This past Saturday afternoon my wife Anne and I paid a visit to the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, located a mere hour west of Indianapolis and a mile down the road from Indiana State University. The Museum’s Founding Director, pictured above, is Eva Mozes Kor. You might have seen her in such films as the 2006 documentary Forgiving Dr. Mengele or in the occasional special about the Holocaust. Eva survived the horrors of Auschwitz as a preteen and, today at age 81, lives to share the tale of her extraordinary life with new generations.
We knew the museum told her story and exemplified the principles that helped her transition from victim to survivor over the decades. We didn’t expect her to actually be there in person.
The nutshell-version biography:
In the later years of World War II Eva’s family was captured by Nazi soldiers and transported from their Romanian homeland to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. She never saw her parents or two oldest sisters again, but she and her twin sister Miriam clung together as tightly as they could, even when they were selected to participate in hideous experiments personally supervised on site by Dr. Josef Mengele, who used them as lab animals in his quest for advancements in the field of eugenics. Twins like the Mozes sisters were kept in separate living quarters apart from the other children because of their unique nature. The science behind it was simple in its inhumanity: keep one twin intact as a control group; perform horrible acts on the other; wait for side effects to occur; note the differences between specimens; repeat until secrets are unlocked and the Third Reich becomes masters of the universe.
It was in the latrines attached to the twins’ stable that Eva encountered her first dead bodies. The other horrors of daily living were exactly what you’ve learned from all the movies, TV specials, and books, except immeasurably worse in person. While their special status exempted twins from mass-murdering in the Zyklon B chambers or other monstrous execution options available, the various experiments too often produced the same results.
Despite the horrid illnesses and conditions they suffered at the hands of their curious tormentors, Eva and Miriam survived together till January 1945, when Ukrainian soldiers took Auschwitz and ended the madness. The two later went to live with an aunt, then relocated to Israel shortly before adulthood. Eva served in their army, was later trained in draftsmanship, and met her future husband Mickey Kors, a fellow who’d escaped the Buchenwald concentration camp and relocated to Terre Haute with the assistance of American soldiers. They married in 1960, and she’s lived in Terre Haute ever since.
In 1984 she and Miriam founded their organization CANDLES — Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors — for the purpose of locating and uniting other twins who suffered at the hands of Dr. Mengele and his staff. As of this writing they’ve located 122 such individuals and remain hopeful of meeting more. After Miriam passed away in 1993 from what may have been long-term complications of their experiments, Eva opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in 1995 to serve multiple purposes.
Obviously the major parts are education about World War II, the devastating effects of anti-Semtism, and honoring the 11,000,000-up who died in the concentration camps alone. The Museum duly notes not all the casualties were Jews, as numerous demographics were targeted for exclusion and elimination in those same German camps.
Beyond that, however, she doesn’t believe in carrying around the agonies for her entire life, or in never-ending quests for vengeance. Forgiveness is the key human quality she extols as the ultimate response to man’s inhumanity to man. As she tells it, it’s what helped her stop living as a victim and move onward with life into other, more constructive pursuits. I’m not sure I can do her full perspective justice, but her simplest summation of what it means to forgive is when you can summon the strength to tell someone who’s aggrieved or damaged you in all sincerity, “What you have done in the past is no longer hurting me today.”
Again, this is the short version, and it’s demonstrably hers. Your Mileage May Vary.
2015 marks the twentieth anniversary since the Museum’s grand opening, but it hasn’t been in continuous operation. In 2003 some warped soul firebombed the original building. One person of interest was questioned at length, but no charges were ever filed against anyone. After two years of donations and outpourings of love and support from across the glove, the museum reopened in 2005 and remains in business, whether for ISU students or anyone else willing to learn. One display case carries several artifacts whose charred remains outlived the 2003 blast and, like her own indomitable spirit, fully attest to the never-ending battle.
Anne and I anticipated stopping in, spending half an hour looking over photos and placards and found objects, then heading on our way. We were surprised to learn upon entering that the esteemed Mrs. Kor was in the house and moments away from telling her story to a crowd of over thirty guests who’d made the trip from Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. We were honored to join them.
Ours was the 156th time she’s given the talk this year. She counts them. She spoke for 105 minutes without a single break, and was still happy afterward to take questions or pose for photos. She asks every family in the room where they’re from. She shows her audiences the 70-year-old tattoo on her arm, an exclusive feature of Auschwitz captives. She pays special attention to anyone under age 13 and explains larger vocabulary words as she goes for their benefit, such as “prejudice” and “scapegoating” and “appeasement”. She’s at times funny, somber, kindly, direct, and candid about her own flaws.
If you’re among MCC’s regular readers who followed along last week with our photo galleries of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, then you’re well aware of Anne’s keen interest in the subject of World War II. I can’t begin to express here secondhand what this opportunity meant to her.
If you’re interested in hearing more about Eva Mozes Kor, I just discovered a few minutes ago that Forgiving Dr. Mengele is available on Netflix. The museum is open six days a week, and the esteemed Mrs. Kor herself is active on Twitter. She may not care for today’s informal fashions, but she’s handily adapted to today’s communication tools, all the better to spread the dual messages of forgiveness and “Never again.”