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Eva Mozes Kor: She can’t forget, but she can forgive

Eva Mozes KorEVA MOZES KOR, fresh from a luncheon with local Holocaust survivors, is unperturbed by the April snow heralding her arrival at Staybridge Suites last Thursday.

She has exactly one hour before enjoying one of her habitual naps and speaking to a Jewish group.

Later that evening, Kor would be the guest speaker at the ADL’s Governor’s Holocaust remembrance at Temple Emanuel.

The 81-year-old founder of CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) and the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Ind., is a controversial forgiveness advocate.

In 1995 at Auschwitz, Kor forgave the Nazis — including Dr. Joseph Mengele, who inflicted torturous experiments on 1,500 sets of twins, including Eva and her twin sister Miriam.

Kor removes her long coat and places a large blue bag on an adjoining chair.

She is the archetypal, petite, adored grandmother. Her scarf matches her blue eyes. Her manicured nails are polished in pink. Whenever she flashes a smile, it is returned threefold.

But her fierce position against victimhood and insistent belief in self-liberation through forgiveness could set the table on fire.

During the interview, Kor does not discuss her Holocaust ordeal in detail.

Her narrative rarely touches on the unbearable, nearly fatal degradations that she and Miriam endured, nor on the murder of her parents and two older sisters.

Some Holocaust survivors have accused her of elevating forgiveness of the Nazis above her own bitter experience, and theirs.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she says at one point. “I was arguing with a survivor once and I said, ‘How dare you say I forgot?’”

This what she can never forget:


In May of 1944, after a 70-hour train ride from a ghetto close to their home in Romania, the Mozes family stepped on the selection platform of Auschwitz.

Officers searching for twins found perfect specimens in 10-year-olds Eva and Miriam.

Used as human guinea pigs for genetic experiments, Eva fell severely ill following an injection. Mengele, who expected her to die, was disappointed that Miriam was fine.

This deprived him of the chance to perform a double autopsy.

Eva rallied against the odds.

The Soviets liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. The twins finally returned to Romania. No one else in the family survived.

Miriam and Eva went to Palestine. Miriam, whose health was permanently damaged by Mengele’s experiments, lived in Israel until her death in 1993.

Eva met an American, also a Holocaust survivor, and moved to Indiana in 1960.

In a hotel lobby in Denver, Eva Mozes Kor tells another story.

No, she has not forgotten the past — but today she says that she is free of it.

In 1993, a professor invited Kor to lecture on medical ethics at Boston College. He added that it would be informative if she could locate a Nazi doctor who was willing to speak with her.

“Stunned by such a request, I said I would try,” Kor says. “The last time I looked they weren’t advertising in the Yellow Pages. Still, he told me to think about it, and I did.

“I remembered the first project that Miriam and I worked on, the documentary ‘Children of Fire” released in 1992 in Germany. There was a doctor named Hans Münch in the film who was a friend of Mengele’s.”

Kor sent a letter to the German TV station ZDF and asked for Dr. Münch’s telephone number in memory of Miriam, who died on June 6, 1993.

“They were very careful about giving out Dr. Münch’s number, but they gave it to me because of Miriam,” she says. “Otherwise it would have never happened.”

Kor called Dr. Münch and asked if he could join her at Boston College. He could not attend — but he was willing to meet with Kor in his home in Germany and make a videotaped interview she could take to Boston.

“That was interesting,” she says in her comical deadpan. “So now I’m getting ready to meet a Nazi doctor. I had no idea what I was getting in to. As time was coming closer for us to meet, I was getting panicky.

“The last three days before seeing Dr. Münch, I could not sleep. If anyone knows me, they will tell you I’m the world’s best sleeper. But every nerve in my body was so scared that I could not close my eyes.

“What I remembered about Nazi doctors I did not want to experience again — even though Dr. Münch was not my doctor at Auschwitz.”

On the appointed day, Kor, accompanied by two friends who functioned as translator and reporter respectively, knocked on the physician’s door.

“He immediately treated me with kindness, respect — it was really strange,” she says. “He did not fit my image of a Nazi doctor.”

While the crew set up equipment, Dr. Münch brought Kor out to his patio. “I was sitting outside and he ran into the house five times,” she says in disbelief. “Each time he came back he brought me a pillow.

“I asked him, what are you doing? Speaking English quite well, he said that he wanted to make sure I was comfortable in the metal chair. A Nazi doctor worried about my comfort? That did not compute.”

THE PRODUCERS warned Kor not to upset Dr. Münch because he might terminate the interview. She chose her questions cautiously.

“He did not know anything about Mengele’s experiments on twins, which was a disappointment,” she says. “Then I heard myself ask, do you know anything about the operation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz?

“Dr. Münch immediately said, ‘This is a nightmare I live with every single day of my life.’”

Kor was flabbergasted.

“First of all, I didn’t know Nazis had nightmares,” she says. “This was news to me. Then he described the process.”

She remembers every word of his admission.

“When people left the cattle cars, they were told that they were going to take a shower, and they looked forward to that. The shower rooms were cleaned and perfumed to hide the smell.

“Once the shower room was packed with people, Dr. Münch was stationed outside and looked through a peephole. The doors of the shower room closed. A hatch opened in the roof. Canisters of Zyklon B canisters released through the roof.

“It fell like very fine pellets of white gravel. Dry ice.”

Incredulity breaks through her objective tone of voice.

“Gas was rising from the floor. As people started to suffocate, they would fight for their last gasp of air. They climbed on each other. The strongest ones ended up on top of the pile — a mountain of intermingled bodies.

“Dr. Münch would watch many of these people take their last breath. When those on top stopped moving, he knew that everyone was dead.

“He signed one death certificate, no names, for anywhere from 500 to 3,000 people. What happened to those death certificates? He doesn’t know.”

At that point, Kor could have walked away from the doctor, leaving him alone with his nightmares. Certainly he deserved those nocturnal visions that screamed in the daylight.

Instead she said, “This is extremely important information. I am going to Auschwitz in 1995. I want you to come with me and sign a document verifying what you told me.

“But I want it signed at the ruins of the gas chamber in the company of witnesses.”

Münch agreed.

“I was excited that I would have a document not signed by a survivor or a liberator but by a Nazi,” she says. “People kept saying these were stories made up by the Jews.

“It was important to me that this man was not Jewish and was actually a Nazi doctor.”

KOR RETURNED to Terre Haute with an inexplicable desire to thank Dr. Münch for his upcoming gesture. She did not tell her friends or family because she was certain they would discourage any sign of gratitude.

Convinced her instincts were correct, Kor started searching for the right gift.

“For the next 10 months, while I was cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry or driving the car, if my mind wasn’t too busy I kept brainstorming,” she says as heavy snow encircles Denver.

“How can I thank this Nazi doctor? Nothing seemed appropriate. Then a simple idea popped into my head — how about a letter of forgiveness from me to him?”

While she knew that this would mean a great deal to Dr. Münch, she never anticipated the life-changing effect it would have on her.

“I discovered that I, the victim of Auschwitz, had the power to forgive,” Kor says, her blue eyes widening triumphantly. “No one could give me the power, and no one could take it from me.

“It was all mine, to use anyway I could.”

She worked on the letter for four more months. A painful process, she finally crafted a missive that suited her.

It concluded with three words: I forgive you.

Kor called her former English teacher to peruse and fix her “atrocious English spelling.” Teacher and student met three times. The third time the teacher gave Kor the ultimate test.

“She said Eva, it’s very nice that you want to forgive Dr. Münch. But your problem is not with him. Your problem is with Dr. Mengele,” Kor recalls.

“Go home tonight and pretend you are talking to Dr. Mengele and you have to tell him at the end that you forgive him.

“I want you to find out for yourself how it will make you feel.”

Kor says it was another interesting idea, meaning it amazed her.

“At first I called Mengele every dirty name I could find in a book,” she says, her polished nails hitting the table like punctuation marks.

“I was angry. But at the end, in spite of all that, I said ,‘I forgive you.’

“I was talking to an empty room,” she shrugs. “Mengele was not there. But for me to be able to say that made me feel good.

“It’s very difficult for people to understand that I actually had power over Mengele — I could forgive him and there was nothing he could do about it!

“All my life, up until that moment, I reacted to what people did to me. Now I was originating my own actions. I wasn’t hurting anybody. And I thought, if I can forgive Mengele, I may as well as forgive everybody who has hurt me.”

Everybody included her parents.

“I hated my parents my entire life because they did not save me from Auschwitz,” says Kor.

“I knew there was nothing they could do.

“But you have to understand a child’s mind. I was 11, 12, 13. I didn’t belong anywhere.

“I hated my parents because they didn’t survive and I’m left alone and nobody is really there for me. And then you feel guilty for hating them.”

Kor forgave her parents, and herself.

On January 27, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Dr. Münch arrived at the camp with his daughter, son and granddaughter.

Kor brought her daughter Rina Kor and son Dr. Alex Kor.

As promised, Dr. Münch read and signed his document detailing the brutality of the gas chambers.

“He had no idea what I was going to do,” Kor says.

“I read and signed my document. Dr. Münch immediately grabbed my letter of forgiveness.

“I was free of Auschwitz,” she says defiantly.

“I was free of Mengele.

“I was no longer a victim of my tragic past.”

Our interview was held on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Survivors throughout the world gathered to remember and grieve.

Kor joined them.

But for her, this solemn day was an opportunity to encourage survivors to release their victim status by forgiving the Nazis — the barbarians who tried their methodical best to annihilate them.

Kor wasn’t always a forgiveness advocate. In fact, she describes herself as a “very good” victim.

“I hated everyone, trusted nobody and was angry with the world,” she admits. “It didn’t make me feel good, and I don’t even know if I enjoyed people feeling sorry for me. Now I say, don’t feel sorry for me. I hope you envy me, because then I am someone who still has something to offer.

“Forgiveness is not for the perpetrator,” Kor explains. “It’s for the survivors. I don’t say to anybody, forget who you are. I ask, do you want to be free of the pain of the Holocaust; the pain of those atrocities?

“If the answer is no, I cannot help you.”

Her sister Miriam might have been able to explain things better, Kor smiles.

“Miriam had a talent and wisdom that allowed her to relate to the survivors in Israel on a diplomatic level.

“I’ll tell you what makes me tired,” she says. “Seeing people cry non-stop. And they cry a lot. When are they going to stop crying? It gives me a headache.”

Kor is more direct, to put it mildly.

Holocaust survivors do not have a psychological monopoly over tears and trauma, Kor says, citing forgiveness workshops she conducts for abused children, sexually abused adults and others.

“I met a woman, not a survivor, who had been sexually abused. She sobbed for a half hour. I had no sympathy for her. I realized one thing: she nurtured her victimhood.

“I told her, don’t ask me how to forgive because you don’t want to forgive. If you want to be a victim the rest of your life, I cannot help you.”

This is Kor’s challenge to Holocaust survivors.

“Most survivors — most, not all — enjoy being victims,” she says, her native Romanian accent softening the declaration. “They are afraid that if they give up this ‘poor me, look at this tragedy I suffered’ attitude, they would be nothing.

“And that is wrong.”

KOR’S PHILOSOPHY of forgiveness has infuriated segments of survivors worldwide as tantamount to treason. But it’s taken her decades to reach this fork in the attitudinal road. She’s not going to retreat.

“Hatred destroys your soul,” she says. “There is no way you can be happy with that much hatred. What I want to point out to you is that as long as survivors are carrying that hatred, the perpetrator still rules.

“Why should Hitler be in my life, or Mengele, or any of them? I am through with all of it.”

Asked whether there are limitations on forgiveness, Kor shakes her head. “Absolutely none.”

You are free to forgive anyone — but don’t waste your time waiting for the abuser to seek forgiveness first.

“I get calls from children who are abused by a parent or molested by a father. They want to know if they should keep waiting for their father to say he’s sorry. I say, please don’t wait. You have the power to be free of what he has done right now. Why are we willing to stay the victim?”

Two years ago, Kor spoke to a Holocaust scholar about forgiveness. He was so moved he wanted to give her a hug and a kiss.

“I thought maybe he likes my forgiveness,” she smiles. “I asked if that was true. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said. ‘In Jewish tradition the perpetrator must repent and ask for forgiveness.’

“Let’s see,” she responded to his assertion. “If Hitler, Mengele, Goebbels, Hoess, Himmler and all the Nazis who did these things repented and asked for forgiveness, would that be enough? No!

“So where does that leave me? Must I remain a victim the rest of my life?”

The scholar did not answer her.

WHEN KOR discusses the traditional Jewish model of forgiveness, she practically seethes with resentment. Perhaps it served a purpose in the past, she expatiates, but certainly not in the wake of the Holocaust.

“The Jewish tradition of forgiveness” — waiting for the perpetrator to ask for forgiveness — “is 180 degrees opposite of my opinion,” she says angrily. “We need to change this because we are giving power to the perpetrator.

“The perpetrator can despise us or denounce us or call us ugly names, and we give him the power? It’s crazy, but it’s a fact. I refuse. I want to be free of Hitler, Mengele, Goebbels.

“I think it’s time for rabbis, teachers and scholars to sit down and evaluate why we are sustaining a tradition that keeps victims victims,” Kor says stridently. “Then you can alleviate so much suffering in the Jewish community. We could serve as an example of healing to the world.”

While Kor will not set limitations on whom to forgive, she understands that forgiveness is impossible under imminent threat of death.

“No one can forgive if your life is in danger. The instinct to survive takes over. Every human being has a right to live. I would not go up to a guy who has a gun or a bomb and say, ‘Oh, I forgive you.’

“But what happens five, 10 years after the guns are silent and no one is trying to kill you? I don’t think we should nurture victimhood that much — not for 10 years, not for 20 years, not for 70 years.”

Kor was raised believing that forgiveness was a Christian act. She now believes that forgiveness is a human choice available to everyone.

“I’m not of the opinion that if someone slaps me I’m going to turn the other cheek,” she says. “Forgiveness is a human thing. For me, it has nothing to do with Christianity. Human beings want to do everything in their power to move away from pain.

“And we should not nurture emotional pain, ever.”

KOR WOULD like Jewish agencies and organizations that specialize in the Holocaust to accomplish more tangible outcomes than returning survivors to the scene of their agony.

“What I’m saying is that instead of paying for 100 survivors to go back to Auschwitz (which Kor did this January on the camp’s 70th anniversary of liberation), Jewish organizations must ask, how do we deal with the tragedy of human beings?

“Why don’t we hold workshops on healing survivors, like a workshop on forgiveness? Again this is strictly for the survivor, not the perpetrator. It’s a choice. But I sure wish someone told me 65 years ago that I could do this.”

It’s honorable and fitting to recite prayers for the six million and preserve the narratives of Holocaust survivors whose numbers diminish daily, she says. But that’s not enough.

“My question for the survivors is, are you happy hurting?” Kor says. “Because I know you would be a lot happier without the pain.

“Victims feel they are powerless in choosing their destiny. When you forgive, you have power over your life. You no longer use Auschwitz or Hitler or Mengele as a crutch.”

Her sentiments, pronounced by the 11-year girl who was one of a few hundred children to emerge from Auschwitz alive, sound harsh. Yet she views them as a viable path to freedom.

“I know how the victim mentality works,” Kor says. “No one should nourish it, not the Jewish people, not the black people, not the Armenians, nobody. Everybody has the answer in their own hands.

“We try to avenge the tragedy of the victims. But who on earth is going to get anything for it? If hate becomes a vicious cycle, it never ends. We have got to put a stop to that vicious cycle of an eye for eye. It’s long overdue.”

Kor’s mother instilled positive virtues in her daughter: being happy; not giving up; overcoming all that life could throw at her; creating something worthwhile.

“I am convinced that my mother would be very proud of me,” she says. “I dare say that if I could ever speak to her and ask, ‘Mom, do I have the right to be happy?’ I guarantee you that she, like every yiddishe mama, would say ‘yes.’”

Kor has visited Auschwitz on multiple occasions. Prior to her encounter with Dr. Münch, she mourned next to the other survivors.

Tidal waves of pain crouched in every brick, and in her heart.

Now it’s different.

“I can go back to Auschwitz, and I do, and stand on the selection platform,” Kor says. “I know it’s strange, but I can be as happy I want to be there.

“Why the selection platform? Because this is where all the joy in my life was stolen.

“In May of 1944, my family was ripped apart on that platform. Everything was taken from me.

“I want to reclaim my life in the place where it died.”

Andrea Jacobs may be reached at andrea@ijn.com.

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News


Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer | andrea@ijn.com

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