Noémi Ban was just 19 years old when Germany invaded her home country of Hungary. She was 20 years old when her mother, grandmother, young brother, younger sister and she were sent to Auschwitz.
Ban, who said she had a beautiful childhood, remembers seeing German Nazis burn books that Jewish people were reading and break the windows of Jewish houses and stores.
“We didn’t know what to happen, but we were afraid,” she said.
Ban eventually spent 19 months as a prisoner and was the only one of her family to survive Auschwitz.
“It was very, very hard, losing my grandma, and mom, my little brother and sister,” she said. “We went up — five of us — and I came back alone.”
After being liberated, Ban returned to Budapest and looked for her uncle in the school where he taught prior to the Nazi invasion. After reuniting with him, she learned that her father, who was not sent to Auschwitz with Ban and the rest of the family, survived.
“We sent to him a telegram and he came to Budapest, and then we met, and it was so wonderful. But he asked, ‘Where all the others?’ And then I had to tell him that they will never come back; they were not alive anymore. And that was really hard,” she said.
Ban eventually married Hungarian teacher Earnest Ban and had two sons, Steven and George. Feeling that it was time to leave Hungary, the Bans moved to America, knowing not a word of English. After arriving in America in 1957, Ban and her husband went to college to learn English and earn their teaching degrees. Ban went on to teach sixth grade in St. Louis.
“I became a sixth grade teacher, and I love to teach sixth graders,” said Ban. “That is because sixth graders are still young kids and still want to know everything. They want to know science, literature, history.”
When Ban speaks at Eastern for the Holocaust Remembrance Day today at 1 p.m. in Showalter Auditorium, she hopes that students will learn that hate is never the answer.
“Hate is not doing anything right. It is all wrong,” said Ban. “We have to listen to each other; we have to understand each other and not to hate because hate, I learned in Auschwitz, it’s killing.”
The Compassionate Interfaith Society is hosting the event.
Ban also hopes that her speech will inspire students to never give up.
“Don’t give up. Go on and try another way, another way. But never say ‘I cannot do it because you can,’ and I am a good example,” she said. “I was really very close to death, but I made it, and I never gave up.”
EWU student Skyler Oberst and the Compassionate Interfaith Society arranged for Ban to speak on campus.
For the last two years, the group has made religious tolerance and acceptance a priority on campus. They arranged for Geshe Phelgye, a member of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Parliamentary in exile, to speak to students, drawing crowds of more than 700.
Founder and secretary general Oberst began the Society after witnessing hate crimes.
“Our culture is becoming more and more polarized, and nobody seemed to be really talking about differences, or at least they were only interested in pointing out differences rather than coming together for solutions,” said Oberst. “People were coming up to me saying, ‘We’ve been waiting for this to happen.'”
Oberst clarified, however, that the society’s meetings are not a place for religious preaching. “It’s a forum, not a pulpit,” said Oberst. “If you’re going to speak, you have to be able to listen.”
A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama called all universities and colleges for a special event called the “President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge,” through which interfaith needs to be a priority. The challenge reads, “All institutions are encouraged to select a national service priority or priorities to act upon during the 2011-2012 academic year.” The universities that display the best service projects will be invited to the White House to network with Obama.
President Rodolfo Arévalo has already sent a letter indicating EWU and the Compassionate Interfaith Society’s commitment to the project.
“We’re trying to promote peace through our community service projects and bring some awareness to everybody that we can get along,” said Oberst. “It’s what we’re meant to do.”