free, then my three friends and I asked the American soldier if we could do something. We wanted to do something [for the cause]. They had a hospital for the prisoners of Americans (Italian, German soldiers) who were either sick or had some problems. They gave us a room for us to live in. They checked us out to make sure that we were getting better. We got nice food, not sawdust bread! We were never nurses, but we helped the nurses -- whatever they told us to do. So that’s where we were until April 1945. And then, we wanted to go back home. During the Second World War, all the Europeans travelling rails were bombed. But they had one line from Germany to Hungary. The people in the hospital took care of it that the four of us were able to go. They called because America had all the big German cities. So they called the big cities that this train was coming and these four people have helped us, they are survivors and take care of us. That meant that we got water, we got some food from them until we got to the border of Czech and Hungary. That was September when we arrived. From there, I was able to go to Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
Q: Are you still Jewish? How can you believe in such a God who would allow those things to happen?
Noémi: It is a good question. The answer is that yes I am still Jewish, and I never, ever thought of changing my religion. I was born to be Jewish. I was Jewish. That didn’t change. Even in Auschwitz Birkenau, when people were saying “Where is God? How are these things happening to us? He let this happen.”, I always said, “What is happening to us, God has nothing to do with it. Human beings are doing it.”
Q: How did you escape? Who decided to try to escape first?
Noémi: [To clarify] I didn’t escape from Auschwitz. I was in Germany already [in the work camp]. I was selected in a group of Hungarian girls to help make the bombs. In April, the Americans had occupied that part of Germany. That part of Germany surrendered. That meant that there was still a war going on. They were marching us to the other part of Germany, away from the liberators. As we were marching, twelve of us stepped out of the march very carefully. It was dangerous. Then, the American soldier found us. I don’t know whose idea it was to step out. We all agreed together somehow.
Q: Does your story get easier to tell as you share your story more often? Is it equally difficult each time?
Noémi: It is yes and yes both. Because I was a teacher, I am used to [talking about it]. For years and years, I was telling and teaching the same things. But it is always different because the audience is always different. From this respect, it is easy. Not easy to tell. Every time, I relive it. But because I am always telling it to a different audience, as a teacher, I feel like it is almost my duty. I am one of those few who survived it and am still alive and still able to tell. This gives me the strength to say it. As for the memory, I relive it. It is not easy. It wasn’t at the beginning, it isn’t easy now, not at all. To remember that suffering and loss, it is always hard. It makes it “easier” - though the word easy is not right -- because of my profession as a teacher to share it. I know that I am doing something. It is important for me that generations and generations should know the truth of what happened. This gives me strength.
Q: What is it like to be one of the last survivors of the Holocaust? How do you respond to those people who believe that they can’t share their experiences?
Noémi: Because I am one of the ones who survived, it gives me an extra strength because I know how important it is for people to know, listen and learn from a survivor. I know that there are some survivors who can not talk about it. We understand that. Those of us who are talking about it, we have the feeling that it is a duty and should be done. That gives us the strength to share it.
Q: Did you have notice that the Nazis were coming to your hometown?
Noémi: Hungary is not a big country, but if you live in a city, you still don’t know what happens in another city. We learned [later] that the Nazis planned a day - March 19 - that all of Hungary was occupied at once. Their plan was ready. We did not know what was coming until it was there. The Nazi government was not a democracy. It was a dictatorship. In a dictatorship, they don’t tell you what is coming. It is just there. That’s their way of working. There were people in Hungary who escaped (and were able to escape) from Poland, who had been occupied first. But then, Hungary was occupied. These poor people were stuck. There was not a lot to do or not many places to go. Once they came and took us, you can see that there were not a lot of opportunities to get out. Even thinking back [to our escape from the Death March in Germany], we really had to have a lot of courage to do that, surrounded by the civilian-clothes Nazis. We were just really lucky that the American soldier was there.
Q: What are your favorite memories of your childhood? Any traditions you remember?
Noémi: I was a happy young girl. I started to play the piano when I was six years old. I will never forget that I was playing the piano and my father accompanied me with the violin and my mom was listening, smiling with little tears in her eyes. I have many beautiful things, but this is really something I will never forget.
Q: How has your experience shaped how you raised your children?
Noémi: I was very careful not to put a burden on them because they had parents who had survived the Holocaust. That fact itself is not a burden for young people. It is not their fault. They did not select that. And so [my sons] knew the facts: that we were in the war. When they were in [elementary school] that is not the time for that. But when they got into middle-school, that was when we started to talk about it. Having parents who were in the Holocaust is not easy, but they carried that fact very well. It is not taking away the truth from them, but when and how.
And, of course, when we came to the United States, we had to learn to speak English. [My husband and I] had to go back to college to get a certificate [to teach]. In literature and history classes, we had to make compositions and projects and, well, I had a story to tell. So I wrote some of my story. And I said, “Boys, come here and check my spelling.” You see, because, in Hungary, spelling is not a subject, but here, for them, it was a subject. They became the best spellers in their class, and I wanted to honor them. So I said, “Check my spelling”, and they started to read. They asked about what I had written, and I began to tell them. It was just a matter of how and when.
Q: How do you suggest people get rid of hate?
Noémi: I really feel that hate is a prison. If I would have hate in my heart, then I would not be free. I would be a prisoner of my own hate. Also, I would do the same thing that they did for or against us. Hate is wrong every way. This is not asking me, “Did you forgive?” Because my answer is, “I’m working on it.” But to hate, to live with hate, that is locking yourself in an inner prison. Because then you see everything through your hate. And that is not freedom.
Q: What is the best thing you have received in your life?
Noémi: I have a lot of good! But, I’d have to say, American citizenship papers.
After what we went through in the Holocaust, finally we were back at home and I got married and my sons were born, but Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union and became a communist country and left everything behind again. First, the Nazis and then now we had to leave everything. We went through many, many things to get here. To learn to speak English, to go to college, to become a teacher – when I got my teacher certificate, that was amazing. But that only happened because I had American citizenship.
Q: Do you know if the “medicine” in the soup was specifically a contraceptive or was that a side effect?
Noémi: I don't know.
Q: How were you able to continue day after day in the camp?
Noémi: Many people gave up. We would have to stand in line for hours at a time, and people would faint, and then they were picked up and taken away and we would never see them again. Many people fainted away because they were sick, but many of them gave up. They just couldn’t do it. And somehow, I belonged to a group of people, and these three were the ones who saved me when I almost fell. I felt that while I was alive, I had to hope. While I was in the camp, I didn’t know that my dear ones had been killed, so I had to hope that I would see them again. It is easy to say, “I never gave up” -- it comes out easy -- but it was really, really hard. I had the three girls, and we were there for each other, and we kept on going.
Q: How did you return to normal life after you were liberated from the camp? What did you do to recover from the experience?
Noémi: For me, two things happened. First, I got back to Hungary in 1945 in September, and I was married in 1945 in October. I realized that he was the only one who my mom knew. If I had met any other young man, he would not know my mom. Now, this is not a reason to get married, but it was one part. And the other thing was that in 1947, the Soviet Union occupied Hungary. We had to escape. That was a big step and we had to be really courageous to do it. We went to Austria, and after two months, we were able to come to America.
Q: What is it about sharing that is so powerful? How does it heal?
Noémi: If you have someone you trust, love and are able to tell what is ‘bothering you’, it gives – and gave me – the feeling that those who listen are interested and helps to deal with your own problems and get through what’s bothering you.
Q: As a Jew, what would you say is the most important lesson you think we should pass on to our next generation?
Noémi: Never give up. Be proud that you are Jewish (or any other religion, or whatever your tradition is). Don’t be afraid. Learn your history. Don’t hate. Hate makes you a prisoner.
April 25, 2012
Q: Where did you find or keep family photos like the ones you have on display tonight?
Noémi: We weren’t allowed to bring anything with us [when the Nazis took us away, so all of our pictures were left behind]. My dad found the pictures in the rubble [that was our house after the war], ripped and burned. He was able to collect the pieces and I was able to have the pictures reconstructed.
Q: How can you keep faith so well even when you were this close to death?
Noémi: This is a reasonable question but is impossible to answer in one sentence. Because I remember that I was never thinking about dying. I just focused on staying alive. I had a beautiful childhood and a great family. From the beginning of my life, I always had something to be happy about and something to look forward to. For my birthday, if I got a pair of shoes, I danced for joy. I never took anything for granted. I kept myself a human being by telling stories and sharing.
Q: Did you and your father get your own home back? What kind of reception from former neighbors did you receive? Was there tension or Support?
Noémi: Because our house was destroyed, we never lived in the same place [as our neighbors before the war]. But when we got back [after the war], we didn’t trust anyone. We didn’t judge people, but we couldn’t trust them because we didn’t know what kind of reaction we would get from them: Some might be supportive while others hostile. I never talked to strangers about my experiences: I didn’t know what they did during the war. The first people I talked about my experiences were my father and my husband. Even when I came to the U.S. (I first lived in St. Louis), I spoke mostly about my escape from the communists rather than my experiences during the war. It wasn’t until years later, when I was in Bellingham, that I started sharing about my war experiences.
Q: Did the U.S. and other countries have knowledge of the atrocities taking place? If so, why did it take so long for the camps to be liberated?
Noémi: I don’t know why it took so long. We didn’t have food or water. The idea was for us to die. Sometimes we broke down and started yelling in Hungarian, “Why/How doesn’t the world know about this?” And if it did, then why isn’t anyone helping us? [
Q: Do you see the same clouds of “Nazi” mentality in the world?
Noémi: If not Nazi mentality, I do see racist behavior. So not the same, but similar things are happening
Q: Do you know if there were any (even small) areas of Germany that did not succumb to the anti-Jewish madness? It there were any areas that did not, what enabled them to do it?
Noémi: I wasn’t in Germany so I couldn’t possibly know. I only heard about people in Poland and Hungary, and [later] even in Germany who were against Hitler. But I heard about after the war, the White Rose (German: Die Weisse Rose) [which was a group of university students and professors in Munich who secretly published anti-Nazi flyers]. So, there were people in Germany who were against Hitler.
Q: Does it scare you to think that there is a group out there trying to say the Holocaust never happened while knowing in just a number of decades, there will be no actual witnesses to defend the many lives lost?
Noémi: Yes – that is the reason I keep on speaking.
Q: When did you enter the camp (what year)? How old were you?
Noémi: July 1st 1944. I was 21 years old.
Q: What can we do in our daily lives to make sure there is never another Holocaust?
Noémi: We cannot change the whole world. What we can do is: listen to someone who needs you, smile, to help however you can. But don’t nag; just help them. Bullying, making fun people (which is not fun at all): speak up against [people who do these things]. This is not just good for the person needing help, but good for the person giving help as well. Whenever I meet a German exchange student, I tell them that if they witness racist acts, then speak up! Do not let these things just go by.
Q: What were the responses of the Hungarian gentiles whom your family knew (to the anti-Semitic laws and the imprisonment of Jewish people in the ghettos?
Noémi: Because as soon as the Germans came we were put into the ghettos, we had no contact with non-Jew, so I don’t know how others reacted. There were Hungarian Nazis before the Germans came, but they were quiet. When the Germans came, they spoke up. There were some signs [before that], however. Store owners took notices of people who went into Jewish stores [in order to discriminate against them if the opportunity arose]
Q: It’s evident that you are beautifully hopeful. What is your hope in?
Noémi: In the soul of human beings and in the hope that I have gained from surviving. I have learned that to live, you must have hope. It is a difficult thing to describe. Despite the fact that I have seen the ugliest side of humanity, I still hope that the future will be better. After I survived, I’ve had so many things happen in my life that make it extraordinary. I could not be a human being if, after having had my life, I didn’t have hope. Don’t take anything for granted. Realize when you have accomplished something. Be realistic about what you hope and dream for.
Q: Do you think Yahweh had anything to do with saving you?
Noémi: I don’t know. But when I was in Auschwitz and I heard people yelling, “Where is God?!?” I said, “God has nothing to do with this. These are people who doing this."
Q: Is the world getting better, worse, or staying the same?
Noémi: I hope it’s getting better.
Q: What is your thought about the Günter Grass’s recent poem?
Noémi: I don’t know this poem
Q: Have you read “Night” by Wiesel? How does it relate to your story?
Noémi: My experiences were the same and different [than Wiesel's]. He was a younger boy with his dad in Auschwitz and he witnessed his father die.
Q: How do you feel German people respond to you today knowing what you went through?
Noémi: I don’t know. I’ve never met any Germans who were alive during that time. All the Germans I’ve met were born after, and they were sad and sorry [about what happened during the war].
Q: Did you ever experience Post-Traumatic stress Disorder (flashbacks) after you were released? How did you cope with them?
Noémi: I didn’t experience it. I never saw a psychiatrist and I never had any nightmares, but I do know of people who did.
Q: In the years following WWII and the Holocaust a number of the people responsible for the Holocaust were brought to justice and made to face criminal war charges. Did you feel this was essential or helpful in your healing process or of others?
Noémi: I am not for revenge but I think that this was done fairly and it was important because if this had gone without notice, people would think that it’s ok [to kill others]. But I did feel justice was done. People must know that these types of horrible things cannot go unpunished.
Q: We took our 14 year old grandson to the Holocaust museum in WA D.C. Were you a part of its development?
Q: Did any of the guards show an ounce of compassion towards you?
Noémi: In Buchenwald there was a guard who sat down next to me one day [which was extraordinary in of itself] and gave me some food. I asked her if I could bring some to my friends, but she said no because she would have gotten in trouble if the other guards found out. She talked to me like I was a human being. She asked where I was from, what I wanted to be. Two weeks later she was gone and I never saw her again.
Q: After everything you’ve been through, do you still believe in Yahweh?
Q: What inspired you to become a teacher?
Noémi: First of all, my whole family was teachers. If someone was not a teacher, they married one. I grew up with teachers. But I remember, I was in the 4th grade; I wrote a little composition where I said I was going to be a teacher. I was interested, always, with education. As a student, I was always wondering, “Why are we learning this?” and “How come we are doing that?” And then after high school, I signed up at a college in Hungary to become a teacher. Then the Nazis occupied Hungary, and I couldn’t go to this college: it was canceled. And then [after the war], when I had the opportunity to go to college, and learn how to be a teacher. It was not [long before I discovered] that I loved kids and wanted to teach. I couldn’t go when I [originally] signed up, and look what happened: I still went to that college to become a teacher [in spite of all that had happened to me]. And I loved every minute of it [teaching], for 23 years.
Q: What is the most important message that you want to make sure students learn?
Noémi: There is one most important. Be polite, kind, smile, be helpful, look for people who need help, look around at what you can do for a better and more peaceful world. And tell the horror and terror and killing that happens because of prejudice. And one more thing: be good to yourself. If you know what is right, practice it. Do it.
Q: Did you or your family have any sense of the impending danger when Hitler and the Nazi regime came to power?
Noémi: Since we lived in Hungary, we did not know a lot about what was happening in Germany. Because, you remember, Hitler and his people created a dictatorship. And when you have a dictatorship, you don’t hear a lot of stories [about what was going on in that country]. We live here in democracy; it is in the newspapers, in the tabloids, on the radio. So that’s why, for example, when they separated me from my loved ones, and I saw them standing there, I was thinking, “Thank God they are together. Maybe they can help each other… I’m alone, but I’m young, strong. I will take of myself. Little did I know that they were killed in the gas chamber the same [day?]. We didn’t know. And so what learning is, dictatorship is wrong. And then later, of course, when I became a free woman, I heard about the Kristallnacht and many other things [that had happened] in Germany. We never knew it happens, until it happened [to us].
Q: What was it like returning to your home in Hungary? Were any of your belongings still there? Did you get to keep anything? What happened to your father after the war?
Noémi: My father got home before I did, and he went back to the place where we lived before: it was bombed to pieces. Nothing left. But he found, in the rubbles, pictures all over the place. And it was burned and ripped, but he collected many [pieces of pictures and was able to put some of them back together]. After he passed away, I got those pictures. I took them to an artist and he worked on them and I framed it and hung it in my hallway, where they now are a hallway of memories. And that’s the only thing I have from then. And when I think back to my mom, and my family, all of them: they did not die. I see them as they were then; they are with me. Now, what happened to my father? Well, as you know, we were a happy family. My parents were married for 25 years. And then, he came home [after the war], and I got married. He was 61 years old, but his brother was teaching in a high school and there was a lady who was a teacher whose fiancée died in the Holocaust. Somehow, he brought them together. I was already married when I got a phone call: “Noémi, what would you think if I got married?” “Go ahead,” [I said]. They got married. She was 16 years older than my father. She is still alive [in Hungary]. I was there last September. She was 100 years old then. Now she is 101 in January. She was also in Auschwitz, and my two sons knew her only as “Grandma” because they never knew my parents. She was a neat lady, and she is still!
Q: Did you encounter any German or Hungarian soldiers who appeared to question what they were doing? That showed compassion towards the prisoners? Or questioned what was it they were ordered to do?
Noémi: First the Germans. I was in a factory where they made the bombs. At lunch time, we got to eat at the back of the room. A German SS guard, a woman, sat down next to me. She had a big tray, with food on it. I had a little. All of a sudden, she said, “Why don’t you take some of my potatoes? Take one.” I was so afraid that it might be trick. I said, “May I share it with my friends?” “No, no, no; I will get in trouble if they see that I gave it to you.” I took a piece, and for two weeks, she came every single day and asked me about my family, where I am from, what did I do before. I couldn’t believe it. And then, after two weeks, she disappeared and I really don’t know what happened to her. But this was the only one who showed a human gesture and human being. I appreciated that.
In Hungary, we lived in Budapest, and this is the capital of Hungary. There are big apartment houses and so on. And at the beginning, I was afraid to question or speak about my experiences [during the war] because I never knew if this next person in the next apartment was a Nazi or a prisoner. No wonder that I was afraid of it. But then, later, I learned that there were Hungarians who were helpful [to the prisoners during the war]. And I know that in Israel, there is a [monument?] to honor those courageous, wonderful, non-Jewish, Christian people who helped the people of Hungary.
When I visit high schools, I ask if they have an exchange student. And they say, “Yes.” “Are they from Germany?” “Yes.” Before I speak, I speak to these kids [from Germany]. I tell them: I know you will ugly things about Germany, but I ask you: don’t feel guilty. You were not even born. Your parents were not born. My own sons were born after the war. But what I am asking you, that when you go home, tell your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, everyone that you talked to a survivor who does not have hate but talked about love and understanding. And if you hear about someone being hurt, speak up. Speak up.
Q: Do you see any similarities between your experiences with the Nazis and the current immigration issues in the U.S.?
Noémi: This is politics, the immigration, and I made a promise to myself, that I don’t step into politics. I’m talking to everybody. But I have to say that I don’t agree with that immigration situation. I don’t. I am myself an immigrant. I came from Hungary. Only that is not the same as what we had with the Nazis. They were taking people from their homes and killing them. Thank God we are not killing anyone. But of course it bothers me because I am an immigrant.
Q: How did you and your husband meet?
Noémi: It was simple, actually. I was just graduating from high school. I was 18 years old when with my mom we went to visit a friend of hers. And there was my husband-to-be, who was a teacher in that city. He was 28 years old and I met him three or four times before the war and my mom knew him before. And I met him again after the war and we got married….He was a young man who was teaching already. But he came to dinner at my mom’s friend’s for dinner, and that’s where we met him; when we were visiting.
Q: What is your greatest life memory?
Noémi: You cannot answer that because, if you listen to my story, you could see that so many things happened to me…I could say when I got separated from my family. The others could be of course when I got married, when I had kids, when I became a teacher. And when we escaped from Hungary, when the Communists occupied Hungary and we came to the United States. That was a big one, too.
Q: Have you, since being free, accomplished all your dreams?
Noémi: Not all of them, but most of them. It depends on when I had the dreams. Before they took away my family, I had different dreams, so to say. After I was in Auschwitz and came back, the most important thing was that I became free. And of course before Auschwitz, I did not know what it was like not to be free. And another important dream was to come to America with my kids and my husband. And here again, I went back to college and became again a teacher here. And so many, many dreams did come true.
Q: Do you hate Hitler for what he did?
Noémi: I expressed very clearly that I learned in Auschwitz, that I have to learn not to hate because hate itself is killing, is wrong. If they would have asked me, did you forgive Hitler for what happened; I would say I’m working on it. But hate is wrong. It was not hating Hitler; it is that I’m angry, sad, and outraged that Hitler and his people did what they did. I have to ask myself, they looked like human beings, but what them this evil? And what did they do and how did they feel when they looked in the mirror at themselves, knowing what they were doing. How did they reflect on themselves what they were doing, that thousands and thousands of people were being killed.
Q: How long were you on the train to Auschwitz?
Noémi: Eight days.
Q: Did you witness any German officers brutally killing anyone?
Noémi:No, I didn’t see it, but I knew it was happening, but I didn’t see it.
Q: What was the worst thing you saw happen in Auschwitz?
Noémi: Well you see, the whole thing that happened to me and to us, it was the most horrible thing that could happen. But there was one thing that happened that really shook us. One night we woke up hearing big trucks coming and the lights were on. We didn’t know, but three barracks over, there was a gypsy camp, and that night they took out the gypsies and killed them in the gas chambers. We didn’t see that, but we did hear the screaming and crying and all of us were standing already because we thought we were next. But we weren’t next. That was horrible. In Auschwitz, everything was horrible. There wasn’t anything more or less horrible.
Q: How was your grandma able to hide the candleholder?
Noémi: That was my question, too! She had a long skirt and a very big pocket. But I was wondering, too! Because the Nazis said, “No valuables!”
Q: Why did they shave the females?
Noémi: You know, it’s very hard to tell why the Nazis did the things they did. What do I know what was in their sick mind? However, I think it was because it was easier to handle people. You don’t have to wash your hair, hygiene, and other things. And, I learned later, they used the human hair, which is very soft and flexible to fill in pillows and couches.
Q: What was the coffee made of? [the chemicals added to stop the women’s menstruation]
Noémi: I don’t know. But it was bad.
Q: How many other survivors have you met?
Noémi: After the war, I met the three girls who saved me. Then I met another survivor, who helped us to escape from Hungary. I met my father’s wife, who was also a survivor of Auschwitz. And then I met here in Bellingham two more, but one of them passed away already.
Q: Do you feel a kinship with other survivors?
Noémi: Of course. The one who lives in Hungary I will always write and visit. One of them here in Bellingham was a man older than I was. At first he didn’t want to speak, but finally he spoke some stories. His stories were different. And then the woman who was here, she didn’t want to talk about it or have any connection or hear about it. You know, we are different; I’ve said that sharing is healing. I wrote a book about sharing as healing.
Q: Have you met Eli Wiesel? [author of Night]
Noémi: Yes I did, but after the war. He was at UW speaking, and I went to hear him. I was sitting and waiting for the show to start when a young man from the college asked, is there someone called Noemi Ban here? So I said yes, and he asked me to come with him. We went out and through a hallway and into another room. And who is in the room? Eli Wiesel. When we went in, we greeted each other in English. Then all of a sudden, we both said almost at the same time, let’s speak in Hungarian! Because he spoke Hungarian too. And we had a wonderful talk and we couldn’t stop. His secretary came in and told him that the people were waiting! Finally, when they had to almost drag him out of the room, we started to put our hands out to shake, but then we gave a big hug for each other. But what happened when I went out to my friends, with whom I was there, asked me, where were you Noemi? And I made a big thing of it, oh boy… I said, when? They said, “Just now!!! You just came back!” I said, “Oh, you mean when they asked me to go with them? Oh, I had to go to many places…” “But where did you go!?!” they cried. And then finally I said, Elie Wiesel. And then, at the end when I said we gave each other a hug, the others got up and wanted to smell Elie Wiesel on me. We were like little kids.
Q: How old were you when you escaped?
Noémi: At the end of the war, I was 23. When I came to the U.S., I was 32.
Q: How did you practice your faith while in camp? Was it allowed?
Noémi: First, it is important to understand we were not treated as human beings. We were there to die; we did not have the opportunity to practice our faith.
Q: After the Holocaust, were you able to keep in contact with your friends who saved you? Did you ever see the soldier again?
Noémi: Out of the three I was able to keep in contact with one of them. She lived in Budapest. However the last time I was in Budapest, I learned she had passed away. I have never seen the soldier again. I wish I would. I am still looking for him.
Q:Did you ever meet a Nazi after the Holocaust? If so, how did you deal with it?
Noémi: After WWII, we never knew who was a Nazi and who was not. Once the revolution broke out in Hungary, some of the Nazis began to speak up again. That’s when my husband and I started planning to escape from Hungary. We hoped to go to the United States, and we made it.
Q: Have you ever had the opportunity to meet Steven Spielberg? Is your story part of the Shoah project?
Noémi: I never met Steven Spielberg himself, but I was interviewed and taped by two people working with him. The interview is part of the Shoah project.
Q: Are there many survivors?
Noémi: I don’t know how many survivors there are. But I do know that as the years go by, there are less and less.
Q: How did the Nazis know who was Jewish?
Noémi: In Europe everybody had an “identification” paper, and on those papers your religion was stated.
Q: How much Jewish blood did you need to have in you to be considered a Jew?
Noémi: If any of your great-grandparents were Jewish, you were considered a Jew.
Q: How long did you suffer nightmares after liberation?
Noémi: I didn’t have nightmares, because I was able to share my experiences with my father and my husband.
Q: How did your experience during the Holocaust influence your religious belief or practices today?
Noémi: My religious beliefs did not change.
Q: Did any German guards ever show concern for you? Did you ever see any of the soldiers show compassion or kindness? If so, do you know why?
Noémi: One woman guard in Germany showed me kindness. She invited me to share her lunch with her. I don’t really know why.
Q: Have you met a group of children known as the “Freedom Writers.”
Q: Are you currently in touch with people you met in the camps?
Noémi: Yes, and they live in Hungary.
Q: What do you think of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan going on? What can the USA do?
Noémi: Listening about the horror of the Holocaust from a survivor should make people aware of the danger of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Q: What do you think is the subject of our present day hate? What can we do to end common everyday bigotry?
Noémi: The case of our everyday hate is politics. You should speak up when you hear about bigotry.
Q: What gave you the most strength to carry on? Your family was gone and you couldn’t see any hope for the future. What was your inspiration and reason to live besides life itself? What was your biggest motivation?
Noémi: My biggest motivation was hope and a love of life.
Q: Were you tattooed? What happened to your father? How did you meet your husband? When and what brought you to America?
Noémi: No, I was not tattooed. My father survived. I met my husband in a simple way – my mother’s friend introduced me to him. I wanted to come to America in 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution. During World War 2, when the American soldiers said that we were free, I wanted to thank the American people because many American soldiers died during the Second World War.
Q: How did the Hungarian people treat you before the war started? Were there any Hungarian people who stood against the soldiers when they took over?
Noémi: Before the war, I was a child, growing up in a secure and loving family. I wasn’t surrounded by anyone but friends and loved ones. I only heard my parents talking, and they spoke mostly about friends. I remember some talk about anti-Semitism. In 1956 the revolution broke out against the Soviets. Yes, the Hungarian people stood against the Soviet soldiers.
Q: If you were in a room full of people, full of hate and anger, ethnic or otherwise, how would you teach change?
Noémi: My lecture would not change.
Q: What do you believe gave you the strength to survive all of the things you had to go through?
Noémi: My great childhood and my hope for better.
Q: Were your mother, grandmother, sister and baby brother sent directly to the gas chamber when they got off the trains at Birkenau?
Noémi: I know that they were killed, but since I was a prisoner I never knew the exact time.
Q: Who among the people from your story do you still keep in contact with?
Noémi: I keep in contact with other survivors.
Q: What happened to your faith during such a difficult and trying time?
Noémi: I never lost it. My faith remained and still remains as strong as ever.
Q: From your perspective, what’s the best way to stop the current genocides and hate crimes happening all over the world? What can we do?
Noémi: Since we cannot be everywhere, we have to speak up against hate and killing whenever there is an opportunity.
Q: Have you ever met survivors from other genocides throughout the past century?
Noémi:No, I have not had the opportunity.
Q: Why didn’t more Jews resist the Nazis like the Poles in the Warsaw Ghetto? Did they keep guns in their homes?
Noémi: First, each country is different, and the way people react is different. We were the last ones to be occupied. We didn’t own guns.
Q: Have the events of the Holocaust ever made you doubt God or religion?
Noémi: No, I never doubted.
Q: You said your father was deported before you, your mother and grandmother even left the ghetto. What did you father say to you before he left and what were your thoughts/emotions at that time?
Noémi: When my father left he gave us a warm hug then he blessed my mother, the baby, me, and my sister. When he turned to my Grandma to bless her, she blessed my father first, with tears in our eyes.
Q: After a person has been degraded to the point you were at in the camp, what gave you the ability to move towards peace? How did you forgive?
Noémi: This is very hard to explain. The degradation from the Nazi’s were horrible, also as you remember we were dying. I luckily was with a group of people who had strength and a will to survive, who had hope, and who didn’t think of ourselves as the Nazi’s described us. I don’t hate but I am still working on forgiving.
Q: How did you first feel when Hitler came to power?
Noémi: Confused. I didn’t really know what was happening; I was a very young child in Hungary.
Q: What did your sons say after seeing where you lived in the concentration camps?
Noémi: They were devastated. Very hard for them to imagine that I was in these camps.
Q: Why did you move to Washington?
Noémi: My oldest son lives in Bellingham, Washington.
Q: How did people treat you when you came to America?
Noémi: Welcoming, loving, and helpful.
Q: How did you get to hide in giant balls of yarn? Could you move? Did anyone see you getting out of the balls of yarn?
Noémi: We couldn’t move at all in the balls of yarn. I had my youngest son in my lap, and my husband had my oldest one is his lap. The only person that saw us getting out of the balls of yarn was the manager of the factory, because he knew we were in there.
Q: What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of your life in the Holocaust? What events have made this word so important and meaningful for you?
Noémi: The first word I think of is horror. I lost my brother, my sister, my mother, and my grandmother.
Q: Were any of the guards sympathetic to your situation?
Noémi: One guard in Germany. There was a woman guard in the camp of Munchmuhle. When we had the break for lunch and had our food, or what was considered to be food, this woman guard sat next to me with her tray and on it was a potato and good food. She would talk to me and ask me where I was from and what school I went. It was very unusual for guards to talk to us as human beings. Then she looked at me and she said take some of my food. I was afraid to take it because I didn’t know if she really meant it. I asked could I share it with my friend, she said “NO! I would get in trouble”. I took a piece of potato, and I almost choked because I wasn’t used to real food. She came back a couple of times, but then I didn’t see her again.
Q: Did you ever have to change your identity to survive? Was there ever a time when you made a sacrifice for a friend or family member?
Noémi: No, but there is a story behind this. When I was in the ghetto, I would have been able to escape and as a cover I would be a “maid” in a Christian home. I didn’t take that opportunity because I didn’t want to leave my family. Yes, I did sacrifice for my family, because I was the strongest. There was my grandmother, mom, my baby brother and my little sister, so I chose not to leave them. In the end, it didn’t help because they were killed.
Q: As time goes on, do you think the impact of the Holocaust will be lessened?
Noémi: I hope not. Of course, survivors are dying, there are less and less of us who remember it and can talk about it.
Q: Did you ever think about an escape attempt?
Noémi: Yes I did make an escape, when I stepped out of the death march and went into the forest.
Q: What do you say to people who do not believe that the Holocaust happened?
Noémi: My answer is that I am a witness to the Holocaust as long as I am alive.
Q: Why was your life spared and not your family?
Noémi: I was young and able to work. That’s why Mengele selected me work.
Q: What is the most emotional or physical pain you have went through?
Noémi: Emotional pain- the separation from my family. Physical pain- when I first arrived in Auschwitz and my whole entire body was shaved.
Q: We were at Auschwitz/ Birkenau in Spring 2007. The grass was green. Do you ever remember seeing grass growing? We were told so many people trampled the grass.
Noémi: I didn’t see any grass while I was in Auschwitz Birkenau.
Q: Where were these pictures found?
Noémi: My father came home from the war, he survived, and went to the city where we were living before and our house was gone, nothing left. And he started to look in the rubble, and he found pictures tossed and turned and all about. He gathered whatever he found, and on the back of the pictures he put down when he found it and then he put down what it was. After he passed away, I got the pictures. I took them to an artist in Bellingham, and then Professor Jim Lortz took those little bitty pictures and made these beautiful enlargements of them.
Q: Who is the first family member you saw upon your return to the camps, and what was that like?
Noémi: I remember I came back to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. I knew that one of my uncles, my father’s brother, was teaching in a high school before. I didn’t know if he was still alive or still teaching or not. I started to walk through the new city, my hair was coming out and my outfit was made of a tablecloth - a checkered tablecloth. They gave us scissors and not everyone knew how to cut or make a dress but we were happy to get rid of the prisoner outfit. But I got to the school and asked the secretary if he was still teaching there. “Who are you?” she asked, and I told her “I am his niece”. She started screaming and ran into the classroom, grabbed my uncle out, and he was the first one I met. He told me that my father was still alive.
Q: You spent a long time in the camps. Did you wonder why it took the US so long to enter into the war? What was that like for you? Did you wonder where the US was during the war?
The second half of that question is really pertinent in terms of the times we are living in today. What are the barriers for all of us who are learning to heal through the catastrophes of war?
Noémi: In the camp, we didn’t know a thing about the war at all. We didn't have telephones, we didn't have television, we didn't know what was going on in the world. Everything we learned was learned when we came home. We were completely isolated from human beings. And so the first thing was, the first feeling was, to get used to being free. When you are for so long a prisoner, and going through all those horrible things, nothing else...you just learn how to live, how to eat, how to sleep, how to wash yourself, everything. I was so lucky that I got married; I came back in September, and I got married in October, 1945. But I knew him before! He was 10 years older than I. I slowly, slowly got back among the living. In the camp, I wondered how come, how come the whole world doesn’t do something? Thousands of people are dying, but we didn’t know what was going on in the world in other places, other duties, we have excuses and I was then not in the United States. I went back to Hungary, I got married there, I had two boys, and slowly, slowly I learned what the political situation was, why people didn’t come to help. We did see and hear that Eisenhower was the President and he visited the concentration camps. But we didn’t know a lot until we came to the United States, where we learned everything.
The other part of the question is how we remember after we were for so long prisoners and not human beings. It was very hard to be a human being again. But I realized that I was not afraid because I always...I left all fear in Auschwitz, but I still felt uneasy. I already began remembering other human beings. I thought: may I love and learn and play the piano and read books, it took a long time. I had to teach myself to return back to normal, all the things I loved to do were taken away from me, and all those things taken away from me slowly came back. And then, finally, I had my sons, and my younger one was 2 years old, I went to college. I became a teacher in Hungary and I started to teach, and that gave me back the right to be human. And then, in 1948 the Soviet Union occupied Hungary, in 1956 the revolution broke out and during this time, my husband, two sons, and I escaped to Austria. We arrived in the United States in 1957.
Q: From the perspective you have as a survivor of the Holocaust, why do you think there is so much hate in the world? Either directed towards Jews, or hate directed towards others. Could what happened in Eastern Europe happen in the United States?
Noémi: Why this hate? This is what bothered us even in the camp. Why this hate? We were a minority, and many were against Jews. Why this hate against us? Why is there hate against Black people? Why? It’s hard to explain to ourselves without losing hope. In any way when we heard the news, I myself I always had the hope that one day I would be able to get away from them, and become a human being. But I also knew it should happen both ways. That ones who hate have to be taught what hate is. Those who have been hated should also learn how to educate themselves, how to try to be more loving, more giving. I learned that finally when I became free this was my duty to first of all tell what happened when people hate, and then encourage people to talk about it even if it you were not hurt personally. I know that we cannot go to Darfur, I know that we cannot go there, but at least when I speak I hope I make clear what hate does. I cannot say what will happen here, and I hope and I feel that this the only country where I feel free and I hope that it will not ever happen again, what happened in eastern Europe. But I won’t mislead myself, because I know that anti-Semitism, and bigotry, and hate do exist.
Q: So if President Elect Obama were to call you on the telephone to ask you for some advice, what would your advice to President Elect Obama be?
Noémi: Oh!! Already? Tell him to call me! But you know what? I will tell you that when Obama became President Elect, I was crying because I was saying to my friends, that this is a free country. I know what it means to be abused, to be hated, to be kicked around, to be taken to Auschwitz. And I know this. Many Americans felt happy when Obama won but I felt doubly happy, because I know how it feels to be hated, and I was a minority too. I feel like that he who was a minority, will feel as I feel now. Tell him he can call me. I even have a cell phone!