Why Eva Kor forgave the Nazis

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 12:19pm

When I met Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor in January, she was dozing on a chair that doubles as her walker, wearing a contented smile while a flurry of activity buzzed around her. 

The setting was the lobby of the Krakow Holiday Inn, Poland. The occasion was historic: Kor was among 100-plus survivors of the Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, brought together by USC Shoah Foundation to observe the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation on Jan. 27, 1945. 

The hotel lobby was a frenetic swirl of media reporters, photographers, videographers, hotel employees, survivors, their companions and security personnel – all on hand for the commemoration events.

Amid this clamor, I gingerly took a seat across from Kor, and her son Alex, with the intention of gently letting her know it was time for a photo shoot organized by my colleagues at USC Shoah Foundation. As I explained this to Alex, in hopes he would nudge her awake, Kor’s eyes popped open. She gave me a wink and said, in that Romanian accent she’s retained, “Just tell me where I need to go.”

Eva Kor might be an 81-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, but she is hardly frail.

Survivors pose with an enlargement of the iconic photograph taken of them on Jan. 27, 1945. From left are Paula Lebovics, Miriam Ziegler, Gabor Hirsch and Eva Kor. (Photo courtesy of Ian Gavan/Getty Images) Survivors pose with an enlargement of the iconic photograph taken of them on Jan. 27, 1945. From left are Paula Lebovics, Miriam Ziegler, Gabor Hirsch and Eva Kor. (Photo courtesy of Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Kor experienced hell on earth at Auschwitz, where her parents and two older sisters were murdered. I was struck by how she, like other survivors I’ve met, has refused to let Auschwitz hijack her sense of independence and humor. 

In Kor’s case, the path to healing involved forgiving her Nazi tormentors. Her decision to do so in 1995 generated controversy, but for her, it offered a kind of second liberation – from victimhood.

In the setting of a hotel banquet room on Jan. 26, amid all that hubbub, Kor – the founder of CANDLES Museum and Education Center in Indiana – sat with me and told her story.  

In short, it happened not as the result of some unprompted epiphany, but a chain of events she never could have foreseen. In a sense, the decision found her, not the other way around. 

The story begins with an out-of-the-blue phone call Kor received in 1993, while she was mourning the recent cancer death of her sister, Miriam Mozes. As 10-year-old girls, they had been among the twin children to serve as experimental subjects at Auschwitz under the sadistic hand of Dr. Josef Mengele.

The call came from a professor at Boston College, who asked if she could speak at a conference on medical ethics. And by the way, could she bring a Nazi doctor?

The request left her stunned.

“The last time I looked, they were not advertising in the Yellow Pages.”

Kor then remembered a documentary about the Mengele twins that she and Miriam had participated in together a year or so prior. Figuring prominently in the film was Mengele’s friend and colleague from Auschwitz, Dr. Hans Munch.

Mengele had died in 1979, but Munch was still alive. She was able to contact him by phone. Munch declined her invitation to travel to Boston, but said he would give her a statement on camera and invited her to his house in Germany.

Kor arrived at Munch’s home with a camera crew; she was a bundle of nerves.

But instead of being greeted by a cold-eyed professional of the sort who decades ago would routinely poke and prod her body with needles without concern for her survival, Kor encountered a gracious 82-year-old host with a kind smile.

He told her that he suffered nightmares from the horrors in which he had a hand.

When the film crew asked to shoot the interview in better light outside, everybody convened at a front-porch table with metal chairs. Munch dashed into the house and grabbed pillows for Kor to sit on.

“A Nazi doctor worried about my comfort – it did not compute in my mind at all,” she said. “That leaves a feeling that this is a pretty decent human being.”

The conversation that followed would leave her flabbergasted. Munch recounted in horrific detail the mass murder of inmates in the gas chambers – details she’d never heard before.

After packing people by the hundred into a hermetically sealed chamber – which they thought to be a shower -- a Nazi guard would drop a canister of the deadly chemical Zyklon B through a hatch in the roof.

“As people were starting to suffocate – gasp for air – they would climb on top of each other, forming a mountain of intermingled bodies,” Kor said. 

Munch, who died in 2001, was in a unique position to provide such a thorough description: at Auschwitz, he was assigned to watch the mass killings through a peephole.

“When the people from the top of the pile stopped moving, he knew that everybody was dead,” Kor said. “He would sign one death certificate -- no names, just the number of people murdered. It could be 500, it could be 2,000.”

Munch was in a better position than most Nazis to make such an admission. He’d long ago been acquitted of war crimes during the Auschwitz trial in 1947 for his verifiable success in saving lives at the death camp.

In any event, Kor’s meeting with Munch left her changed. Upon her return home to Indiana, she decided to thank him in some way for his candor. She started with a visit to her local Hallmark Cards shop.

“I couldn’t find a card appropriate for a Nazi,” she deadpanned.

Kor went home without buying a card, but didn’t give up on the idea. Instead, she ruminated – for 10 months.

Ultimately, she came up with the idea to pen a letter of forgiveness. But this, too, proved daunting: It took her four months to write the letter.

“I had to work through a lot of my pain -- I had to mean it,” she said.

By the time she finished, she’d expanded the scope of forgiveness beyond Munch to include all the Nazis. Munch, in turn, signed a document attesting to the existence of the gas chambers, which some revisionists have sought to deny.

 “What I discovered for myself was life changing: that I had the power to forgive,” she said. “I refuse to be a victim. … Every victim has a human right to be free from what was imposed on them.”

Rob Kuznia