Eva Mozes Kor, keynote speaker for this year’s 34th Annual Governor’s Holocaust Remembrance Program on Thursday, April 16 at 6:00 pm, shares her story of resilience and forgiveness. A limited number of tickets are still available online or by calling 303-830-7177 x220.
What do you think made it possible for Hitler to rise to power, and which of those factors do you think are prevalent today?
The same factors are in place now as then: bad economy, prejudice, and bad leaders who instead of solving problems blame others. We should always be aware if leaders are capable, and if they support minorities. Jews always fall into that category.
Where were you born?
I was born in Romania, in a little town called Portz in Transylvania, near the border with Hungary. We were the only Jewish family in the village. I had two older sisters, but they, along with my parents, were murdered in Auschwitz.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
In Romania before everything was taken away we had lots of cousins, and all summer we would put on plays in the backyard. We would invite the neighbors and my parents to watch it. I liked to make people laugh. I didn’t know in those days there was a job called a comedian, but that’s what I liked – to make people laugh. I never wanted to make anybody cry. I would have like to be a comedian. But my destiny went in another direction. My life ended up not being that funny.
After the war, I wanted to be a doctor. I admired the doctors who helped me recover. When Miriam and I ended up in Israel in 1950, we were drafted into the Israeli army. I wanted to be a doctor, but so did Miriam (she was studying to be a nurse), and my cousin the general didn’t think we should do the same thing. Miriam became an RN, and I was sent to the engineering corps and became a draftsman in the Israeli army for 8 years, reaching the rank of sergeant major. Never in a million years I would have thought I’d be a speaker, lecturer or talk about the Holocaust.
What was your first experience with ADL?
When the museum [CANDLES – Children of Auschwitz Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors – the museum and education center in Terre Haute, Indiana, which my sister Miriam and I created in the 1980s] was burned down by an arsonist in 2003, ADL contacted us and tried to help, even offering a reward for catching the arsonist. Unfortunately, we still haven’t found the perpetrator. I know ADL is involved in trying to fight Anti-Semitism throughout the world. When I started working on teaching about the Holocaust and setting up the museum, ADL was very helpful in providing information, including posters that still hang in the museum. That was in 1981. I created a regional conference on prejudice and the Holocaust, and ADL provided posters for this program.
What do you do in your professional life?
I just gave up being a realtor five years ago. I worked in that business for 37 years. I was doing that full time, as well as lecturing, writing and running the museum. Now, in addition to speaking all over the world, I still work at the museum and make major decisions about its operations. I am actually so busy at the museum as the founding director that I sometimes pray for it to be a little less demanding so I can finish my work!
Today, for example, I went to the museum, answered mail, worked on a lecture, I signed 50 books, then there were a few people who saw my film [“Forgiving Dr. Mengele”] at the museum and wanted to talk to me for a few minutes, then I am meeting with a writer/publisher to discuss materials for my upcoming book about forgiveness. I am the happiest and luckiest 81 year old person you will find. To be able to get up in the morning and have something I personally think is meaningful, worthwhile and maybe makes a difference in the world, and on top of that to be admired by people – it’s an enviable position to be in. Never in a million years would have believed that I would become a senior citizen and have all of this. I also didn’t think I would sit in a chair and rock my life away. I could be busy 20 hours a day if my mind and body would let me.
Many students from all over the world interview me for their history projects, and I want to help them because the way you change the world is one person at a time, and maybe they will work to prevent hatred if they understand. They need to understand what made it possible for Hitler to come to power, and then they can stand up against evil whenever they see it.
What is it about forgiveness that compels you so much?
I met someone at the museum who said that a person would have to repent and ask for forgiveness in order for it to be granted to them. But that would mean remaining a victim if the person who victimized you doesn’t ask for it! It’s a human right to free yourself from the pain of the past. I just came back from visiting Auschwitz for the 70th anniversary of my liberation and was together with 200 survivors. Many are still angry and have not forgiven. Some scream and yell at the death of their families. One of the survivors was going to sit shiva right there. My heart was breaking for him. I thought, you mean that 70 years after liberation you are still holding on like this? What kind of life did he live? Victims are still victims if they can’t get past it. Mengele and Hitler are all gone, but he is still suffering. Jewish tradition should change – we should advocate that people who are so willing and following everything the religion advocates have the human right to be free. They shouldn’t have to wait for the perpetrator to repent and ask for forgiveness. I am troubled by that. That is why I go out and lecture. The great majority of people who contact me are not Jewish and I tell them the same thing – don’t wait for someone to go and say they are sorry because that means you are still giving the perpetrators power over you. You are throwing your freedom away. Many victims are interested in revenge. Forgiveness is the best revenge because then the perpetrator doesn’t have any more power over your life. People truly don’t understand the idea of forgiveness. It’s not that complicated. Jews have free will. They don’t have to be hostages to those who say you must be granted forgiveness from your oppressor.
How did you come to forgive your oppressors?
I never set out to forgive anybody. What I set out to do in 1993 was to meet a Nazi doctor, because I had an opportunity to meet him and find out what had been injected into my body by Mengele. For medical reasons and personal reasons, I just wanted to know. Suddenly the unbelievable question came into my head – I don’t know where it came from – that I asked this doctor if he knew anything about the operation of the gas chamber in Auschwitz. Dr. Hans Munsch was stationed outside the gas chamber watching people die. This was an amazing coincidence. When I asked him to describe it, he did so – he explained that the gas came from an opening in the roof, the contents fell to the floor and it operated like dry ice. The gas rose from the floor. The people tried climbing up the pile of other people to get out. I said to him this is unbelievable information. The doctor then signed a death certificate with the number of people murdered – no names. He signed a document so if I ever met a revisionist, I could shove that document in their face. He was a Nazi doctor. When he agreed, I was so grateful and wanted to thank this doctor for his willingness to document the operation of the gas chamber. I didn’t want to tell anyone what I was doing. I didn’t want to be discouraged. Why I wanted to thank him, I had no idea. But I was absolutely committed to thanking him. For ten months I racked my brain for a way to thank him. I finally realized that what I could give him would be forgiveness. That would be meaningful for him. I didn’t realize what it would do for me.
All my life I had been a victim, anything that ever went wrong was because of Auschwitz. Forgiving a Nazi doctor gave me my life back. I realized that I have the power to forgive. That was very revealing – I didn’t know I had any power over my life or my future! When I sat down and began writing a letter of forgiveness I didn’t know how to do that either. It took me four more months, but then I was worried about my English so I contacted my former English professor to correct my English. My professor said that’s very nice that you’re forgiving Dr. Munsch, but your problem is really with Dr. Mengele. Pretend you’re talking to Mengele, and that you’re forgiving him. How does it make you feel, to realize that you have the power to forgive him? When I got home, I closed the door, and I said to Mengele, “you son of a gun – you monster! Despite all that, I forgive you.” To realize I had the power over Mengele, and there was nothing he could do to me anymore, was so powerful. He was the god in Auschwitz. If I could forgive him, anyone can forgive anyone who has ever hurt them.
On my next visit to Auschwitz, I gave Dr. Munsch the original copy of my letter of forgiveness, and he gave me his document attesting to what happened in the gas chambers. It changed my life completely. I am free, I can go to Auschwitz, and it no longer destroys me. I danced the hora on the selection platform. Why? Because it was the selection platform where they took away my whole family in 30 minutes, they took away the joy of my life. I decided this was the place I am going to reclaim. I couldn’t let Auschwitz, Mengele, the selection platform, anything, prevent me from being a happy, healthy, emotionally healthy human being. That is what I would like to see most of the survivors be able to accomplish. Despite Auschwitz, despite Mengele, they can live a life that is not burdened by the pain inflicted on all of us. That doesn’t mean that nothing hurts me, but it does not stop me from being cheerful, from enjoying my life, from passing joy onto others.
I believe this has a lot of merit, what I do. If I can convince one survivor who has suffered before to give up their victimhood and replace it with joy and happiness and teach that to others, that brings me real joy.
What do you say to people who think that you really mean “forgive and forget”?
Forgive and forget is false. It should be eradicated from the dictionary. There is no way that any human being who survived can forget. Their suffering changed their life forever. But why not forgive? Forgiveness heals. I would like to change that slogan to “forgive and heal.” I hope every victim of every tragedy can do this. I can only advocate.
What’s one thing every person should know or experience?
That they have power over their past. Take a piece of paper and a pen; write a letter of forgiveness to the people who have hurt you. Forgive everybody. If you have anger, you are still a victim. Take back your power.
How do you envision ADL’s centennial theme, “Imagine a World Without Hate?”
I think this idea should be taught from a very young age. I don’t believe any child is born with hatred in their heart. If we could help every child be raised in a nurturing loving family that would be wonderful. We cannot control that. But we can do much with education.
Your education was interrupted – first by the war, and then by your move from Romania to Israel. What about your own education stands out to you?
The most amazing educational experience I had was in the youth aliya movement. They have done an outstanding job. I arrived there with my sister traumatized by the war and losing my entire family, and they accepted us into the group immediately. There were very good psychologists who were training the teachers who were in charge of us. They had children from various countries, we learned to dance Israeli dances, sing Israeli songs, and become part of the group despite our differences.
We went to school four hours a day and worked on the farm with plants and animals 4-6 hours a day. That taught us how to work and particularly how to grow something and how to treat other living beings; it took away the focus I had placed on myself, and put it on taking care of the animals and doing my job. , I had something to nurture, and to take care of. I became a part of the group instantly, and it helped me heal from my trauma. We should find a way to do this in all our schools, especially for children who are suffering from trauma. A program like this for them would be incredible.
In order to become healed form the past, children need to care for one another. This will keep them from hating. When they are all part of the group doing meaningful work that makes for happy children, productive children, and children who do not hate.
I would also teach them to forgive those people who have hurt them as children. I would challenge them – can I change what happened? No. But I can change the future. Children who have been hurt have a tendency to lash out and try to take revenge. But on the other hand people who forgive are at peace with themselves and the world. So I call anger a seed for war. Forgiveness on the other hand is a seed for peace.
Do you have any final thoughts about the lessons you have learned, and the lessons you want to teach?
Love, care and forgiveness can change the world one person at a time. If you teach this to every child, you can make a whole army – an army of forgiveness.
This is what keeps me going.