THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS by Eva Kor
When she was 10 years old, Eva Mozes Kor and her twin sister were subjected to Josef Mengele’s infamous pseudoscientific medical experiments at Auschwitz. Out of a family of 6, the two girls were the only ones to survive the Holocaust. After the war, Kor emigrated to Israel, and then married and moved to the US, raising two children in Indiana. She spent much of her adult life educating and lecturing about the Holocaust, searching for other Mengele twins and opening the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1995, a museum dedicated to the twins of Auschwitz.
Then, on the 50th anniversary of her liberation from the concentration camp, Kor did something remarkable, controversial, and to some, unconscionable—she publicly forgave the Nazis who almost destroyed her.
In her last published book before her death in 2019, THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS—to be released in English for the first time in January 2021 by Central Recovery Press—Kor tells her life story, recounting in harrowing detail the horrors she faced at Auschwitz. She also reveals the one thing she found that alleviated her emotional and psychological suffering: forgiving—not forgetting and not excusing—those who inflicted the evilest of acts on her. Kor found self-healing and personal empowerment in letting go of the rage she harbored towards her Nazi captors for half a century. For her, it took away the power they held in her life. For the first time since her early childhood, she didn’t feel like a victim anymore.
This book is Kor’s offering to those plagued by pain, trauma, and hate around the world. She felt she found a potent antidote for the feeling of victimhood and felt a profound duty to share her message to help others. She spent the rest of her life speaking about how others can alleviate their own anger and anguish through the act of forgiveness.
Below is a Q&S with Leah Simpson, Executive Director of CANDLES, who spent several years working and traveling with Kor. She is available for interviews and can speak powerfully about Kor’s message about the power of forgiveness.
Q&A with Leah Simpson, Executive Director of CANDLES
Simpson worked side by side with Eva Kor for 3 years and traveled many times with her for lectures throughout the United States and on her teaching trips to Auschwitz, including on her very last one.
Eva Kor’s decision to publicly forgive the Nazis was extremely controversial—many Holocaust survivors felt betrayed by it. Can you speak to how she understood their criticism and why she continued with her message despite it?
Eva was bothered by the criticism. She forgave in her name only. When others criticized her decision, she felt as if they were saying she did not have the right to be happy or free from her pain. Also, she did not feel as if she had a strong response when her public forgiveness was questioned. After considerable time spent thinking about it, she finally decided upon this analogy: if she was a scientist and discovered a vaccine for cancer, everyone in the whole world would want her to share this. She truly felt that forgiveness had given her a cure from her pain and anger, and she wanted to shout it from every mountain top. She wanted to help anyone that was struggling with the same sort of pain that she had struggled with. Whether it be a victim of genocide, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or any other trauma, to her this freedom was a seed for peace, while anger was only a seed for war. And she much preferred to live in a peaceful world.
Surviving something as traumatic as the Holocaust is a rare experience. How do you think Eva’s message of forgiveness can translate to people who have suffered but on a much different scale?
Eva’s message of forgiveness translates because it allows people to consider forgiveness as a possibility. Writing an actual letter of forgiveness is a concrete way to heal and move on. She said that if you write a letter and you don’t feel better, you need to continue writing. And since it had worked for her, it could possibly work for others too.
Also, Eva was adamant that forgiveness was only for the victim and not for the perpetrator. The perpetrator does not need to ask for forgiveness; the victim does not have to wait to be asked. This frees the victim to forgive on his or her own terms. Also, after the victim writes a letter of forgiveness, this should not be mailed. It is for their eyes only. These two points allow forgiveness to never be taken away from the victim.
Eva also believed strongly that this type of forgiveness was not to be tied to any religion. She did not want to put a limit on who could access this healing.
How did forgiveness change Eva? How was she different before and after?
Eva was very angry and impatient with the world before she forgave. Today, when a picture pops up of Eva, you can usually tell if it is pre-forgiveness or post-forgiveness. Afterward, her face softened as did her demeanor. This is not to say that she was all of a sudden this wonderfully sweet grandmotherly figure; she always spoke her mind whether she agreed with those around her or not. But she was finally quick with a smile or a laugh.
There has been a dramatic rise in hate crimes in the United States over the past couple of years. How has the current political environment impacted your work?
The current political climate makes the museum feel a bit more pressured to share our work with a larger audience. We know that our mission is to spread hope, healing, respect, and responsibility; and we feel compelled to broaden our reach as quickly as possible. But on the flip side, it makes us a little leery. In 2003, the museum was firebombed and completely destroyed. In 2019, antisemitic literature was strewn in our parking lot. And in 2020, a Holocaust Remembrance Day event that we were participating in was “Zoom bombed”. There is always an armed guard at the museum when we are open to the public. We know that our work is important, and we are also aware that our work can put us in danger.
How has CANDLES’ work changed now that Eva has passed away? What are your most vital initiatives going forward?
Over the past 15 years, CANDLES and Eva have taken educational trips to Auschwitz. Guides would tell the history and then Eva would share her personal story, making it an extremely powerful one-of-a-kind experience. After Eva passed away, CANDLES created a ‘Journey through Auschwitz’ audio tour. This is a downloadable app that uses GPS. When a listener enters a specific location, Eva tells the coordinating story. There are over three hours of information for the listener. We were planning to use this for our summer 2020 trip, but unfortunately, COVID-19 had different plans. We look forward to a time when it’s safe to travel so that we can continue to share her important legacy.
2020 has been a challenge for the museum, but the staff has taken time to create new virtual information and also create more curriculum for classroom teachers. CANDLES is also a part of the Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony. We are currently creating a plan to get Eva’s hologram and story into classrooms since field trips have been canceled for the foreseeable future.