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Fleeing Hatred, Finding Home

John Rudoff
John Rudoff / The Immigrant Story

The sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church in Southwest Portland is a cavernous space, and on Aug. 16, 1958,  the pews bulged as Evelyn Diamant  became the bride of Richard Banko. Her parents, Joseph and Frieda Diamant, looked on with love and pride as their only child exchanged a kiss with her new husband. Richard was of German-Irish descent, but far from feeling concerned that Evelyn had neither married a man of their Jewish faith nor solemnized her vows in a synagogue, the Diamants may have felt some sense of relief.

“They didn’t want me to grow up Jewish,” Evelyn said more than 50 years later.  “They were afraid.”

They were afraid because they had lost nearly all their own relatives to the Nazi Holocaust. They were afraid because before they fled Europe they had suffered indignities on account of their faith. They were afraid because in Germany their passports had been stamped with a large pink “J.” They were afraid because they had witnessed first-hand the contagious fire of fascism — when hate can escalate with terrifying speed.

Years later, living in Portland, Oregon, her by-then widowed mother wondered aloud why Evie, as she called her daughter, had not been raised Jewish.

Her daughter knew the answer: “I said, ‘Oh, because you were afraid.’”

The Diamants’ Diamonds

Born in Vienna in 1936, Evelyn Banko is a widow now herself, living in Lake Oswego, a suburb about eight miles south of Portland. Her late husband taught special education students in Oregon City schools. Evelyn, an elementary school teacher, began teaching at Grout Elementary School in Southeast Portland when she was 21 years old. Her long teaching career went on to take her to the Parkrose School District, Robert Gray Middle School and Hayhurst Elementary School before she went into Teacher On Special Assignment (TSOA) work. As an instructional specialist, she worked with schools in the Wilson High School district of Portland.

On her left hand, Evelyn’s engagement ring sparkles with a diamond her mother spirited out of Vienna when she, her husband and their toddler daughter escaped in 1938, just months after Hitler’s troops stormed in and claimed Austria as part of Germany. The stones were valuable, Frieda Diamant reasoned, and might come in handy once they made their way to the United States. 

Like the Diamants themselves, the diamonds took a circuitous route to their eventual home in Oregon. In Vienna, the Diamant family learned of an exit route through Latvia. In Riga, they waited for documents that would allow them to travel. The first set of papers routed them through Sweden. Then the Germans took over Denmark, scotching that plan. The next path was through Italy. But with the Italians on the side of Hitler’s Germany, that course became too dangerous as well. Finally, they boarded a train that took them to Moscow, Siberia, China and Japan, until — after an odyssey of more than two years — they reached the Pacific Coast of the United States.

Frieda Vielgut Diamant, known as Fritzi, had planned to sew the loose stones into a belt. But friends warned that a snitch might alert guards about Fritzi’s stash. What if they took Fritzi in order to pilfer the jewels? What would happen to little Evie  if her mother disappeared? Fritzi decided to take as many diamonds as she could wear.

Frieda and Joseph Diamant, Evelyn’s parents, in 1933. Photo Credit: Banko/OJMCHE Archives

Fritzi had grown up in privilege. Her Viennese family had many houses, some along the Danube River. They took vacations in Italy. They had servants; Evelyn doubts that her mom ever set foot in a kitchen while she was growing up. 

“My mother didn’t know how to clean, how to cook. She knew nothing,” she said.

Fritzi was 12 years old when she met 16-year-old Joseph. They married after Joseph finished his training as an engineer. One of Fritzi’s relatives gave them a house, rent-free for three years, as a wedding present. Fritzi never worked outside the home, and when their daughter came along, she became a full-time mother.

Fritzi played cards and loved to frequent Vienna’s famous coffee houses. They lived in comfort. Joseph ran a business that imported and sold automotive parts. There was some irony to this because, as Evelyn later noted, “Dad didn’t know anything about cars or tires.”

Joseph doted on his wife and loved to buy jewelry for her.

But for the Diamants, as for other prosperous Jews in Vienna, things changed fast when German troops rolled into Austria on March 12, 1938. Cheering crowds greeted Hitler’s forces as they crossed the border. Some waved Nazi flags. Others offered the straight-armed Nazi salute.

The Anschluss — the official name for the annexation of Austria into Germany — had personal significance for German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, the Austrian-born Führer of the Nazi government. 

“I announce to German history now the entry of my homeland into the German Reich,” he declared as he and his troops reached Vienna.

The campaign against Viennese Jews began overnight. Jews were rounded up and forced out of the city. Houses and shops were plundered.  Anti-Jewish laws were swiftly enacted. Jews could not go to school, nor hold most jobs, nor ride public transportation. Jewish children could not own bicycles. Suddenly, non-Jewish friends who in earlier times would have greeted their Jewish acquaintances on the street, hastily crossed to the other side when they saw someone Jewish.

Frieda Diamant takes her baby daughter Evelyn for a walk in Vienna in the spring of 1937. Photo Credit: Banko/OJMCHE Archives

Joseph realized he needed to get his family out of Europe. The United States, traditionally a beacon of hope for immigrants, offered the best prospect as a safe haven. But the U.S. had tough immigration quotas. These restrictions, introduced in the isolationist period that followed World War I, limited the number of people who could enter the U.S. from any one country. Under U.S. policy, immigrants applying for visas also were required to produce affidavits from U.S. citizens. One affidavit was expected to support the applicant’s moral character; the other, to attest to financial stability.

After the Anschluss, Joseph tried to liquidate his business so the family could leave. As tensions spread among Vienna’s Jewish community, both he and Fritzi were sent to Umschulung, a retraining program that focused on trades and manual labor. Joseph, who always had an artistic streak, learned to design belts and purses. Fritzi learned to sew on leather and left the Umschulung with a document certifying her as a qualified seamstress.

The Road to Riga

The family already had passports — stamped by now with the pink “J” that identified them as Jewish — and through his attorney, Joseph learned the family could obtain tourist visas to travel to Latvia. Then, in August 1938, a friend who had joined ranks with the Nazis warned Joseph that if he returned home that night, he would either be killed or deported to a camp. Joseph stayed away, returning five days later to gather up Fritzi and little Evie. 

There had been payoffs, and as Fritzi later told Evie, they strode past people waiting in line as they boarded the train for Riga, the capital of Latvia. 

Joseph was gregarious, and on the train, he befriended a man who connected the family with a lawyer in Riga. The Diamants became friends with the attorney and his family, and in their two years in Riga, celebrated Jewish holidays at his home.

Other relatives had joined the Diamants in Riga, and together they set up a small business, making belts and purses that they then sold to stores.

Evelyn remembers little of the drama — or the anxiety that gripped her parents and other Viennese Jews. In fact, she remembers nothing about Vienna. Many decades later, when she and her mother made a pilgrimage to Austria, it was as if Evelyn were seeing the city for the first time.

Of course, she was just 4 when the family made their hasty departure. Her memories of Riga are those of a child. For instance, she recalls running down a staircase and bumping into a boy at the base of the stairs. In the impact, he scratched her nose. The scar stayed with her for many years.

But with war raging all around it, Latvia could not long remain immune from its impacts.

“We knew it was going to be either the Russians or the Nazis that came in, and for us, very luckily, it was the Russians,” Evelyn said during a 2008 interview recorded at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE). 

“There was no fighting at all,” she said. “They took over Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and just marched in, and all of a sudden, it was part of Russia.”

Again, the memories of a child: “The only thing I remember about that is that all of a sudden, this man’s picture was in every single store window, and of course it was Stalin. And his picture was put in all the stores in Latvia.”

Word filtered down that 1,500 people would be allowed to leave Latvia. Among that number were 23 Jewish refugees. Joseph Diamant was put in charge of that group. Just before they were to leave, the Russians escorted Joseph and a physician named Dr. Norbert Fell into an interrogation room. They kept them all night, offering enticements for them to remain in Russian-held territory. It was clear, according to his daughter, that “they didn’t want educated people leaving the country.”

At the last minute, the interrogators relented.

This is how Evelyn described the scene in her OJMCHE interview:: The interrogators told her father “‘We’re going to let you go to America; we have a lot of people in the United States and if we ever come to you this is going to be our secret password and we expect you to help us.’ 

“And of course, my dad said yes, he would, just to get us out of the country,” Evelyn said. 

The implicit understanding, according to Evelyn, was that if pressed, her father would be expected to spy for the Russians.

The Diamants–Evelyn, Frieda and Joseph–sat for a final family portrait before fleeing Vienna and the Nazi occupation. Photo Credit: Banko/OJMCHE Archives

Finally, “at the last minute,” Evelyn continued  “they said to him, ‘OK, you are all ready to go.’”

The next morning, the Diamants boarded a train out of Latvia. It was August 1940. Evelyn was four years old.

Their first stop after Riga: Moscow.

The Long, Long Ride

On the long train ride, the bond between Joseph Diamont and Dr. Fell tightened. Their families grew closer as well. Dr. Fell’s wife Jenny formed a fast friendship with Fritzi. Evie fell into games of chase, up and down the train’s long aisles, with Alice Fell, four years Evie’s senior. Many years later, Alice Fell would write a memoir, “Becoming Alice,” under her married name, Alice Rene. Evie did not know that she would be included in the book–along with a photograph–and identified as Trudy Feldman. Evie and Alice remain close today.

The Diamants and the Fells decided on that trip that wherever they would end up in the United States, they would go together. On the train ride, Fritzi asked Jenny Fell to wear one of her diamond brooches, to make her own accessories appear a little less flashy.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad that would take them to China ran only on certain days, so the two families spent three days in Moscow. Joseph Diamant and Norbert Fell took it upon themselves to go to the German Embassy and ask for money. They were rewarded with a cache of rubles, “worthless money,” as far as the Germans were concerned.

Joseph Diamant divided the money among the small group of Jewish refugees he had been appointed to lead. Everyone went out to go shopping, only to discover that “there was nothing to be bought in any of the stores. The stores were absolutely empty. And not only that, but every single night, people would line up in front of all the office buildings.”

 Someone from the refugee group who spoke Russian asked what the lines meant. It turned out these were homeless people, waiting to sleep in empty offices after they were closed for the day.

Evie and her mother were walking down a Moscow street when they saw “some Jewish man” selling shoelaces. The man spoke in Yiddish. Again, from the OJMCHE interview: “And he said to my mother: ‘Don’t stay here. Get out of this country. If I were selling this shoelace for one kopek more than what they tell me to, they would kill me. This is a terrible place to be.’”

The Trans-Siberian Railroad comes by its name honestly. The ride across Siberia was long and cold, Evie said. Everyone aboard was thirsty because there was so little water. The Diamants drew stares of envy because they had thought to pack pillows and down comforters for the trip. Food on the train was scarce and “very, very salty” — a steady diet of canned red caviar.

Here is something else Evelyn remembers from that long journey: To enter Japan, they needed a visa. Because Japan was an ally of Germany, the only Japanese consulate that was open in Europe was in Germany. When the visas came back to the Diamants, they were stamped with the eagle that symbolized the Nazi regime. Although neither of her parents had been given middle names, their new visas assigned them middle names. Just in case there was any confusion about their ethnicity, the Germans had supplied middle names from the Old Testament, making the visas out to Joseph Israel Diamant and Frieda Sara Diamant. Evelyn was also given the name of Sara.

The Nazis’ renaming policy began in the 1930s. People of the Jewish faith in Germany were deemed a “race,” as distinguished simply from followers of a religion. Nazi officials began requiring Jews to adopt names from a list issued by the German government. The list contained 185 male names and 91 names for females. In 1939, the policy was tightened yet again. Any Jewish man in Germany whose first name was not on the approved list became Israel, and any Jewish woman without an approved first name became Sara. The protocol was a further example of how Germans stripped Jews not only of their jobs and possessions, but of their given names.

At home in Lake Oswego, Evelyn Banko displayed the Austrian passport she shared with her mother that identified her as Sara. Photo Credit: John Rudoff.

Evelyn also remembers that when the train passed through military installations, heavy metal bars descended on the windows. Evelyn was a kid; she was curious: What was out there? But her mother warned her not to look out the windows or she would be killed.

As the train inched toward Manchuria, all the passengers stepped off, carrying their baggage. They walked across the invisible border separating Siberia and Manchuria and boarded their next train.

Next came two days in Harbin, China, a city whose harsh weather has earned it the nickname of “Ice City.” At last, the train pulled into the coastal city of Dalian (also called Dairen),  a port claimed by the Japanese after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The Diamants and the Fells had arrived just in time for both a typhoid and a cholera epidemic. Evelyn remembers that everyone she saw was masked.

Welcoming Arms

At every stop in China, someone from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) would greet the small group headed by Joseph Diamant. HIAS was founded in a storefront in lower Manhattan in 1881 with the purpose of helping Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. As the years passed, the persecution continued and refugees sought sanctuary, HIAS established outposts around the globe.

“And they would give us money for food, and tell us a place to stay,” Evelyn remembered in the OJMCHE interview. “Whether it was a nice hotel or a gymnasium floor or whatever, but we had somewhere to stay.”

In Dalian, Evelyn said her mother spotted a house where a European family was living. Fritzi looked wistfully at the family’s grand chandelier and linen tablecloth, wondering if she would ever again enjoy the luxuries she had taken for granted in Vienna.

Next came Kobe, Japan, where the families awaited the Japanese ship that would take them at last to the United States. They sailed in August, 1940, one of the last Japanese ships to sail to North America before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The voyage was dreadful. Their quarters, such as they were, were on the ship’s lowest deck, “like steerage,” according to Evelyn. They slept on the floor and were already suffering from seasickness when a typhoon hit. Only her father and two other male passengers escaped the wretched nausea.

“They were the only people that through that whole voyage went up to the restaurant and got food in the restaurant,” Evelyn said.

At last the ship made port in September in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. All told, the journey from Riga had lasted six weeks. The Diamants actually had relatives in British Columbia But Canada was at war with Germany, the country that issued their passports, so they were not permitted to leave the ship.

In Seattle, the Diamants and the Fells were given the choice between settling in San Francisco or Portland. They chose the smaller city, figuring there would be more opportunities. Besides, they had looked at a map, and the Cascade Range reminded them of the Austrian Alps.

Joseph Diamant turned 40 three days after they arrived in the United States in August 1940. Evelyn contracted whooping cough while they were in Seattle, so she was housebound at the boarding house they were sent to in Portland. Every day she looked longingly at the children playing across the street. She could hardly wait to join them. When she was declared well enough to go out, she ran across to play — and could not understand one word the other children were saying.

“Mommy,” she yelled to her mother, in German, “I don’t understand anything.”
In German, Fritzi yelled back, “I don’t either.”

But Evie picked up her new language quickly, and soon enrolled at the Fruit & Flower preschool, then located in downtown Portland. Even before Joseph could find work, Fritzi landed a job as a seamstress at the precursor to White Stag sportswear, Hirsch-Weis. As a refugee, Fritzi earned $9 a week, three dollars less than non-refugee employees. Evie remembers that her first “new” clothes in the U.S. were actually used clothes provided by a service agency from Portland’s First Christian Church.

Soon enough, Joseph began working — first as a janitor and then as a service station attendant. His entrepreneurial spirit took hold, and he decided to try to open his own service station. He contacted Texaco and learned that a new station was planned at the corner of Southeast 17th Avenue and Holgate Street. Despite his poor English — and his equally pitiful ignorance about cars and trucks — Joseph jumped at the offer to lease the station and manage it.

After the Diamant family arrived in Portland, Joseph was happy to find work first as a janitor and later as a service station attendant. Later he bought the franchise for the Texaco station on Southeast Holgate Street. Photo Credit: Banko/OJMCHE Archives

“So here’s my dad, who’s never fixed a flat tire in his life, and never did anything with a car, all of a sudden fixing flats, changing oil, doing all these things in the service station,” Evelyn told OJMCHE.

Fritzi found a nearby house to rent on Reynolds Street, just off Milwaukie Avenue in Southeast Portland. Maybe two or three weeks after they moved in, people started showing up to walk through their home. When Fritzi called the agent who had rented them the house, she learned that the owners actually wanted to sell it. The Diamants took a few deep breaths. Joseph borrowed some money from a customer at the service station, and suddenly they were homeowners.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, marking the U.S. entry into World War II. Joseph had been fighting competition from two other service stations close to his own. When the managers from  those  stations  joined the U.S. armed forces, business at Joseph’s station expanded.  He worked seven days a week, often 12 or 14 hours a day. Within six months they had paid off their loan and owned their house outright.

Evie started kindergarten at Brooklyn Elementary School. At the end of each school day she would walk to her dad’s service station and stay there until her mother got off work at 6 p.m. from Hirsch-Weis. Many evenings, the little family walked across the street to the Semaphore Restaurant for dinner. If Joseph spotted a car pulling up to his station, he would rush across to help his customer, then hurry back to finish his meal.

They had a house. They had two good jobs. Their daughter was happy in her new school. Through a customer at the Texaco station, Joseph found a new job selling automotive ignition parts — another irony, because it was much like his former job in Vienna.

“We probably had a better life than a lot of immigrants,” Evie said.

A Close Community

Perhaps because it was not large, the community of Jewish immigrants in Portland was very close, Evelyn said. They formed a group called the Friendship Club that met monthly until at least 1960. They gathered in their homes, or sometimes at the Jewish Community Center. Evie remembers parties to celebrate Purim, a festival celebrating the survival of Persian Jews in the fifth century B.C. They invited speakers to address the group, held dinners and once, Evie remembers, even performed an opera.

The families were so close that Evie referred to them as her aunts and uncles. She had left Austria too young to remember any of her biological aunts or uncles, and in any case, most had perished in the Holocaust. In the absence of a biological family, she said, they created a new kind of family.

Still, Evie knew no one outside the Friendship Club who was Jewish. In elementary school, she was the only Jewish child. She never encountered bias, but her parents decided nonetheless “it would be better if they didn’t tell people we were Jewish.”

So she had an ecumenical childhood. She attended B’nai B’rith camp, but also went to a Christian camp. She went to Bible school with her best girlfriends. Years later, when Evie finally began speaking about her family’s experience, one of her oldest friends expressed amazement.

“I always wondered why you left Austria,” said the friend, who had no idea about Evie’s ethnicity. She and Evie had gone to Bible school together.

Yet the family pored over a publication called The Aufbau that catered to German-speaking Jews. The journal came out of New York and listed writers such as Thomas Mann and Hannah Arendt among its contributors. Even Albert Einstein wrote for The Aufbau. But its main appeal in the Diamant house were the lists it published of Holocaust victims and survivors. Fritzi Diamant never stopped hoping that she would find the names of her father and brother on the survivors’ list. But that never happened.

Evelyn and Richard Banko at the reception following their 1958 wedding at Portland’s First United Methodist Church. Photo Credit: Banko family archives

Seeking Family History

Joseph’s nephew, Walter, had been sent to Jasenovac in the Slavonia region of Croatia, one of World War II’s largest and most notorious concentration camps. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that between 77,000 people and 99,000 people — Jews, Roma and others — were murdered at Jasenovac from 1941 and 1945.

But Walter was an electrician, and his captors needed his skills. He managed to survive until close to the end of the war, when upwards of 2,000 prisoners stormed the guards.

“About 80 escaped and Walter was one of them,” Evelyn Banko said. “He was picked up by the communists in Yugoslavia and brought back to health.”

In the U.S., Fritzi Diamant tried and tried to cut through the red tape that was preventing her brother from joining them.

“But of course, all the immigration laws made that impossible,” Evelyn said. Walter ultimately settled in Israel. 

Fritzy’s brother Max was not so lucky. Max Vielgut was sent to four concentration camps. He died in 1945 at Buchenwald, before the camp was liberated.

In the early 1980s, the Diamant family made a sort of sentimental pilgrimage to locate family members who had dispersed around Europe and elsewhere. They went to Israel, then to England to visit a cousin, and then to Paris, “just because it was Paris.”

And then the Diamants went to Vienna. 

“My mother took me around to the apartment I had lived in as a child, my dad’s office and all the places that were familiar to her,” said Evelyn. “I honestly don’t think I have any memories (of those places) at all, just vague memories until we got to the United States. Everything I know is what people told me.”

As she grew interested in her own family’s story, as well as the experiences of others who survived World War II in Europe, Evelyn became a speaker at OJMCHE. She is convinced that beyond the evil politics that engineered the deaths of 6 million Jews and others, survival or its alternative came down to luck.

“For everybody, something involved luck. Either bad luck or good luck,” Evelyn said. The Diamants were fortunate. Quick thinking and some lucky breaks helped them escape.

“The rest of my family, it was all bad luck,” she said. “My immediate family, all of them died in the Holocaust.”

In fact, the memorial wall of a synagogue in Prague lists 23 Diamant family members who were killed in concentration camps.

Evelyn Banko was married and the mother of two children when she began digging into her family’s history. She remembered that her mother had managed to bring a large box with them when they came to America. In it were family photographs, even her father’s baby pictures from 1900 and her mother’s first pictures from 1904.

While his grandmother Fritzi was still alive, Evelyn’s son James often visited her at her apartment in downtown Portland. James went through every photograph in the box with his grandmother and wrote the name of each person on the back of each photo.

Evelyn also found letters from her Uncle Max written on tissue-thin blue stationery. Max’s handwriting was elegant, and he wrote in tiny script, on both sides of the pages. After so many years, the ink had bled through, making the letters difficult to read. Evelyn presented Max’s letters to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and, in return, they later gave her a book with all the letters reprinted in legible form. 

“The other day, for some reason, I just picked up the book and read the letters,” she said. There was also an article from a historian who talked about Uncle Max. 

In the large rectangular box that her mother had kept, Evelyn was also surprised to discover so many letters from her grandparents. Many were censored, and as she noted, it is possible that some of the correspondence never got through. 

“The letters talked about the weather. The weather is terrible, the weather is getting worse,” she said. But “the weather” was a code word.

“‘The weather’ was, of course, the Nazis,” said Evelyn.

All the letters stopped in 1942, “because that was when everybody was picked up.”

From their safe perch in America, the Diamants held out hope that the hatred that had killed their family members might have faded with the years. To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, Joseph and Fritzi went back to Vienna.

“My mother knocked on the door of the last house she lived in,” Evelyn said. Fritzi explained that the home had once been theirs.

“The woman who opened the door wouldn’t even talk to her, just slammed the door,” Evie said.

To stave off boredom in his retirement, Joseph Diamant had taken up baking. The rich chocolate cakes of his homeland were his specialty. The day before he died of an aneurysm in September, 1981, Joseph brought a homemade Sacher Torte to a party Richard and Evelyn were having for other special education teachers. He drove himself to the Bankos’ house, and before he left for home, made a point of sitting and talking with Evelyn for an unusually long time. The next day, he was gone.

Fritzi Diamant died 14 years later. Her stomach was bothering her; something was not right. Evelyn drove her to an emergency room. Fritzi’s mind had slipped a little, Evelyn said, but not so much that she didn’t compliment the doctor on her outfit not long before she closed her eyes for the final time.

Evelyn and Richard Banko with their children, Michelle (now Michelle Banko Lancaden) and Joseph, at their home in the Hillsdale section of Southwest Portland. Photo Credit: Banko family archives

Speaking Out

In 1991, an Anne Frank exhibit was scheduled to open at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Portland. Evelyn’s friend, Janie Rosenbaum, decided to invite as many people as she could to speak about their Holocaust experiences.

Evelyn was a bit perplexed. “I had never even thought about speaking,” she said. “At the time I was still (working) for the school district,”  by then in an administrative capacity. She asked for and was granted permission to speak, provided her appearances did not interfere with her schedule at the school district.

The ad hoc Holocaust-survivors’ speaking circuit introduced Evelyn to people she had never met, such as a minister who helped liberate a concentration camp at the end of the war. She became friendly with survivors Eva and Les Aigner, realizing later that she had once gotten her hair done at Eva’s salon on Southwest King Street.

Another friend, Miriam Greenstein, had never even told her own children that she had survived Auschwitz until she saw a swastika painted at Cleveland High School.

Because she was so young when she and her family escaped the Nazis, Evelyn focused her talks on the toll that prejudice and hatred take on humanity.

“I think my talks were always more education-based,” she said. “As a teacher, I thought it was so important that we get to the schools.” Evelyn worried, for instance, about the growth of gangs in Portland and elsewhere — groups that often include and exclude on the basis of race or ethnicity.

“I thought it was so important to talk about acceptance,” she said.

In 2019, Oregon became the 12th state to mandate Holocaust and genocide education as part of the public school curriculum, from kindergarten through college. (There are now 16 such states.) As a teacher in Portland for 30-plus years, Evelyn Banko was overjoyed by this development.

“When I talk to the kids, I say that this happened almost 80 years ago, so why is it important now?” Evelyn says. “I tell them that if we don’t learn to get along with people, and we don’t show humanity to others, we’re never going to have peace in the world.”

Evelyn admonishes her young audiences to keep their eyes and ears open for subtle — or maybe not subtle — signs of prejudice.

“I tell them, ‘If you see people making fun of someone, or if you hear a joke that is not appropriate, say something,’” she said. “And then I always say, ‘And when you are 18, be sure to vote!’”

Telling these stories — hers and the experiences of other survivors of cruelty and despotism — is important for more than historical value, Evelyn contends.

“I tell the story of how someone can have a normal life, and all of a sudden it falls apart, because of hate,” she said. “If more people stood up and said, ‘This is wrong,’ it might not happen.”

But her biggest message is this: “Don’t be a bystander. Pick what you can do. But don’t just stand there and let it happen.”

The lesson Evelyn Banko seeks to impart as she examines her parents’ Austrian passports at her home in Lake Oswego is: “If we don’t learn to get along with people, and we don’t show humanity to others, we’re never going to have peace in this world.” Photo Credit: John Rudoff.

The Payoff and the Future

Even the most idealistic educator knows it is virtually impossible to reach every student in a room. So when a lesson does get through, it’s as magical for the teacher as it is for the student. 

“The nicest thing is the letters I get from students,” Evelyn said, smiling into the Zoom camera while her 14-year-old dog, Wrigley, slumbered beside her. Sometimes, in pre-pandemic times, students would recognize her on the street or in a store and thank her for her lessons about the Holocaust.

“You never know who is going to be the person who remembers what, or what is going to be the thing that is remembered,” she said. “But to reach even a few, it’s worth it. If I can change one person’s life, reach one person who was going to be in a gang, or be mean to a friend, I’ve done my job.”

 In the future, Evelyn said the work of teaching about the Holocaust will fall to the children and grandchildren of the survivors. In the Holocaust community, this group is known as “Second Gen” or “Third Gen.”

“They tell the story of their parents or their grandparents,” she said. This is important, “but I also think it’s not exactly the same as the person who lived through it telling their story.”

For those who did somehow survive, “we feel that we need to give back,” Evelyn said. “That is one of the reasons we speak out. We just feel we are here for a reason. We need to give back.”

But there are big questions about human cruelties and atrocity that no one can answer, Evelyn said.

“Why does this keep happening? I don’t know. I don’t know how anybody can answer that. You watch it from country to country. You feel almost like people haven’t learned the lesson.”

To help convey the larger lessons illustrated through her family’s experiences, Evelyn is at work on her own life story. The finished product will go online, and students will be able to interview her virtually. In other words, the lessons will continue.

 

Special thanks due to the Banko family and the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE), Portland, OR  for access to the interviews and family photos that made this story possible.

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