Sunday evening, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I and my parents and my sister listened to Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor speak.
A history teacher at Custer County District High School initiated Kor’s two-day visit to Miles City, Montana, and her expected attendance had been advertised locally for several months. At Christmastime, citing two old adages (1. experiences are the best kind of Christmas gifts; and 2. if you want a good relationship, you have to invest time in that relationship), I invited my dad to attend Kor’s presentation with me. My mom and sister tagged along and we were among (I would guess) at least 500 people packed into the CCDHS gymnasium, sitting on the edges of our seats to interpret the story she told in a thick Romanian accent.
I’d never attended anything quite like that before. When Kor was introduced, she appeared in the doorway at the south end of the gymnasium. The audience stood and applauded the entire time as she pushed her walker in that determined-little-old-lady way up the aisle to the north end of the gym.
To summarize her amazing story: Kor lived with her identical twin sister, her two older sisters, and her parents in a tiny village in Romania. They were the only Jewish family in town. For four years, as Hitler’s influence spread, various laws were passed that made the existence of a free Jewish family like theirs increasingly difficult. Then, one day in 1944, the entire Mozes family was loaded onto a cattle car. The train traveled fast for four days — it was so packed there was not even room for the passengers to sit down — and ended up at Auschwitz. The people spilled out of the cramped cattle cars onto a platform. There, with no kind of goodbye, Kor saw her parents and older sisters for the last time; she and her twin sister, Miriam, were identified as identical twins and so were set aside in a group of twin girls kept alive solely to be test dummies in medical experiments.
In the Miles City gymnasium, Kor matter-of-factly described the conditions of the barracks where the girls slept in three-tier bunkbeds among rats, lice, and filth. She spoke of the medical experiments she endured: three days a week she stood in a room, naked, as every part of her was measured and re-measured; on the other three days her arm was injected with concoctions she to this day cannot identify, though at the time the rumor was that the syringes contained “diseases, germs, and drugs.” Today she guesses that was a correct estimation.
Eventually some of those “germs” attacked Kor’s 10-year-old body. Covered with red blotches, she was in a delirious fever for weeks. She remembers crawling through the “hospital” in search of water, fainting repeatedly, and she remembers being observed by Nazi doctors who clearly expected her to die. Through her lifetime of research Kor has discerned that if she had in fact died, the Nazi doctors would have performed comparative autopsies on her own body and that of her twin sister.
But, against all odds, she didn’t die — she thinks maybe because she had made herself a little promise on that day they unloaded off the train that she would leave the camp alive. Kor eventually returned to the barracks from the concentration camp “hospital” and found her twin sister Miriam, who had suffered in many ways during Kor’s absence. Kor asked her twin what had happened while she was gone, and Miriam said she didn’t want to talk about it… and the sisters didn’t talk about the concentration camp after their release, until four decades had gone by.
One day the girls looked up and saw a plane flying low over the camp; they spotted an American flag painted on the wing of the plane. In the weeks that followed the girls’ heartbeats followed the rhythm of war as Allied Forces menaced the Nazis manning the camp. Medical experiments ceased as the noise of gunfire and explosions grew; Nazis and their victims alike hunkered down waiting for the inevitable.
Then, one day, the girls woke up to strange silence. They looked but didn’t see any Nazis anywhere. The gates to the camp were open; outside the gates stood men who did not appear to be Nazis. The girls walked out the gate; nobody shot at them. Still, they went back inside the gates. Finally they mustered up their courage and walked out again. This time they approached the Russian soldiers who had liberated them and received, Kor remembers, chocolate and cookies and hugs.
The twins went to a refugee camp until the war was over, then back to Romania for a time, then to Israel. Both girls were educated and pursued successful careers. Kor eventually married a fellow concentration camp survivor who was so smitten with the American soldiers who had liberated him that he insisted they would live no place other than the U.S. And that’s how Eva Kor came to be an American.
Kor is a wife and mother. A real estate agent. A speaker. A living historian of the history she herself survived. She’s written books. She’s an active correspondent with Holocaust museums worldwide, and she even opened her own Holocaust museum in Indiana. She’s participated in documentaries. She met with and interviewed, for film crews, a Nazi doctor.
And she decided to forgive that Nazi doctor. Then she decided to forgive all Nazi doctors. In fact, she decided to forgive all Nazis. She said, in the Miles City gym as we listened, that she was angry for most of her life, and then one day she realized that even if every single Nazi hanged for his or her crimes… it wouldn’t bring her family back. It wouldn’t fix all the terrible things that had happened. And so, she said, she decided to release herself from the chains of fury that had made her miserable for so long.
Today she encourages those who listen to not only forgive but also to do small things every day to make the world a better place. She pointed out that this ol’ world of ours is full of yuck… and each individual can either add to that problem OR make the choice to be the best version of herself each day. Kor tells schoolchildren to be kind, to seek out and include that kid who sits alone at lunchtime. She also tells students to rise early enough to straighten their rooms and learn to live tidily. She encourages her listeners to fill their minds with knowledge, to use their heads to think of ways to make the world a better place.
What a gal. Read the whole story in her book “Surviving the Angel of Death.”
© Tami Blake