Is it possible to forgive someone who has committed a terrible crime against you and caused you and your family a great deal of suffering? Eva Kor – a woman far better placed to comment on this than most of us – believes that it is.
Eva is a Holocaust survivor. Not only did she manage to survive the Nazi concentration camps she also, remarkably, survived the experiment laboratory of the notorious Dr Josef Mengele, the so-called ‘Angel of Death’. Her personal journey towards forgiving one of the most wicked human beings in recent history, is at the heart of the film ‘Forgiving Dr Mengele’, which I watched tonight at The Wiener Library – the world’s oldest institution devoted to the study of the Holocaust, its causes and legacies.
We first meet Eva as a realtor, in Indiana, where she lives with her husband (a fellow Holocaust survivor) and adult children. Vibrant and outgoing, Eva has come a very long way from the horrors she experienced as a child – but gradually her story unfolds. Born in 1934 in Romania, into a large Jewish family, Eva’s childhood was initially happy. By 1940, however, the country was under occupation by the Nazis, leading to the eventual deportation of tens of thousands of its Jewish population – including Eva and her family, in 1944.
Arriving at Auschwitz Eva and her sister, Miriam, were immediately selected for Mengele’s twin experiments. Human guinea pigs, they endured medical experiments which lasted up to eight hours, during which they were injected with various toxic substances as part of Mengele’s quest to understand genetic inheritance. A brilliant and ruthless scientist, Mengele was thriving at Auschwitz, revelling in the lack of constraints placed upon the people running the camp.
Before long, Eva became very ill, but “I refused to die.” Knowing that, if she did lose her life, Miriam would be executed for the purposes of a dual autopsy, Eva hung on doggedly. Her bravery and tenacity paid off, as nine months after her recovery Auschwitz was liberated – and she and Miriam were free. Tragically, the other members of her family were not so fortunate – their mother, father and two older sisters had all perished in the camp.
Post-war, Eva gradually rebuilt her life, completing her education and, in due course, emigrating from Romania to Israel with Miriam. In 1960, she met her husband, Michael, an American citizen, and they moved to the U.S.
Having coped well for a long time, Eva says, with the legacy of the past, in 1984 she decided to return to Auschwitz, in an attempt to confront her demons. Taken ill on the plane, the visit, did not go as planned. One positive impact, however, was that a few months later – for the very first time – Eva and Miriam discussed what had happened to them in the camp. This was a huge step forward in their relationship and could not have been more timely – just eight years later, Miriam passed away, her body unable to cope any longer with its unformed kidneys. The injections inflicted upon her at Auschwitz had prevented her kidneys from growing to any bigger than those of a ten-year-old child – the age she was when she arrived in the camp.
Living in a different country, Eva was unable to reach her sister’s home in time to attend her funeral – and the moment in the film when she talks about how she has never been able to bury any member of her family breaks your heart. Pain, and grief, are etched across her face.
It was losing Miriam in this way which set Eva upon a road she has been travelling along ever since – and which is the focus of this film. From a practical perspective, she was keen to learn more what she and Miriam had been injected with in Auschwitz, i.e. the reason behind Miriam’s untimely death. Also, Eva says, she knew by then that she wanted to share her experiences with younger generations; educate them about the Holocaust.
Mengele (I can’t bring myself to refer to him as “Dr”), had passed away some years earlier in South America – having, alas, eluded capture at the close of the war and never faced any reckoning for his actions. Eva was aware, however, that another SS doctor, Dr Hans Münch – the only Nazi officer to be acquitted post-war (and who had worked with Mengele) – was still alive. Indeed, in the face of much opposition, Münch had attended the 50th anniversary Auschwitz liberation commemoration, where he had read out a personal statement.
How she was able to bring herself to do this I do not know, but Eva flew to Bavaria to meet with Münch – and their meeting is included in the film. We see him tell Eva that, although he knew Mengele, he was not involved with any of the experiments – and that he still suffers nightmares about the camp. It was interesting, watching the reactions of the people sitting around me to this, they obviously couldn’t believe that Münch had not played any part in what was happening around him (we should be mindful, though, that post-war dozens of Auschwitz survivors testified for him at his trial).
With huge generosity of spirit, Eva is filmed after her meeting with Münch talking about how surprised she was by the “kindness and respect” he showed her – and how she was able to forgive him for his role in the War. In due course, she goes on to say, this act of forgiveness led her to forgiving Josef Mengele – an act which has brought her ceaseless, often brutal, criticism.
Throughout the film Eva talks, extremely eloquently, about the freedom that forgiveness has brought her. Forgiveness, she argues, has nothing to do with the perpetrator – or, indeed, with religion. It is not a question of forgetting, or of asserting that the slate has been wiped clean. Instead, forgiveness “frees your soul – and sets you free. After all, getting even has never helped anyone.”
Inevitably, Eva’s outlook has drawn objections from other Holocaust survivors, some of whom appear in the film. She has no right, they say, to forgive on behalf of the millions of people who were murdered – horribly – in the Holocaust. And how can you, they say, forgive someone who has never apologised for their actions or even accepted that what they did was wrong?
For her part, Eva says that the act of forgiveness has been “life changing”. Finally, she is free from the power that the Nazis held over her: “what they have done is no longer hurting me”. No longer a victim, she founded CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which was subsequently destroyed by arsonists – watching Eva’s reaction when she learns of its destruction is one of the most upsetting moments of the film – incredibly, she does, eventually, bring herself to forgive the perpetrators.
How humbling. And how lucky we are to have people like Eva in our midst, guiding us – and leading by example. I have no idea how I would behave, or what I would feel if I had experienced even a fraction of what Eva has been through. The film doesn’t portray her as perfect – we see her, on a visit to Palestine, unable to engage with the Palestinians or listen to their views, which surprised me.
Isn’t that one of the things that’s so fascinating about human beings, though? We are all a mass of contradictions, trying to make sense of a world which can be bewildering, unpredictable and sometimes downright terrifying. A little less terrifying, though, thanks to Eva Kor, her humanity and her incredible generosity of spirit.