The first night that Eva Mozes Kor and her twin Miriam arrived at the Auschwitz death camp as 10-year-olds in 1944, she remembers seeing the corpses of three naked children on the floor of a latrine.
At that moment, she remembers pledging to herself with steely resolve: “Miriam and I will not end up on a filthy latrine floor like those children. I never gave up on that.”
It was that resolve that carried her through Dr. Josef Mengele’s infamous experiments on twins at Auschwitz, a life-threatening fever she believes was caused by the injections she endured as part of his experimentation, and the need to crawl to a water faucet when she could not walk.
Kor, 83, now a noted lecturer, author and the founder of CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) Holocaust Museum & Education Center, brought her story to Coconut Grove Tuesday evening. Several hundred people attended the event at the Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart.
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After nine months of near starvation and constant experiments at Auschwitz, Kor and her identical twin were liberated along with the other survivors of Auschwitz by a Ukrainian unit of the Soviet Army. But, said Kor, what truly set her free was forgiveness.
That did not not come until more than five decades after the day she and her family were forced into a Romanian ghetto and then shoved into cattle cars for what they believed was a trip to a work camp.
Instead, she and her mother and her twin found themselves on a train platform at Auschwitz. The two little girls in burgundy dresses attracted the attention of a Nazi guard. “Twins, twins,” he began yelling, she said. Being born twins subjected the girls to cruel experiments carried out by Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death,” but ended up saving their lives.
The girls never saw their mother, father and two older sisters again.
In a conversation at the Carrollton event with David Lawrence Jr., former publisher of the Miami Herald and the founding chairman of the Children’s Trust, Kor emphasized the power of forgiveness.
For her, it came in 1995 after she met with a Nazi doctor who was at Auschwitz at the same time she was at the camp. He told her one of his responsibilities was signing the collective death certificates for those who died in the gas chamber. There were no names; just the number who had died in each successive gassing.
He said the twin experimentation was top-secret and he knew nothing about it, but when she asked him about how the gas chambers operated, he replied, “This is the nightmare I live with every day of my life.”
She had never heard about the collective death certificates before. With some people refusing to acknowledge that the Holocaust ever took place, she knew it was important to hear about the gas chambers from a Nazi doctor.
She asked him to go to Auschwitz with her and sign a declaration about what he told her. He did and after she returned to her current home in Terre Haute, Indiana, she pondered how to thank him. For 10 months, she wondered how to send a thank-you gift to a Nazi and even visited a local Hallmark store and futilely looked at the thank-your cards for more than two hours.
“How do you thank a Nazi? I did not know,” Kor said. Then she said it popped into her head: She would write him a letter of forgiveness.
“I discovered that I had one power left in life. I could forgive the Nazis for what they did to me,” she said in an interview before the event. It took her four months to write the letter.
It also prompted her to play act that she was in a room with Mengele, who died in Brazil in 1979, after escaping following the war. First she looked up every bad word she could find in the dictionary to describe him, and then she forgave him as well.
“I felt such freedom,” she said. “I was no longer a tragic prisoner. I was free of Auschwitz and I was free of Mengele. Forgiveness is the seed of peace.”
She wrote a young adult book about her experiences, called “Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele twin in Auschwitz.’’
In a time when it seems anger, incivility and violence are on the rise, Kor’s story was received with rapt attention. When she finished, the audience rose in a standing ovation.
When Lawrence opened the conversation, he said, “There is goodness and the potential for greatness in each of us.” When he ended it, he turned toward Kor and said, “We have in our midst goodness and greatness.”
After the war, Kor and her sister lived in Israel and she served in the Israeli Army. She left for the United States in 1960 after she married another Holocaust survivor and he took her to his home in Indiana.
Adapting to life in the United States was challenging, but she had two children and became a real estate agent.
Things changed the Halloween her son was 6 years old. A group of boys from school came by the house and began pulling Halloween pranks. But something inside Kor snapped and took her back to her experiences in World War II.
She went outside and reprimanded the boys, setting off what would be 11 years of harassment and cruelty. Bricks were hurled at the family home; swastikas and anti-Semitic sayings were painted on the house. “The neighbors said I was a crazy survivor,” she said. “I said I was a survivor, but I wasn’t crazy.”
It went on that way until the NBC mini-series “Holocaust” aired in 1978. When she called the local affiliate in Terre Haute to make sure they would be airing the mini-series, the TV station learned she was a Holocaust survivor and invited her on air for interviews at the beginning and end of the series.
After those interviews, the local junior high invited her to come and talk about her experiences at Auschwitz. “I began lecturing then and I have never stopped,” she said. She figures she has given more than 6,000 lectures since.
Kor also had some suggestions for Cuban exiles who may be struggling how to tell younger generations about what they endured after the Cuban Revolution. “For the Cuban community, dislocated and disenfranchised, there is no way to forget,” she said. But in telling their stories to younger generations, she suggested passing “on the love and beauty of your heritage without the pain and suffering.
“I never wanted to pass my suffering on to my children, because then they would have suffered too,” she said.
But she freely admits for five decades of her life she was bitter. “If I had discovered forgiveness sooner, I would have had that 50 years of my life,” she said. “Forgive. See the miracle that can happen.”