The stench of feces and dirty bodies.
The look of horror on the faces of old women.
Herded along with hundreds of Hungarian Jews in 1944, Noemi Ban will never forget the cattle car that brought her to Auschwitz.
The images - more painful than any scene from “Schindler’s List” - became ingrained in the minds of more than 300 students Wednesday at Jenkins Middle School in Chewelah, Wash.
“We were Jewish,” the 73-year-old told the students. “That was our sin.”
For the past four months, students at the middle school have spent more than 40 classroom hours learning about the Holocaust. Since Ban first visited Chewelah in November, the students have written research papers about the atrocities committed against the Jews. They’re read novels about World War II and the Nazi concentration camps. They’ve even learned about Jewish customs and foods.
On Wednesday, the students revisited the gray walls of Auschwitz when Ban, who now lives in Bellingham, returned to Chewelah.
“How did the Holocaust end?” one seventh-grader asked. “Do you still have photos of your family?”
Others spoke of the Holocaust as if it were a place, a dark room where Jews were trapped: “When you were in the Holocaust, did you think you had a future?”
“This war that you’re talking about, is it the same one that Anne Frank talked about in her diary?”
“Did you meet Anne Frank?”
Before Ban came to Chewelah as part of the school’s Veterans’ Day program, there were students who knew nothing about the Nazi death camps.
Some even believed the Holocaust was a lie.
“A friend told me that the Germans tried to help the Jews,” said 12-year-old Karina Utter, a seventh-grader. “But now I know the truth. I just hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Many students cried when they first heard Ban’s story. They also realized, they said, how fortunate they were to live in the United States.
“I was in shock because I didn’t think anything horrible like that could happen,” said Rhea Ross, 13. “I’m glad people got out to talk about what happened … We’re lucky to be free.”
Ban, who will return again to Chewelah - “her second home” - in October, didn’t always feel free to share her story.
“I was afraid to say anything because my family was killed for being Jewish,” Ban said.
But when she finally agreed to a newspaper interview 12 years ago, she received only positive responses.
Now, the gray-haired woman wears a gold pendant shaped in the Star of David. It also has become her mission to share her story so that others will know, she said.
On Wednesday, she returned at the request of Jenkins Middle School principal Doug Asbjornsen, who first heard of her when she was nominated last year for an award in Seattle.
Ban’s first visit “changed the lives of some of these kids,” said Geno Ludwig, a history teacher who has taught at Jenkins for 26 years. “Learning about the Holocaust and meeting Noemi has taught them the importance of human life.”
She also has shared her culture, he said. In Chewelah, a small, rural town that’s almost completely white, people rarely experience diversity, Ludwig said.
Now, after hearing Ban’s story, the students can relate her experience with what has happened in American history.
“Look at the fate of American Indians,” Ludwig said. “The U.S. did the same thing to the Indians that the Germans did to the Jews.”
For Ban, a retired schoolteacher who escaped from Communist Hungary in 1956, sharing her experience is part of the healing.
The smell of burning trees, rubber or anything on fire still makes her cringe, she said. The odor reminds her of the smell of burning flesh, the fear she felt when an SS guard pointed to the smoke and said, “Look! The ashes! That’s your relatives.”
“The Holocaust never ended for me,” Ban told the students. “My memories are clear and vivid. But I survived. Life is worth living. Life is wonderful.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
Click here to comment on this story »