Eva Mozes Kor is a survivor – a survivor of the Holocaust; a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp; and a survivor of inhuman medical experiments conducted by notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Yet this diminutive, courageous woman can still joke that she’s now just trying to survive old age.
Kor was in Wilmington just before Thanksgiving break to share her remarkable story with the student body at Padua Academy, where she outlined lessons learned from overcoming – and conquering – unimaginable obstacles, including a moving message of forgiveness.
The 4-foot-9 85-year-old is funny, honest and surprisingly lacking any bitterness or hatred about a childhood marred with atrocities and conditions which nearly killed her.
Kor’s visit was particularly significant for about forty Padua seniors taking a class on the history of Naziism. With a promise in memory of her mother, Kor tells each of her audiences, “Mom, I will tell our story because the world must know.”
Kor traveled to Wilmington from Terre Haute, Indiana, where she, her husband and children have lived for nearly 60 years – thousands of miles from the Nazi concentration camp where she and her sister Miriam were subjected to starvation, isolation and unspeakable human medical experiments — just because they were twins.
The Auschwitz tattoo is still emblazoned on her left arm – A-7063.
For decades, the World War II Holocaust survivor shunned opportunities to talk about her past. Probably because she remembers so much.
Growing up in a tiny village in Transylvania, Romania, Eva Mozes remembers the first book she received as a student.
“The book had a math problem. The math problem went something like this: if you have 5 Jews and you kill 3, how many are left? I know that may sound extreme to you. But everything at that time in Hungary, Transylvania, and other occupied territories was about catching and killing Jews. It was advocated and rewarded.”
In 1942, Eva became aware of two new laws that restricted the lives of Jewish people in Hungary. Wise beyond her years, Eva saw this as a signal of foreboding.
“So here I am, 8 years old, I could feel in every ounce of my being that we were in great danger. And I said to my father,’ Daddy, the time has come for us to escape to Romania.’ The Romanian border was only one hour by foot from our house, and the rumor was that lives for Jews in Romania was much better than in Hungary, and it turns out to be correct. Most of the Jews in Romania survived, while most of the Jews in Hungary were murdered.”
In March of 1944, the Mozes family was removed from their home and taken to a “regional ghetto” in Hungary where there was no shelter, no sustenance, and where Eva’s father was repeatedly interrogated and tortured. They lived there – under sheets as tents – for 2 months.
“These were actual prisons – surrounded by tall barbed wire fences and bricks. When my father was brought back from interrogation, he was brought back on a stretcher with bleeding whip marks, and all his fingernails and toenails were burnt. They kept asking him, ‘Where did you hide your gold?’ And my father kept telling them, ‘I am a farmer, I keep my money in land.’ They didn’t believe him. But it was true.”
Eva and her sister were separated from her mother, father and two older sisters almost immediately after they were transported in a ‘cattle car’ to Germany. It was on a patch of land called “the selection platform” where Eva heard the last words she would ever hear from her mother.
“Holding onto mother for dear life, I saw a Nazi running in the middle of the platform yelling in German, “Twins! Twins!” We did not volunteer any information. He noticed us, and he demanded to know from my mother if we were twins. And my mother asked, “is that good?” And the Nazi said, “Yes.” And my mother said, ‘Yes.’
“At that moment, another Nazi came, pulled my mother to the right, and we (Eva and her sister) were pulled to the left. We were crying, she was crying. And all I remember is seeing her arms stretched out in despair as we were pulled away. I never even got to say goodbye to her. But I didn’t really understand that this would be the last time I would see her. All of that took about 30 minutes from the time we stepped out from the cattle car and my whole family was gone.”
Eva and Miriam were only 10-years-old.
Eva recounted to the Padua students virtually every memory in her ordeal as a concentration camp detainee. From her first days there — witnessing 13 sets of twins bring tattooed, to Eva biting the Nazi who tried to tattoo her, to finding the scattered corpses of children on her first visit to the latrine.
“I had never seen anybody dead before; but to me, that became clear: that in this place, children were dying.
Starved for food, mothers and fathers, human kindness, and existing in deplorable conditions that included lice, rats and unimaginable filth and misery, Eva made a silent pledge to herself that she is convinced saved her life and Miriam’s.
“That I would do anything and everything within my power to make sure that Miriam and I should not end up on that filthy latrine floor, that somehow we will survive and walk out of this camp alive.”
Kor recounted how she and her sister were used in experiments which involved physical injections, withdrawals of blood and all-day observations where the pair would be denied the opportunity to wear clothes. Some of those experiments made Eva and her sister extremely sick, to the point of near death.
Finally, after months of abuse and starvation, Eva and Miriam we were liberated from Auschwitz by the Soviet army on January 7, 1945. They were the only surviving members of their family.
This Holocaust survivor has recently come to forgive those who committed unspeakable horrors against herself, her twin sister and her Romanian family. Forgiveness, she says, reminds her that she is free. With her power to forgive she says she is no longer is she a victim of Auschwitz nor is she a prisoner of her tragic past.
She urged the students at Padua to learn to forgive, explaining that forgiveness is an act of self-healing. “Forgive your worst enemy. It will heal your soul and set you free. And it’s free — everyone can afford it.”
Kor’s life story and her message resonated deeply with students, including senior Lauren Mottel. “Just the pure feeling of forgiveness – of personal healing – is so central to who Eva is. And I think anyone with any struggle they might have might be able to take away something from that,” said Mottel.
Senior Sarah Jane Mee felt that Kor connected with everyone in the room. “I think about my life as an 8-year-old, and I don’t remember any of it. And the fact that she has been through such trauma and such struggle and was still up there cracking jokes, making us laugh and relating to us – that really connected us to her life’s story. It’s just worth so much.”
And Zehra Mahmud, also a senior, said Kor’s talk was an invaluable lesson in history. “I think today was just so important because people who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. And we have to educate ourselves on how bad some parts of our history were. Before this class (Nazi History), I had heard about the Holocaust, but I didn’t know the severity. And now I have a much deeper understanding and I can empathize with the people who are going through genocides today.”