Photo by Caleb Revill / MTSU Sidelines
Holocaust survivor Eva Kor spoke about her experience in Auschwitz to a full auditorium of guests at Central Magnet School on Tuesday.
The speech brought local high school students, parents, MTSU students and citizens of Murfreesboro together in droves. After seating was filled, many more guests stood along the sides of the auditorium.
On the stage, there was one chair, a table and a microphone. As the crowd of attendees began to settle, Kor stepped up onto the main stage.
After she had sat down, she spoke into the microphone and asked that she may share the stage with those in the audience so that they would not have to stand. Shortly after, she was enveloped by an audience of people sitting with her on the stage.
Kor began to tell her story.
Kor said that she was born in the Transylvania region of Romania. She lived with her father, mother and two older sisters. She also had a twin sister named Miriam. Kor’s family was the only family in their small village of around 100 people that was Jewish.
In May of 1940, almost a year after the start of World War II, Transylvania was occupied by the Hungarian army.
“With the occupation, everything changed,” Kor said. “My father had to go every two weeks to the nearby police station. If he didn’t, he was going to be arrested, and that was always the threat.”
Kor recalled the growing tensions directed toward the Jews at the time.
“In school, the first thing the kids learned was to call us was ‘dirty Jews,’” Kor said. “Children were taught at a very early age to hate, and they were very good at learning that.”
Kor said that, following the occupation, there were two new laws passed every year in Transylvania to restrict the lives of the Jewish people.
“The year that I remember the best was 1942,” Kor said. “I was eight years old. The two new laws that they passed (were) that Jews could not hire anybody but Jewish people. That meant that (my family) couldn’t hire anybody because we were the only Jews in our village.”
Travel for her family was also greatly hindered through the implementation of these laws.
“(The) second law was that we could not travel anywhere without a special traveling permit,” Kor said.
Life continued this way for Kor and her family for another two years, until 1944.
“In 1944, two soldiers with guns came to our house (and) gave us two hours to pack food and clothing because they were going to take us to a regional ghetto,” Kor said.
Kor explained that the European ghettos at the time were not the same as ghettos today in the United States.
“They were actual prisons with guards with guns,” Kor said. “The ghetto was an open field, surrounded by tall barbed-wire fences. There was only one building: the Kommandant’s headquarters. We built our own tents out of sheets and blankets.”
Kor said her family was taken to the ghetto in March of 1944. They were there until May. During this time, the head of every family was interrogated regularly.
“(My father) was brought back from interrogation on a stretcher, (and he) was bleeding with marks. All of his fingernails and toenails were burned, because they kept asking him, ‘Where did you hide all your gold?’ He said, ‘I am a farmer. I don’t buy gold. I buy land.’ They didn’t want to believe it, but it was true.”
Afterwards, Kor’s family was notified that they would be taken to a labor camp in Hungary. They were loaded onto cattle cars, with around 100 people per car.
“Between each two cattle cars, there was a booth with a guard with a machine gun,” Kor said. “He told us ‘anyone trying to escape, I am going to shoot.”
Kor explained that once the train started moving, it would move very fast and would only stop to refuel. The guards rarely distributed water.
“When the train stopped, we asked the guard by our cattle car for water,” Kor said. “We were unbelievably thirsty. The guard would say, ‘Five gold watches.’ The grown-ups gathered the gold watches and passed them through the little barbed-wire window. Then he picked up a bucket and threw the water through the windows. I never got more than a few drops, and I don’t think that anybody else did.”
Kor recalled that she had the urge to ask why everyone was trading gold watches for such little water. She never asked her parents why though.
“I wondered, years later, ‘Why didn’t I talk to my parents?’” Kor said. “And as I was replaying these memories in my mind, I realized that nobody was talking in the cattle car. Everybody was silent. I came to the conclusion that people who are scared to death do not vocalize their thoughts.”
After three nights of being packed in the cattle cars, Kor’s family asked for water. This time, the answer would come back to them in German.
“I instantly understood what happened, as did everybody in our cattle car,” Kor said. “We had crossed the border to Germany. We were not being taken to Hungary to a labor camp, but we were being taken to Germany to be murdered.”
Kor explained that during the four years of occupation, she and others had heard rumors that the Jews were being taken to Germany to be murdered.
After another eight hours of traveling in the cattle car, the train stopped again. This time, there was no one to ask for water. Kor heard the voices of many Germans shouting, and the cattle car doors began to open.
“Thousands of people poured out onto a little strip of cement known as a ‘selection platform,’” Kor said. “I couldn’t believe that there is any strip of land anywhere on the face of this earth that has witnessed so many people being ripped apart from their family forever.”
As Kor stepped out, her mother grabbed her and her twin sister by their hands. As Kor looked around, she realized that her father and two older sisters were gone. She never saw them again.
Kor, her mother and Miriam lined up in front of a German soldier. He saw that Kor and Miriam looked alike and asked their mother if they were twins.
“My mother asked, ‘Is that good?’ The Nazi said yes, and my mother said yes,” Kor said. “At that moment, another Nazi came (and) pulled my mother to the right. We got pulled to the left, and as we were crying, she was crying.”
At this moment in her speech, Kor’s voice began to slightly tremble from the painful memory.
“All I really remember is seeing my mother’s arms stretched out in despair as she was pulled away,” Kor said. “I never even got to say goodbye to her.”
A silent pledge
After being separated from the rest of their family, Kor, Miriam, and other girls were taken to a processing center.
“Our clothes were immediately removed, and we sat naked on bleachers for most of the day,” Kor said.
Kor said that, later that afternoon, processing began. The girls had their hair shaved short, and their dresses were returned. They were then lined up for registration and tattooing.
After being processed, Kor and the others were taken to their housing. There were no windows and three-story high bunkbeds. When Kor went to bed that night, she noticed that there were many rats in the building.
“I jumped up screaming, ‘Mice! Mice!,’” Kor said. “A girl from the top bunk bed said, ‘Silly kid, these are not mice. These are rats, and you better get used to them.’”
The next morning, Kor went to the outhouse.
“When we entered the place, there was a place on the latrine floor with the scattered corpses of three children,” Kor said. “I had never seen anybody dead before.”
Kor said that after seeing that, she made a silent pledge. She said that she would do everything within her power to make sure that Miriam and herself would not end up on the latrine floor.
“I even developed an image in my mind (of) how Miriam and I might look if we walk out of this camp alive,” Kor said. “I never let go of that image until we were liberated.”
Kor said that the winter of 1945 was a very cold winter.
“At night, we huddled in our filthy bunk beds, crawling with lice and rats,” Kor said. “We were starved for food. Starvation in Auschwitz was a very big problem. We were starved for human kindness. We were starved for the love of the mother and father that we once had.”
Even through all of this hardship, Kor and Miriam acted on survival.
“We had a fierce determination to live one more day (and to) survive one more experiment.”
Kor was used in two types of experiments under Auschwitz doctor, Josef Mengele. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Kor was placed naked in a room with around 15 sets of twins for up to eight hours.
“They would try to measure every part of my body, and they were very detailed measurements,” Kor said. “They could spend three hours on one arm. Then they would compare me to my twin sister and compare me to charts.”
While Kor said that this set of experiments was not dangerous, she said that it had psychological impacts on her. Kor said that the only way that she could cope with it was by blocking it out of her mind.
On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, Kor said that she was taken to a lab that she called “‘the blood lab.”
“They would tie both of my arms to restrict the blood flow,” Kor said. “(They would) take a lot of blood from my left arm and give me a minimum of five injections into my right arm.”
After receiving the injections, Kor became very sick. She developed a high fever, her limbs began to swell, and her body became covered in red spots. She was taken to a hospital in a nearby barracks.
“The next morning, Dr. Mengele came in with four other doctors,” Kor said. “He never, ever, examined me. He looked at my fever chart and then declared, laughing sarcastically, ‘too bad, she’s so young. She has only two weeks to live.’ I knew he was right, but I refused to die.”
At this moment, Kor made a second silent pledge. She would prove Dr. Mengele wrong by surviving, and she would see her sister again.
The next two weeks would be a blur for Kor. She said that she only had memories of crawling on the barrack floor, fading in and out of consciousness.
“I kept telling myself: ‘I must survive. I must survive,’” Kor said.
After two more weeks, Kor’s fever broke, and she began feeling stronger. It would take another three weeks before she was well enough to be released and reunited with her twin sister.
“In Auschwitz, dying was very easy,” Kor said. “I often walked over dead bodies. Surviving was a full time job.”
In 1985, 40 years after liberation, Kor asked her sister about what she had experienced the weeks that Kor was left in the barracks. She found out that Miriam had been studied for those two weeks.
Miriam said that the doctors were waiting for something to happen to her and nothing ever did. Kor learned that the doctors were waiting for her to die so that they could measure the effects on Miriam. Afterwards, Miriam would have been killed.
Through surviving, Kor said that she “spoiled” the experiment.
“According to the Auschwitz museum, Mengele used 1,500 sets of twins in his experiments,” Kor said. “(This) means 3,000 individuals. At the time that Auschwitz was liberated, there were only 200 individuals of twins alike. Most of the twins died in the experiments. Some of them died because of the conditions of the camp.”
On January 27, 1945, Kor and the other Jews were liberated from Auschwitz by soldiers of the Soviet Union.
When Kor and Miriam arrived home, nearly everything was ransacked. All that remained were three family photos.
In 1950, Kor and Miriam received their visa and moved to Israel. There, they studied and went to agricultural school.
Upon turning 18, the twins were drafted into the Israeli army. Kor would stay in the Israeli army for eight years, earning the rank of sergeant major.
In 1960, Kor met and married a tourist from Terre Haute, Indiana. He was also a survivor of the Holocaust.
“When I met him in 1960, I came from Tel Aviv to Terre Haute,” Kor said.
Miriam got married in 1958. Two years later, she expected her first child, and her kidneys got infected. In 1963, during her second pregnancy, her kidneys got worse. Doctors investigated why this was happening.
“They found out that Miriam’s kidneys never grew larger than the size of a 10-year-old child,” Kor said.
Kor speculated that after she had survived Dr. Mengele’s injections, he decided to inject Miriam with something that stunted her kidneys. Dr. Mengele had suffered from kidney infections as a teenager.
Miriam had her third child in 1975. After this, her kidneys began to deteriorate. In 1987, Kor donated her left kidney to Miriam.
“A year later, (Miriam) developed cancerous polyps in her bladder,” Kor said.
Miriam would live for another five years.
Loss and forgiveness
Toward the end of her speech, Kor offered advice to the audience for how to be the “best possible you.” Ultimately, Kor spoke on the power of forgiveness.
“Forgive your worst enemy,” Kor said. “It will heal you, and it will set you free.”
Kor said that as she looked around in the world, many people were angry and mean to one another.
“If anybody would have asked me 24 years ago if I was going to forgive the Nazis, I would have told you, ‘Please, find a good psychiatrist. You must be crazy,’” Kor said. “I was a very, very good victim.”
Kor explained what it meant to be a victim. In her eyes, to be a victim was to be angry and hateful.
A turning point for Kor happened when she arrived home one night on June 6, 1993, with a message on her phone from her brother-in-law, which said that Miriam had died.
“I wasn’t really ready to deal with that yet,” Kor said. “I called Israel, because she lived in Israel, and I told my brother-in-law that I would catch the first flight to Israel. I had never buried any member of my family, and I wanted to say goodbye to her and have the chance to bury her.”
Kor was told that the funeral was in 10 hours. She would be unable to make it to Israel in time.
“I was left with a lot of pain,” Kor said. “I would wake up many nights, suffocating. I could feel how Miriam died. Her lungs were filled with cancer, and she suffocated in her sleep.”
In 1995, two years after Miriam’s death, Kor opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in memory of Miriam.
A month after Miriam had died, Kor received a phone call from John Michalcyzk, a professor at Boston College. He told Kor that he had heard her speak and wanted her to come to Boston for a conference.
Mihalchick also asked that Kor bring a Nazi doctor to the conference as well.
“I said, ‘Where exactly do you see them?’” Kor said. “They are not advertising in the yellow pages.”
Kor thought back on her time spent researching and interviewing in documentaries about the Holocaust. One documentary from 1992 that appeared on the German TV station ZDF stood out to her.
It was the last project that she and Miriam had worked on, and was about the Mengele twins experiments. In that film, she had met a Nazi doctor from Auschwitz.
“I contacted him,” Kor said. “His name was Hans Munch, and I invited him to come to Boston. He said to me (that) he was not going to Boston, but he was willing to meet with me in his house in Germany.”
They set up a day to meet in Germany. As the day drew closer and closer, Kor became more and more nervous.
“All the memories of the experiments came back,” Kor said. “I couldn’t even sleep for three days before departure. I was very scared, but I decided, even though I was scared, I was going to meet with him.”
Kor went to Munch’s house. She said that Munch treated her with the utmost respect, kindness and consideration.
“He told me he knew nothing about our experiment,” Kor said. “(He told me) that Mengele always said that the twins’ experiments were top-secret and (that) he didn’t share any details.”
Kor asked him if he knew how the gas chambers were operated. He explained to her that he did and described in detail the process of dropping gas into the supposed “shower rooms.”
Kor invited Munch to go to Auschwitz with her in 1995, where he would sign a document at the ruins of the gas chamber, verifying what he had told her. He agreed to do so.
After her experience with Munch, Kor decided that she wanted to do something to thank him for his willingness to meet with her and sign the document.
Kor had a very difficult time coming up with a way to thank him. For the next 10 months, Kor would brainstorm possible gifts for Munch.
“I woke up one morning, and the following thought came to my mind: ‘How about a letter of forgiveness from me to Dr. Munch,’” Kor said. “I knew immediately that that was a meaningful gift for Dr. Munch, but what I discovered for myself was life changing.”
“I discovered that I had the power to forgive,” Kor said. “No one could give it to me. No one could take it away.”
Kor explained that her discovery empowered her. She began writing a letter of forgiveness.
The process took her four months. While writing the letter, Kor received advice from with her former English professor, who was helping her to spell check.
“She said to me, ‘Now Eva, that is very nice that you forgive Dr. Munch, but your problem is not with Dr. Munch,’” Kor said. “‘Your problem was with Dr. Mengele.’”
Kor said that she was not prepared to forgive Dr. Mengele, but she convinced herself that it would make her feel better. Mengele wasn’t the only one she forgave.
“If I (can) forgive Mengele, the worst of (the Nazis), I decided to forgive anybody that could ever hurt me,” Kor said. “It’s very, very important to not let anybody (be) left unforgiven. As long as there are people you are angry with, you are still a victim.”
In 1995, Munch signed Kor’s “Declaration of Amnesty” in Auschwitz.
“I immediately felt that all the pain I had kept around for 50 years was lifted off my shoulders,” Kor said. “I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, nor was I a prisoner of my tragic past. I was free of Auschwitz. I was free of Mengele.”
To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email email@example.com.
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