Holocaust survivor Noémi Ban, community educator and outspoken fixture on Western’s campus for years, dies at age 96

Noémi Ban, a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp who became an outspoken advocate and educator on the horrors of the Holocaust and the enduring power of love and tolerance, died on Friday, June 7 at the age of 96.

Ban had been a frequent speaker at Western since the mid-1990s, offering the university’s students, faculty and staff a message not only of remembrance, but of hope and healing.

“Life is precious. Life is wonderful. I love life and I refuse to give in to hate,” she would tell rapt audiences at her quarterly presentations on campus.

Ban, along with fellow Holocaust survivors Fred Fragner and Magda Dorman, were also a pivotal force in the founding of Western’s Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education (now the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity).

Sandra Alfers, director of the institute and a professor of Modern & Classical Languages at Western, said the news of Ban’s death has hit the community hard.

“Our hearts are heavy. Noémi was simply an amazing woman: a genuinely kind human being, an inspirational teacher, and a compassionate advocate for Holocaust education. She touched the lives of many at Western and beyond. We will miss her – and her voice of reason,” Alfers said.

Wolpow, a retired professor from the Woodring College of Education and the founder of the Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education, concurred.

“I will be forever grateful to Noémi for her willingness to bear witness to the unfathomable events of the Holocaust and for sharing her award-winning teaching talents with our community and me,” he said. “Her messages of resiliency and hope; of the responsibilities that come with freedom; of the dangers of even a little bit of hatred; and of the importance of remembrance; resonate in my heart and the hearts of tens of thousands who have heard her story.”

Ban’s family were living in Debrecen, Hungary, when the country was occupied by Germany in 1944; shortly afterwards they were shipped by rail to Auschwitz. Ban’s mother, grandmother, younger sister and younger brother all died in the camp’s gas chambers, along with about 550,000 other Hungarian Jews.

After immigrating to the United States with her husband and two sons in the mid-1950s and with successful career as a sixth-grade teacher behind her, in the 1990s Ban began her unexpected second career as a public speaker, telling hundreds of audiences from the Pacific Northwest to Europe to Taiwan her story of grief, tragedy, tolerance, love and hope.

Wolpow and Ban authored the book “Sharing is Healing: A Holocaust Survivor’s Story,” and after asking Ban to discuss “The Diary of Anne Frank” to one of his classes, WWU Professor of Theatre Arts Jim Lortz began work on a documentary film, “My Name is Noémi,” which was released in 2009 and which traces Ban’s journey back to Auschwitz for the first time since the end of the war.

Ban is the winner of the 1997 Golden Apple Award, a recipient of honorary doctorates from Gonzaga and Western Washington University, winner of the 2003 Washington Education Association Human and Civil Rights Award in the category of International Peace and Understanding and the recipient of the 2011 Daughters of the American Revolution Americanism Award. 

WWU President Sabah Randhawa said Ban’s wisdom and kindness left deep impressions on the community.

“Noémi dedicated her life to teaching some of the most profound and timeless human truths: that love is stronger than hate, kindness more powerful than cruelty, and that compassion and understanding will overcome bigotry and ignorance,” he said. “She was also the living embodiment of that wisdom.  The thousands of people she inspired through her teaching is a wonderful legacy of hope and remembrance.”

A memorial service for Ban, open to all community members, will be held at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 11 at Congregation Beth Israel, 751 San Juan Blvd., in Bellingham. In lieu of flowers, the Ban Family suggests sending memorial contributions to the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity at Western Washington University or the New Synagogue Fund of Congregation Beth Israel.