One of the most Christ-like people I have ever met was a 4’6” Jewish woman. Her name was Eva Kor. She died this summer.
Eva left this world doing what was most important to her — leading a teaching tour at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. She and her sister Miriam had been among the “Mengele twins,” children experimented on by the so-called “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele. That fact alone assured them a place in history. Decades later, Eva would leave her mark on history for a far different reason.
Stricken with grief after the premature death of her twin, Eva went on a quest to track down her Nazi captors. She found one: Dr. Hans Munch. His job had been to sign the death certificates of those who perished in the gas chambers. That encounter sparked a remarkable transformation in Eva.
Though liberated from Auschwitz, the anger and hatred she felt for her Nazi tormentors held her captive. To walk out of that interior prison, Eva realized she would have to find a way to forgive the Nazis.
That she did in 1995. Standing in front of the camp, with the international press recording the moment, she spoke these words, “I, Eva Mozes Kor, a twin who survived as a child of Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz 50 years ago, hereby give amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others.”
I can only imagine the courage that took. When I interviewed Eva for “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” on PBS-TV, she showed me a photo of her as a child with her mother, father, two older sisters and Miriam standing in an apple orchard. I remember the lump in my throat when she added, “Everybody here except me are dead.”
Eva spoke to countless school and civic groups about the healing power of forgiveness. I often think of her when I find it hard to forgive members of my own family for old wounds, or former bosses for injustices endured in the workplace. Forgiving is part of the hardest work of life. If Eva could forgive the seemingly unforgivable, can I have the same courage?
“Forgiveness is nothing more and nothing less but an act of self-healing — an act of self-empowerment,” she told me.
In forgiving the Nazis, she said, “I immediately felt a burden of pain was lifted from my shoulder — that I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, that I was no longer a prisoner of my tragic past, that I was finally free.”
While a steely will to survive defined Eva’s life, a good sense of humor also helped. The day before she died at the age of 85, she tweeted that she had just eaten chicken McNuggets at a McDonald’s near Auschwitz. “That would have been wonderful 75 years ago,” she observed.
She called forgiveness “the modern miracle medicine” You “don’t have to belong to an HMO. There is no co-pay, therefore, everybody can afford it.”
My friend Nancy Konopasek wrote that she visited with Eva just five weeks ago in Indiana, where Eva lived in Terre Haute. Though frail, Eva delighted in romping around with Nancy’s young grandson Mike on that visit.
A part of her story Eva didn’t stress is that she lost her faith in God as result of her experience in Auschwitz.
“I don’t know if there is a God or not. And if there is, I want a debate when I go up there,” she told me. We can only imagine the intense conversation that might be taking place right now. I prefer to picture Eva finally reunited, for all eternity, with her parents, two older sisters and her twin Miriam in that apple orchard they were forced to leave behind.
Eva’s legacy is the CANDLES Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute. The name stands for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. I urge everyone to visit the museum’s website and consider ways to continue Eva’s important work of peacemaking.
Eva died on Independence Day, a time when Americans remember their hard-won freedoms. In this period in which our own government is holding immigrants and asylum seekers under inhumane conditions in what witnesses have described as “concentration camps” at the border, we need to remember that Eva herself was an immigrant, an asylum seeker, and a refugee. We need to examine what kind of nation we want to be. What kind of nation, what kind of people, does Eva call us to be?