Holocaust survivors bring memories

A mother's earrings make a symbolic journey to reunion

November 04, 2003|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

The earrings look like miniature flowers, with opal petals and delicate gold stems. Years ago, they belonged to a Jewish woman who lived in Hungary. But as the threat of Hitler's armies loomed, the woman's mother made a suggestion: Her daughter should give the treasured earrings to her brother, who was leaving Europe to make a life in the United States.

The woman did as her mother suggested. When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, the earrings were safe, but her family was not. Her husband was sent away to do forced labor, and the others were deported to Auschwitz. Of the five family members taken there, four never returned: the woman, her mother, 12-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son all perished. Only her oldest child, 21-year-old Noemi, survived.

You could easily have missed 81-year-old Noemi Ban at last weekend's reunion of Holocaust survivors in Washington. She was hardly the only woman in the crowd of thousands with short gray hair and a Hungarian accent. But surely not many of them had traveled so far from home alone. It was 4 a.m. Saturday when Noemi left her house in Bellingham, Wash., and began a cross-country journey that involved four airports, a three-hour time change and the better part of a day. She knew it might be the last time that such a large reunion would take place, and she wanted to be part of it. "Not that it will change the world," she said before she left. "But I feel I'm going there with an open heart, and with the feeling of victory that I'm alive."

And with a carefully packed pair of opal earrings.

The war had been over for years before Noemi learned that her mother's earrings survived it. After liberation in 1945, she'd gone home to Hungary and found that her father was alive. So was her boyfriend, Earnest, who quickly became her husband. Only in 1957, after her family had fled Hungary for the United States, did her uncle in New York show her what he had saved.

Noemi doesn't wear the tiny earrings often, not wanting to lose one of the few tangible reminders of the mother she adored. Juliska, just 44 years old when she was killed, was a warm, loving mother who encouraged her daughter to read challenging books, who delighted in the ways Noemi made her laugh.

"She always said, `You were born when God was in a good humor,' " Noemi says. "She was my best friend also. And she was my mom."

So she puts on the opal earrings only for special occasions, occasions when she most wants her mother to be there, too. Occasions such as the reunion last Sunday, when she mingled among survivors and their families, all asking and answering the same set of questions: Where were you during the Holocaust? Where had you come from? Afterward, where did you go?

You might have overlooked Noemi in the crowd in and around the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but if you'd gotten the chance to talk with her you wouldn't have forgotten. She is warm and buoyant and upbeat, and she can still make people laugh. Inside a giant tent outside the museum, she entertained a table of fellow Hungarians with a story about the munitions factory in Germany where she was sent after Auschwitz. She and other women were being forced to build parts for Nazi bombs, which they'd been taught to do using color-coded parts and wires.

The Hungarian women, whom Noemi had met only minutes earlier, sat rapt as she recounted the workers' efforts to hatch a plan, speaking Hungarian instead of German to evade the guards. "In Hungarian, we said, `Something is wrong here. We are making the part of the bomb against those that plan to liberate us. What should we do? And then one voice said ... let's make a little sabotage.' "

"Make what?" one of the women asked.

"Sabotage," Noemi said, smiling with pleasure. "We made such a beautiful mess. ... We took the green, it went here. The red went over there. We connected the wrong wire. And then we worked on it and giggling and laughing in the meantime - those dumb Nazis they thought we were working for them so they left us alone."

It's almost hard to believe that she once felt uncomfortable sharing her memories with anyone but her late husband and their two sons. But for years now, Noemi, an award-winning teacher, has told her stories in front of audiences, and her experiences fill a book called Sharing Is Healing, a Holocaust memoir written to be accessible for young readers.

In that book, she writes of the day she arrived at Auschwitz. How she and her family emerged from the fetid train car and lined up in pairs to be inspected by SS soldiers. She stood next to her mother, who held baby Gabor, as they waited in a long line, at the end of which a soldier waved a whip right and left. Some prisoners were going one way, some another.

Finally, it was her family's turn.

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