Eva Mozes Kor was 10 years old when she was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her parents and two older sisters perished, but Kor and twin sister Miriam survived the gas chambers to serve as part of Dr. Josef Mengele’s ghastly genetic experiments.
After the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army, Kor said, she held on to her anger and bitterness for years.
“I was angry, oh, very angry,” said Kor, who will turn 83 later this month. “I held on to that anger and hate for a very long time. I didn’t ever plan to forgive anyone.”
But Kor did end up forgiving her torturers. In fact, she is now known around the world for her surprising journey — and public displays — of mercy. She has gone on to travel the country speaking about forgiveness to schoolchildren, businessmen, politicians and others. With Miriam, she also founded CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) to reconnect the twin survivors of Mengele’s experiments.
Kor will speak about her life and her road to reconciliation Monday at Belen Jesuit Preparatory. Students have been reading her account of survival, Echoes From Auschwitz: Dr. Mengele’s Twins, the Story of Eva & Miriam Mozes, and discussing it in their classrooms.
“Her story aligns very well with the pope’s declaration of this as the Jubilee Year of Mercy,” said Tommy de Quesada, a Belen social studies teacher and director of development. “More and more [with Pope Francis] there has been an emphasis on the power of forgiveness.”
And while Kor’s story is about the Holocaust and its aftermath, it will surely resonate in a Cuban-American community struggling with a reconciliation story of its own, as the U.S. and Cuba seek closer ties.
Kor believes the anger of Cuban exiles and the need for the restoration of human rights on the island is justified — “There is no good way of living under communism” — but revenge doesn’t help anyone. “Getting even with the Castros will not bring back families,” she said.
She suggests divided communities look at forgiveness in a new light. “If the focus is on punishment alone, it does not resolve anything,” she said. “Attention has to be evenly focused on the survivors by giving them an opportunity to heal. The focus is on the healing, but getting even has never healed one single victim. We have to find another solution.”
The Mozes family lived in Romania until being deported to Auschwitz. At the extermination camp, Eva and Miriam were subjected to five injections a week “of every kind of infection.” One of those shots made Eva gravely ill. Her arms and legs swelled, and her fever spiked — but she recovered. She and Miriam went on to survive horrific conditions of starvation and disease until they were liberated in 1945.
After spending months in a refugee camp, the twins returned to Romania to live and then emigrated to Israel in 1950. Both served in the Israeli Army, Miriam as a nurse and Eva in the engineering corps. Eva eventually married Michael Kor, also a Holocaust survivor visiting from Terre Haute, Indiana. She joined him in his hometown after their Tel Aviv wedding, becoming a U.S. citizen and raising two children there.
In 1993, the same year Miriam died of cancer caused by the experiments, Kor was invited to a lecture in Boston and asked to bring a Nazi doctor with her. Recalling a documentary she had seen, she contacted Dr. Hans Munch, who agreed to a videotaped interview if she met him in Germany. At their meeting, she asked him to return with her to the camp to sign a document about what he had witnessed there. He readily agreed.
Kor said she searched futilely for a thank you token for months afterward before finally hitting on the idea of a letter of forgiveness. A friend urged her to include Mengele, the “angel of death,” in the letter, “something that was very, very hard for me to do.” In January 1995, at the 50th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation, both the Kor family and the Munch family stood at the ruins of the gas chambers. Dr. Munch signed his document and Kor read and signed her letter. It was a turning point for her.
“Forgiveness was a gift to me,” she recalled. “It was something I gave myself and that nobody could take away. I learned you can forgive without forgetting.”
The reunion at Auschwitz was not the only time Kor has publicly demonstrated and advocated for her idea of forgiveness. Last year she made international news when she embraced former SS sergeant Oskar Groening in a courtroom in Germany. Groening, known as the bookkeeper of Auschwitz, was found guilty of being complicit in the murder of 300,000 people.
“Yes, I am still being criticized,” she said, “but I do this for myself, because I don’t want to carry this burden always with me. It’s completely liberating and empowering for the victim to forgive because the perpetrator no longer has power over you.”