Minutes after the cattle car brought them to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, 10-year-old Eva Mozes and her identical twin sister, Miriam, found themselves separated from their father and two sisters.
They clung to their mother until an SS officer approached, asking if the girls were twins. When their mother nodded, they were forcibly separated from her and brought to a group of other twin girls.
“The last thing I remember of her is her crying, her arms stretched out towards us,” Eva Mozes Kor says of her mother. The next morning, she saw the Angel of Death. Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who earned his nickname for his life-and-death decisions and brutal experiments on twins, came after roll call.
Miriam and Eva became “guinea pigs” in Mengele’s research. “We received injections every other day, a minimum of five injections each day,” Kor says. “They were always in my right arm. At the same time, they took a lot of blood from my left arm.” She ran a high fever. Yet, she and Miriam survived Auschwitz and in January 1945, they were liberated. But most of the girls’ family, some 117 relatives, including their parents and two other sisters, perished in the Holocaust.
Forty years later, Kor returned to Auschwitz, where she publicly forgave all the Nazis, including Mengele. Her action, which caused an uproar, is the subject of a recent documentary, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” produced and directed by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh.
“I deserve to live without the pain [of the Holocaust], and this is the only way to do that,” says Kor, 72, who now lives in Terra Haute, Ind., where she works as a realtor. She also opened a Holocaust museum and education center there a decade ago.
Although she forgives, she does not forget.
“I don’t want to continually think about who did what to me and why because that engages the human mind in a victim mentality,” she says. “Getting even does not remove the victim from feeling [like] a victim. If you then try to bring them to justice, you are getting into the gutter with them. They are drawing you down.”
To “rise above that,” she says, she decided to forgive the killers, because, doing that, “I am in charge, they are not.”
Before reaching her decision, Kor had occasional nightmares of being chased by Nazis with dogs. Since her decision, the nightmares have ended.
After World War II, Eva and Miriam returned to their home in Romania. They remained there until 1950, when they went to Israel. After marrying Michael Kor, she moved to the United States.
Miriam died in 1993, at 59. Eva, who gave Miriam a kidney in 1987 after Miriam’s had failed, blames her sister’s premature death on Mengele’s experiments.
Her decision to forgive him was not easy, she says.
Mengele was reportedly responsible for murder of 400,000 Jewish men, women and children. He carried out cruel and horrific medical experiments on more than 1,500 sets of identical twins as young as 5. When he had completed the experiments, the twins were usually murdered and their bodies dissected.
Kor learned details about Mengele’s ghastly work from Dr. Hans Munch, an SS doctor who worked at Auschwitz. She met Munch at his home in Munich. His job at Auschwitz, he told Kor, was to conduct laboratory experiments on human saliva.
“I asked him if he knew anything about the gas chambers, because revisionists keep saying that there were no gas chambers,” Kor says.
Munch said he knew. Kor asked if he would return with her to Auschwitz in January 1995 to affirm what he knew. Munch agreed.
At Auschwitz, she asked him to sign an affidavit attesting to what happened there.
“I wanted [eyewitness proof] to come from a Nazi.”
Although Munch was more comfortable speaking German than English, Kor wanted the affidavit in English because it is the universal language.
Again, Munch agreed. He said he wanted to prevent another Hitler from coming to power. He testified that at Auschwitz in 1944 he witnessed the selection process of who would live and who would die. He testified that he “saw thousands of people gassed here … I witnessed the dropping of Zyklon-B into simulated exhaust vents from outside the gas chamber.”
Munch’s statement received international press coverage. Two years later, his home was firebombed. He and his family were relocated for their own safety and placed under 24-hour police protection.
Munch died in 2001 at 90.
Kor says his decision to accompany her to Auschwitz was the catalyst for her decision to forgive the Nazis.
“I thought of giving him the biggest thank you card I could find, but that was not good enough. After 10 months, my mind said to me, How about a letter of forgiveness? And in that moment I realized that I — a little victim for almost 50 years — I had the power to forgive. No one could give me that power and no one could take it away.
“So I began writing my letter and I didn’t tell anybody. I wrote several versions. I wrote through a lot of pain. There was a lot of bottled up anger. I knew he was part of the regime, but aren’t we all a little bit good and a little bit bad?” Kor says she wanted to publicly forgive Munch, even though he never asked for forgiveness.
When she told a Jewish friend about her idea, he asked, sarcastically, “Are you forgiving Dr. Mengele, too?”
The thought made Kor feel empowered.
“Can you imagine me, the person Mengele said had only two weeks to live [because of an experimental drug he gave her] with the power to forgive the god of Auschwitz? I was so intrigued by it, realizing that I did have that power. So I said, ‘If I forgive Mengele, I might as well forgive everybody.’”
At Auschwitz in 1995 she handed Munch her letter of forgiveness and also read a declaration of “amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others.” Kor says Munch was “stunned.”
“Forgiving Dr. Mengele” focuses on Kor’s decision, showing her and Munch at Auschwitz, as well as the hostile reaction of other survivors to her decision. She was shunned by Mengele twins in Israel. “It doesn’t make my idea wrong, it makes them victims who don’t want to be free from being a victim,” Kor says. “I’m not a victim [anymore]. I’m in charge of my own destiny.”
Kor says she appreciates that her attitude surprises most people. “They expect you to write book about [the Holocaust] and what terrible things they did to us.”
Reminded that Hitler and his henchmen never asked for forgiveness, Kor shakes her head.
“What if they didn’t want to atone for their crimes, does it mean I must continue to live as a victim, that I am still at their mercy? I don’t care if they deserve to be forgiven or not. I deserve to live without that pain.”
She says her husband, who survived four years in concentration camps, is a “typical survivor” who does not agree with her and never wants to set foot on German soil again.
“He’s still a victim,” Kor says. “However, he has come a long way in the last 10 years and it’s because I opened the [Holocaust] museum.”
Kor says her identical twin would understand her decision.
Munch’s daughter, Ruli, now 66 and living in Canada, sent Kor’s museum a $1,000 check from her father’s estate after his death. And last November, Munch’s daughter visited the museum.
“The power of forgiveness opens up doors,” Kor says. “The power of justice closes doors. Justice does have its place in our society, but not in the way most people see it. Yes, Nazis — perpetrators of the Holocaust — have to be stopped from doing what they are doing. Society must be protected. But when you look at the world as we do today and see what happened in Rwanda and Croatia … the children of the victims stay angry and feel they have the right to avenge the pain of their parents and it’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t end. Ultimately, it doesn’t solve any problems.
“In my humble opinion, forgiveness is the seed for peace.” Kor says. “Pain and anger are the seeds for war.”
“Forgiving Dr. Mengele” will be shown on Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Makor at 35 West 67th Street. A discussion will follow.