By Steven Zimmerman
[Author’s note: I orginally wrote this piece while working at the El Paso Herald-Post. When I left the newspaper they removed all my articles and I felt this one needed to be reshared]
Eva Mozes Kor, who survived both Auschwitz and Josef Mengele, passed away in Poland during her annual trip to Auschwitz.
“We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of Eva Kor, Holocaust survivor, forgiveness advocate, and founder of CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center,” the museum said on its Twitter account.
“Broken-hearted to inform you that Ewa Kor has passed away and will be buried in the US,” Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.
I am glad that G-d had graced me with a friendship with Eva. Her story, our conversations, have helped me to be a better person. She taught me the real meaning of forgiveness.
“The moment I forgave the Nazis, I felt free from Auschwitz and from all the tragedy that had occurred to me,” said Eva in a recent video posted to the Auschwitz Museum Facebook page.
What follows is one of many articles I’ve written about Eva. I pray you find the strength to forgive those who have wronged you as you listen to her story. I also pray that you will find hope.
We can only imagine it: the noise, the confusion. A horror movie come to life – but far, far worse.
In 1944, a young girl and her family arrive by cattle car at Auschwitz. As they exit, people are selected on the spot for life or death.
People crying, pushing, shoving, dogs barking, everyone trying to make some sense of where they were, and why they were there. Some, still in denial. Others, not yet resigned to the truth of the situation, but somehow thinking they may yet live.
The little girl turns around, looking at it all, taking it all in, trying to figure out what place this is. As she turns back towards her family, she realizes that her father and two older sisters are gone, never to be seen again.
In the middle of all the chaos, a Nazi officer scans the shuffling crowd – eyes darting from person to person, child to child -searching for something specific.
His gaze settles on the little girl, her sister and their mother. Then, above the life or death din, he yells “Zwillinge! Zwillinge!”
“Are they twins,” he demands.
Her mother asked, “Is that good?”
“Yes,” the Nazi says, “it was good.”
Her mother, thinking it was a way to save them – and not knowing the truth behind his question – confirms they are twins. The slow shuffle is gone, replaced by rapid movement. The girls forcefully pulled to the right, their mother to the left.
“All I remember seeing,” she says, “is my mother’s arms, outstretched in despair, as she was pulled away.”
She couldn’t say goodbye to her mother. She didn’t understand what was going on, what was happening. Nor did she know that this was the last time she would ever see her mother. Her whole family was gone. All that remained was her and her twin sister.
They were scared, worried, unsure of what was to come, or of the hell, they would soon endure.
Then, they met Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death.
“Doctor” Mengele would perform hideous experiments on twins. His goal was to find a way to find a way for every German woman to give birth to twins.
Every morning Mengele would come and count his twins, to see how many guinea pigs he had that day. After his count, the testing, the experiments would begin. This was the life of this girl and her sister.
The girl? She is Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of both Mengele and Auschwitz.
We’ve all heard or read stories about the Holocaust. How the Jewish people were taken from their homes, forced to work in camps with very little food and water. They would quickly become emaciated, marked for death. Others, the children and elderly, were sent to death camps, and “showers.”
The goal of the Nazi government, towards the Jewish people, was simple: get rid of all Jews in society. Overworking them, underfeeding them, and intentionally murdering the Jews occurred in all of the camps.
Of all the camps, Eva found herself in Auschwitz.
Auschwitz had only one major purpose, and that was to kill as many Jews as possible. We all know this. These are facts that have been established time and time again. Talking about these things is not why I wanted to speak to Eva Mozes Kor. I wanted to ask her about hope.
How did she find hope then, and how can we find hope today?
“There is a lot of hope in the world,” Eva said after I told her the subject of my article. “I am not exactly sure,” Eva began, then paused.
“There are two ways of looking at it. When a person, when I was between life and death, I don’t think the word is hope.”
Thinking about that period in history, the senseless murder of so many, I must agree. Maybe the there is a different word, something other than hope.
“The word is that I was not going to die,” said Eva. “I never ever, from the moment I saw the first dead body, I made a solemn pledge that I will not die, and my sister and I will walk out of the camp alive.”
Eva says that is a very important thing, this way of thinking, he philosophy on this subject.
“That is a very important thing; my philosophy is that we control only what is going into our minds. We do not control, often, what is happening around us and what’s being done to use. But we are always able to control our minds.”
Again, she is right. We can control our minds, what we think, how we react, and what we feel.
Far too many people are allowing their minds to be controlled by what others tell them, by the defeatist logic of others. In the camps during World War II, even there, some people took some perverse joy in telling their fellow Jews they were going to all die. That may have led some to resign themselves to a fate decided by another, and the eventual loss of their life.
Now, I am not saying that if one kept a positive mindset they would have survived the Holocaust. But controlling what you thought, controlling what went into your mind, I think could have helped just a bit. Maybe I’m wrong; I don’t know.
For Eva, it worked.
“The fact that I was able to put into my mind the decision, from that silent pledge, that I would survive, and my sister would survive also,” says Eva. “From that moment on, my mind was doing what I put into there.”
“That is an interesting thing,” Eva continues. “I get up every morning, for the last two years and I say ‘wow, I’m still alive. That’s pretty good. Let me see what I am going to do.’ And what I am going to do is always put something positive in my mind. You can call it hope, but I am calling it more than hope.”
Eva calls it a reason to live.
“What is hope?” Eva asks. “To put a positive thought in your mind. When one is facing death, the positive thought in the mind is to survive.”
Eva says that when you put the thought – the positive thought in your mind – you need to do an exercise for yourself. “Put in your mind, for five minutes, something negative,” she says, “and see how your mind is going to act.”
Her next step?
“Then, for an exercise, put in your mind I am going to do something good. I am going to do something to make the world better,” she says. “I don’t know exactly what. But, I am going to put in something that I am going to do that.”
Then she says your mind will come up with all kinds of ideas for doing something good, something positive.
I did this. Since speaking to Eva, I start each day with a positive thought. I think what I will do with this day that is positive and can make a positive impact. For the first few days, after placing the positive thought there, I thought of something negative for five minutes.
Dwelling on the negative, even for those few minutes, led me down a path of despair. I found that just one negative thought would lead to others, which would take me deeper into despair.
Now, I start each day with that positive thought, thinking what I can do to change the world for the better.
“Your mind is going to come up with all kinds of ideas,” says Eva. She’s right, it does. It acts on what you allow into it. “It’s an amazing organ,” she says of the brain.
“Everything good that happens in the world, of course, bad too, but if you put good things in your mind good things will happen,” she said.
“That is the way I understand it today,” Eva says.
“That was an instinct,” she adds, “that when I saw the dead bodies, the children on the floor, I said I was not going to end up there, and I was going to do everything for me and my sister to survive and walk out of this camp alive.”
For Eva, every time things became worse for her when she faced a bad situation in the camp, her thought was that she was not going to die.
Before long, she was put to the test.
“The most amazing thing was,” she recalls, “that when I was injected with that deadly germ, which I still do not know what it was, I was actually crawling on the barrack floor because I was between life and death. From the time I put that thought in my mind, I had made a second silent pledge.
When Mengele said I have only two weeks to live, I knew he was right, but I refused to accept it.”
It was then she said she was going to prove him wrong and walk out of the camp and reunite with her sister. At this point, Miriam, her sister, was in the barracks assigned to twins. Eva was in the barracks for the living dead.
What Mengele did was a test on one twin and use the other as the baseline. In this case, Eva was used as his “test” subject.
“On the other hand,” says Eva, “this very, very dramatic event always serves for me as a point of strength. I tell myself that if I can survive that, I always tell myself, I can survive anything.”
She’s right. How often do we complain about something we are going through, something we are experiencing that is not all that bad? We complain about traffic, the lines in Walmart. We complain about our jobs, our rate of pay. Things could be worse.
These people have had it worse than me. If they can make it, if they can continue, so can I.
“The word hope,” says Eva, “is a lot more deliberate in your mind [speaking of me] than it was in mine [speaking of herself back in 1944]” She didn’t want to die and end up among the vast numbers who were killed during the Holocaust. She wanted to walk out of that camp alive.
“I’m not sure you can call it hope,” she says. “It’s a decision when you are between life and death.” Eva admits she had no idea how to survive Auschwitz. I don’t think anyone knew.
Many others, not just Jewish people, ended up in Auschwitz, not all survived.
According to the United States Holocaust Museum, the best estimates of the number of victims at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, including the killing center at Auschwitz-Birkenau, between 1940 and 1945 are: Jews (1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, of whom 960,000 died); Poles (147,000 deported, of whom 74,000 died); Roma (23,000 deported, of whom 21,000 died); Soviet prisoners of war (15,000 deported and died); and other nationalities (25,000 deported, of whom 12,000 died).
It is estimated that the SS and police deported at least 1.3 million people to the Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945. Of these, the camp authorities murdered approximately 1.1 million.
Eva and her sister could have very easily become one of many who murdered.
“But that thought,” she says of wanting to live, “was very strong, very powerful as it was overriding everything.”
Everyday Eva wakes up and is glad she is alive. To herself, she says just that, “I’m alive, that’s good. What good thing can I do today.” It’s this that guides her life now, and she’s doing just that.
At eighty-four years old she is working to bring change to the world. She lectures at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which she founded. She also travels all over delivering lectures about the Holocaust. That’s not all.
On Twitter, she has advocated for peace in Iran during their demonstrations and struggle for freedom.
She even began to hear back from some of the protesters in Iran. They expressed their joy and happiness that someone was listening to them and sharing their message.
“So, what I am saying to you,” says Eva, “every morning, every day, you want to do just one nice thing, for somebody, to make a difference in somebody’s life. First of all, when you do it, it will make you feel very good, that you have the power to do something good. And that’s already a plus, right?”
It is, it’s already a plus knowing you can do this!
“Whose control is that,” asks Eva. “You are controlling what you put into your mind. Everybody controls what they put into their mind.”
Eva shared with me something from a lecture she gave last week to a group at the museum.
“Every single one of your minds is different from the others,” she began. “Every single one of you can put something good in your mind. Can you imagine what we can do with that? It doesn’t take any money. It doesn’t take a very big effort. It just takes the knowledge that you really are in charge of your own mind.”
Can you imagine what would happen if started our day with a positive thought? If we started our day with the idea of doing something good for someone else, and then going out and doing it? We would begin, in our way, to change the world for the better.
We can make it happen.
“What I really think, instead of putting hope, that I would say that I am not willing to give up on my life or my happiness,” says Eva. “And that thought always keeps me going. I am an unbelievable optimist. I always am convinced in my heart that things will turn out okay. That doesn’t mean that always they have, but I believe they will.”
This is one of the many truths I learned from Eva. That we should never give up, never lose sight of our happiness, that we should start our day positively. Every day is a new day to start fresh.
“If you call that hope,” Eva said, “fine.”
Another lesson I learned, and I do want to share this here because – to me – it is rather amazing, is the gift of forgiveness.
Can you imagine forgiving a Nazi doctor, who knew how the gas chambers operated, after you survived the camps? Eva did just that.
“How does this happen?” Eva began. “He was willing to meet me, and tell me, and I never even planned to ask him how the gas chambers operated. That just popped into my head when I was sitting with him. And when he told me how the gas chambers operated, I said I want you to come with me to Auschwitz, I’m going there in 1995, and I want you to sign a document at the ruins of the gas chambers, where it happened, and I wanted witnesses there when he signed it.”
She said she didn’t know it was going to be so easy, to ask him to do this. He agreed, and in 1995 they met at Auschwitz. He signed the letter, about how the gas chambers worked. That act and agreeing to talk about what he knew was phenomenal, it was important. Eva made it happen.
Here was a Nazi doctor, admitting, and signing his name to a document, that shows these events happened, and how they happened. Such testimonies are important. Why? As Eva says, as I’ve heard, there are those who say the Holocaust never happened, that it was just a Jewish invention.
In return, she wondered what she could give to this doctor.
“I wanted to thank this Nazi doctor,” she said, “for his willingness to document the gas chamber.”
She knew it was a crazy idea, a survivor thanking a Nazi. So she didn’t tell anyone about it.
“I was worried they would convince me, and talk me out of it,” she recalls. “They would say, ‘what are you, nuts? Crazy?’ “
“So, I was on my own, for ten months,” she says. “I was cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, driving the car. Every morning I would brainstorm, by myself, how can I send Dr. Munch, what can I give Dr. Munch.”
She is talking of Dr. Hans Munch; a member of the Nazi Party who worked at Auschwitz from 1943 to 1945. You can see the document he signed here
“Of course, a lot of crazy ideas, and not so crazy ideas popped into my head,” recalls Eva. “But none seemed appropriate.”
Then, ten months later, she had an idea.
“One morning I woke up and the following, simple idea popped into my head,” she says. “How about a letter of forgiveness from me to Dr. Munch. I immediately know that that was a meaningful gift for Dr. Munch and that he would like. But what I discovered for myself was life-changing.”
How did it change her life?
“I discovered,” says Eva, “that I had the power to forgive. No one could give me that power; no one could take it away. It was all mine to use it in any way I wished.”
Of course, not everyone has liked that she offered forgiveness to Dr. Munch.
There are those, within the various Jewish traditions, that feel one must not only repent but ask for forgiveness for it to be given. Eva, on the other hand, didn’t like that someone told her that he hated her act of forgiveness simply because Dr. Munch never asked for it.
“I didn’t know that,” “but I am asking you a question, would Mengele, Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels be alive today, do you think they would repent and ask forgiveness.”
Of course, the person she was talking to said that was absurd. We all know that they would not have repented nor asked for forgiveness.
“I said, you know what,” Eva recalls, “I refuse to be a victim for the rest of my life.”
“I refuse to be a victim,” says Eva. “I would like to pass an amendment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that every human being on the face of this earth has the human right to be happy and be free from any past pains imposed on them. Because I declare that I am happy and I am free. I would like everybody to know that. I further state that I have found the secret to world peace, forgiveness.”
From Eva, from our conversation, I have learned that forgiveness is a powerful thing.
Before my conversation with her, I had a very different mindset. I found it hard to forgive; I found it hard to not let the cares and worries of yesterday spill over into today.
Then there is all the political intrigue, the wars, hunger, homelessness. I also found it hard to see anything positive in this world we live in. How can there be?
That has changed.
I have begun to start my day by being especially thankful that I am still alive. I have life, so I can do something positive for someone else. Each morning I think of one way that I can do that. If I decided to feed someone who is hungry that day I will go out of my way to make that happen. Whatever I chose I feel happy for having done it.
Then there is my past. All the things done to me at the hands of those who should have loved me, nurtured me, cared for me, I’m not going to let them victimize me any longer. I am not going to let them have control over me, all these years they have been dead, those years being a victim have been a waste. Not any longer. I have found a way to forgive them.
These are things we can do. Wake up with the realization that you have the power to do something good, something positive, and do it. You may not see it right away, but it will begin to make a difference in your life, and the lives around you.
Then, if you’ve been carrying past pains, hurts, memories, forgive that person. By holding on to those things, you continue to allow them to victimize you, to control you.
As Eva said during our conversation, they are still holding you hostage. Free yourself by forgiving them and moving on.
For the last week, I’ve been doing this. I’ll tell you; I am a happier person. Over time, I will be a better person for this. I give Eva the credit for this change in me.
“If you teach children to read and write and arithmetic,” says Eva, “I am in the process of working with a professor to teach children, at young age, to forgive. A person who forgives is free of all the pain and burden, and they are in charge of their life. I call forgiveness an act of self-healing, self-liberation, self-empowerment. I don’t need anybody’s approval, anybody’s acceptance, anybody’s permission. I can do it because I want to be free, and I believe I have the human right to be free.”