By Robert King
Eva Kor, 83, wants to use her story of forgiveness to get politicians in Washington to stop fighting
At age 83, Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor — who today will receive Indiana’s highest award — is the subject of two new documentary films, one produced by a Scottish pop singer for the BBC and one by Indianapolis filmmakers.
She is an in-demand public speaker, just returning from an engagement in Miami where she was the guest of a Cuban-American billionaire who heard about her from Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel.
She’s leading two tours this summer of Auschwitz. And she will undoubtedly document it for the 13,000 followers of the Twitter account she operates herself. She’s even become a talking, question-answering hologram at a Holocaust archive founded by Steven Spielberg.
But the grandest ambition of this woman from Terre Haute is to storm the halls of Congress, rhetorically grab the bickering partisans by their red and blue neckties and smack them around a bit.
"I would like to beat some sense into their heads,” said Kor, whose English — heavily accented with a mix of Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, German, French and Hebrew — is a perfect instrument for uttering disgust.
Kor stands maybe 4 feet, 9 inches tall. She has two artificial hips and a lung ailment that, when it flares up, necessitates a steroid injection to keep her from choking to death — likely a remnant of the experiments performed on her at age 10 by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death.”
Despite it all, she makes you think she could work Congress over. At least you hope so.
Her club of choice is her answer to any of the world's intractable problems — her story; the pivotal moment at the selection platform at Auschwitz; the devastation to her family and her people; and how she somehow found a way to forgive the Nazis.
"I would bring them (Congress) to Auschwitz and have their meeting on the selection platform and say if you don’t straighten out, this is what is waiting on the world," she said, pointing to the prospects of another Holocaust. "Are you willing to do that? This is not child’s games.”
On the day she expressed her disgust, Senate Republicans had used the “nuclear” option to end a Democratic filibuster over the confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
"I don't care if you are on the left, on the right, in the middle — whatever direction your political affiliation is — you are sent to Congress to help run this country and help the American people," she said. "If all Americans cannot get along, who on Earth is going to do all the healing in the world? We should serve as an example. We are not an example. We are backstabbing."
The power of forgiveness.
Kor knows better than just about anyone living what hyperpartisanship can do; she saw the work of the Nazi Party up close.
When the Nazis pushed across Europe, their influence reached into her little Romanian village, turning her childhood friends against her, inspiring them to call her a “dirty Jew.”
The last photo taken of the Mozes family, fall 1943, on display at the Candles Holocaust Museum and Education Center, April 6, 2017. The photo was found wadded up on the floor after the war.
The prejudice at the core of the party led to the creation of the selection platform at Auschwitz, where her family arrived in 1944. Her mother, father and two older sisters were pulled to one side for a trip to the gas chamber. Eva and her twin sister were pulled to the other side, to become subjects for experimentation in Mengele’s laboratory of horrors. There, they were poisoned with cocktails of germs that, in Eva, induced fevers and swelled her limbs to a point Mengele wryly mused that it was terrible one so young should have to die.
The aftermath of this infected Kor for decades with the poison of bitterness. It ate away at her long after the Red Army liberated her concentration camp, after she emigrated to Israel and then to America with her husband, a Holocaust victim who had a friend from Terre Haute, where she's lived since 1960.
In the mid-1990s, Kor stumbled upon a cure. She was asked to find a Nazi doctor to join her for a conference in Boston. She tracked down Dr. Hans Munch, a doctor who had signed death certificates at the Auschwitz gas chambers. Munch didn't want to come to America, but he agreed to meet her in Germany and join her for a ceremony at Auschwitz, where he signed an affidavit admitting what he’d done. Kor didn't consider the doctor's slate clean, but she found herself wanting to thank Munch for attesting to the history that some were denying.
Yet, in the greeting card aisle, she couldn't find a genre for Nazi doctor thank you notes. For 10 months she pondered what to do. Then it came to her. She'd offer the doctor something only she could give — a letter of forgiveness. A college professor who proofread it said the letter was a noble gesture, but that it wasn't Munch she needed to forgive; it was Mengele.
Kor struggled with forgiving Mengele, who was by then dead. He had experimented on Eva and her sister Miriam, who died in 1993 from a lung ailment that Kor attributes to the Mengele tests. Eva had nightmares about her sister suffocating on her death
Holocaust survivor Eva Kor, and her sister, Miriam, at age 10, were the first twins liberated from Auschwitz concentration camps, Jan. 27, 1945.
It was the cure she’d been looking for. It was also the inspiration for the rest of her life, the message she's shared in more than 6,000 lectures to hundreds of thousands of people. She shares it with bullied middle school students, teenage targets of homophobia, people hurt by rape and racism, orphaned by Rwandan genocide or exiled by a Cuban dictator.
"I discovered I had one power,” Kor said. “What I tell everybody is that you — any victim, any person hurt — you have the same power. You have the power to forgive. And what it does, forgiveness, has nothing to do with the perpetrator. It has everything to do with the way the victim feels.”
In that sense, forgiveness seems too small a word to define what Kor preaches. It's almost a form of self-healing.
Eva Kor thinks the Holocaust has much to teach us about tolerance and understanding and forgiveness. But the survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, who was experimented on by the Nazis, said her story isn't about being a victim.
Indiana filmmaker Ted Green has spent a year following Kor for an upcoming documentary, "Eva: A-7063," co-produced by Mika Brown and WFYI. The number in the title is the identifier the Nazi's tattooed on Kor's arm when she got to Auschwitz.
In that year, Green said he's encountered three people who said they were on the verge of suicide before hearing Kor's message. "I have interviewed so many people who are moved by her that not only do they feel healed but they are motivated to go out and help others," Green said.
That message of forgiveness for the Nazis, which she began delivering in the mid-1990s, hasn't always been popular. Some suggested — and some still do — that what the Nazis did was unforgivable. “She was a pariah in much of the Jewish community and certainly in the Holocaust community,” Green said. “It was ugly for her. I think she felt quite alone for a long time.”
Controversy ensued after Kor was photographed hugging the "accountant of Auschwitz" during a break in his trial. She had told him she thought he'd be more useful outside of jail, attesting to the Holocaust to school children.
Green said the episode is emblematic of the misunderstandings that surrounded Kor's message. Some thought she wanted to forget the Holocaust. “She is not about forgetting,” Green said. “Exactly the opposite. She has dedicated her life so that people remember."
Rabbi Dennis Sasso, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, said there may have been confusion that Kor was offering forgiveness to the Nazis on behalf of everyone. "The concern that I've heard many people express is how can one forgive collectively, how can she forgive on my behalf?" Sasso said. "At a very basic level you cannot forgive for the pain inflicted on another person. You can forgive for the pain inflicted on you."
As her message became clearer — that she was offering forgiveness only on her own behalf — the objections diminished, Sasso said. "I've seen a greater effort to clarify that in recent years," he said.
Even so, Kor has been unafraid to mix it up in other areas and on other subjects that might seem sacrosanct.
Like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which she says nurtures victimhood. “I’m not interested in a poor, pity party. I de-test victimhood. I will never nurture victimhood. And I will never be a victim nor will I nurture it,” she said.
Like the tours often given of Auschwitz.
Last year, she met retired NBA basketball star Ray Allen, who was talking about touring Auschwitz with a rabbi. Kor suggested he go with her instead. “I told him if he wanted a different tour — of how to survive in Auschwitz not how to die in Auschwitz — he might want to go with me some time."
A male prisoners jacket donated by George Blumenthal on display at the Candles Holocaust Museum and Education Center, April 6, 2017. The information card reads, "Uniforms were used to dehumanize be eliminating a prisoners individuality. Some experts believe a striped pattern was chosen so that an escaped prisoner could be identified. Others point to a 13th century saxon law -which required prostitutes, serfs, and criminals to wear striped clothing -as the first association of stripes to criminals, which continues today."
Kor's home base for spreading her message is the museum she opened in Terre Haute in 1995 called CANDLES, for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. In 2003, the museum was burned by an arsonist. It was one of the lowest points of Kor's life after Auschwitz.
The irony is that, before the fire, the museum was limping along, mired in debt. After the fire, donations rolled in and the museum was reborn in 2005. Today, it's on solid financial footing and sees 7,000 schoolchildren a year.
But her audience goes far beyond Terre Haute.
Mike Fernandez, a billionaire health care executive, a leading Republican political donor in Florida and one of Kor's supporters, has been trying to move his Cuban American community beyond the bitterness of its exile from the Castro regime. Kor said Fernandez, who couldn't be reached for comment, told her he had sought help on forgiveness from former Peres, who, in turn, pointed him to a Holocaust survivor in Indiana: Kor.
"She forgave her long-ago enemies — the guards, the abusers, the torturer," Fernandez wrote in a Miami Herald opinion piece. "She simply decided that those people would no longer be permitted to enter her mind and control her feelings. She became free when she chose to move on."
Raymond Meade, a Scottish musician, had seen news stories about Kor and read her book
"Surviving the Angel of Death." Inspired, he asked her to read one of his poems. When she responded warmly, he asked her to read it as a coda to his song about the Holocaust, "At the Top of the Stairs," a reading she recorded at Auschwitz. A documentary on the experience debuts later this month on the BBC.
In an email, Meade said he admires the way Kor has navigated a difficult life. "She's managed to turn the most horrific experience into something positive via her forgiveness, and I think that's to be commended," he said.
Beyond that, he says, Kor exudes "positivity."
"She once told me to be the best me I can be," he said. "That's a powerful sentiment, and I'm sure she's passed that onto others, too."
Green, the Indiana filmmaker, said Kor has an "unbelievable momentum" going for her right now, propelled by her story and her personal magnetism. But he also sees in Kor a sense of urgency brought on by her sense of mortality. And where he might have written off her desire for an audience with Congress as a pipe dream, he's come to think it could happen.
"Her footprint is expanding at an immense rate late in life," he said.
For all of her international connections, Kor seems touched that her adopted homeland of Indiana would honor her with its highest award, the Sachem, at a ceremony this morning at the Indiana War Memorial. But it's clear she already has her eye on her next platform: an audience in Congress.
"The question should be asked: Do we want the United States to exist as a shining example to the world that we can get along with one other — even though we don't agree on everything?" she said.
"I don't care who gets the credit or the blame. I want the results."