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Stories of real people give a face to atrocities

March 21, 2011

Stories of real people give a face to atrocities

As Noemi Schoenberger Ban looked at her mother, one last time, the message was clear, Ban recalled. “Her eyes told me to take care of myself,” Ban said.

And then her mother, baby brother and younger sister were gone, lost in the line that was going toward a barracks to “take a shower.” It was only weeks later that Ban realized what had really happened to her family in Auschwitz concentration camp.

Ban told her story to a hushed crowd Friday, who had gathered in the Scandinavian Center to attend the annual Powell and Heller Holocaust Conference. The conference concluded Saturday. The conference brought together hundreds of educators, students and many others to listen to the stories of genocide and embrace the notion to “never forget.”

As a young Hungarian woman, Ban and her family were rounded up as if they were “not human, not even animals” and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Ban’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother died there. She was young, yet old enough to be put to work in the camp and survived not only the camp, but a forced labor camp in Germany, where she sabotaged bombs she was supposed to be creating to fight American troops, and then living in the woods after escaping with some friends from a forced march.

But the story that brought out tissues to many in the audience Friday was the farewell glance from Ban’s mother.

The last time she saw them, an S.S. officer was directing those who would immediately die to one line and those who could work to another.

Each in their separate lines was ushered to a barracks to strip from their clothes, then to another to have all the hair on their bodies completely shaved from them and then to shower. In Ban’s shower water came down. In the “shower” where her other family members were, poisonous gas filled the room. After their murders, their bodies were burned to ash in the furnaces of Auschwitz. As Ban worked in another part of the concentration camp, her and others would often see, smell, and taste the ash filling the air. It took the cruel teasing of a Nazi prison guard before they knew what the ash was.

Ban survived;she later found that her father had survived too. He was taken earlier in Hungary to a work camp. She had to break to the news to him about what had happened to the rest of their family. Ban eventually emigrated to the United Stats and lives in Bellingham, Wash. Her family, that was all but lost during the Holocaust, has grown and continues to. She married and had two sons and now is the grandmother to five children and great grandmother to six.

She often travels the country speaking about her experiences. She remembers them vividly. She does it not only to keep the world remembering the cruelty humanity can cause, but also to pay tribute to her slain family. She doesn’t have a grave to go to. So she remembers, and tells her story.

“As a free woman I have a duty,” Ban said.

She is often asked why she isn’t consumed by hate for what was done to her and her family. She responds that if she let it consume her, she would not be free.

“I would be a prisoner of my own hate,” she said. “Hitler would be winning.”

More from the conference

What started out as an attempt to connect with his Jewish heritage, became a quest of sorts for Michael Pertnoy to find out how survivors of genocide…survive. Along with co-director Michael Kleiman, both men took a four-year journey that resulted in the documentary “The Last Survivor,” which was screened Thursday night at Lagerquist Hall as part of the Raphael Lemkin Lecture.

The film, which has won almost two dozen awards and honors since it was released last year, explores genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries and focuses on four survivors of different conflicts – the Holocaust in WWII, Darfur, the Congo and Rwanda. One of the survivors interviewed in the film – Justin Semahoro Kimenyera (pictured left) – from the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke briefly during his visit to PLU last week of waking up to find his village attacked in 1996. He was separated from his family, several of which he still has not found. He spent years in a relocation camp before coming in the U.S. in 2008, where he met up with Kleiman. While being acclimatized to the U.S., Kimenyera also now works with youth and tells of his story and of the widespread destruction and killings still occurring in the Congo.

“You need to hold public officials accountable,” when you do find out about a situation like Darfur is occurring, Pertnoy said. “Begin with small steps, and it can have a collective impact.”

Kimenyera, Pertnoy and Kleiman all agreed Thursday evening that education was key to changing the events that lead to an act of genocide. Also, Kleiman added, “get to know the people around you.”

That advice was echoed at the Scandinavian Center about 12 hours later on Friday, as Carl Wilkens, the only American to remain in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide that claimed 1 million lives in three months. Wilkens (pictured below) told the crowd to get to know their neighbors and to reach out to people who are not like you.

“You also need to hold public officials accountable,” when you do find out about a situation like Darfur is occurring, Pertnoy said. “Begin with small steps, and it can have a collective impact.”

Later in the day on Friday, Patrick Henry talked about the story of Le Chambon, France, a small hill village in southern France that collectively sheltered 5,000 Jews over four years. The village, largely comprised of French Huguenots, banded together to feed, hide and shelter the Jews that came singly and by groups into the village.

On Friday, Wilkens shared his experience during the Rwandan genocide. Even though scholars study the Holocaust and unbelievable numbers surround the murdered, it is the stories of the people that make it real.

“I promised them when I came back to America I would share their story,” Wilkens told the crowd. “Nothing compares to stories.”

During his presentation, he went through slides of the people he met. It is the people that drive him to do what he does, in speaking about genocide, a term “we’re not wired for.” Genocide shouldn’t be inherent to human existence.

“We’re not even supposed to have a vocabulary for this,” he said.

He is amazed by the perseverance of the people in Rwanda. They have every reason to act as victims, but they focus on what they have, rather than what they’ve lost or don’t have, he said.

“What a way to live,” Wilkens said. “Really, it seems the only way to live.”

Wilkens told the crowd getting to know each other is such an important part in understanding one another.  Children don’t inherently dream of growing up as mass murders, as people who commit genocide. There is innocents their and with that hope, Wilkens said.

“You just realize it isn’t them and us,” he said. “It’s just us.”

“It’s about relationships,” Wilkens said. “It’s not like relationships is the silver bullet. It’s the only bullet.”