Forgiving Hitler

Tomorrow, Jan 27 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Eva Kor, a victim of Josef Mengele's horrific experiments on children, will be there. Her life journey has led her to something unexpected: forgiveness.

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Asked why she didn’t have the blurred, bluegreen SS tattoo on her left arm removed: “Why should I do more pain to myself? I forgive Hitler, I forgive Mengele… I forgive them all.” Photo by Robin Orlando

January 27 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Eva Kor will be there, as she has every year since she began her quest to find out more about the gruesome experiments Josef Mengele performed on her and her twin sister as children. A quest that brought her on an unexpected and controversial path: forgiveness.

Aided by a walking frame and demurely attired in blue slacks and a cheery, floral blouse, 80-year-old Eva Mozes Kor stands in the middle of what used to be Auschwitz’ selection ramp, addressing her 80-strong travel group. Among them are Rainer Höß, 47, the grandson of executed Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höß; and Michael Wörle, 53, grandson of Baron Dr. Otmar von Verschuer, director of Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and a rabidly anti-Semitic Nazi eugenicist who guided Josef Mengele’s experiments on identical twins. Both descendants are dedicated anti-Nazi campaigners.

It was here that the 10-year-old little girl (then Eva Mozes) arrived in mid-May, 1944, crammed into a cattle wagon with her family and 1300 other Hungarian and Romanian Jews. The Mozes’ ill fortune was to be the solitary Jewish family in the Romanian village of Porț. Kor’s father began praying the second he saw black-uniformed SS guards and their snarling dogs surround the train. “Suddenly the adults realised we had not been delivered to the safety of a Hungarian work camp as had been promised. They had heard rumours about the Germans killing Jews, but now the rumours were about to become reality. My father, mother and two older sisters all perished within 30 minutes of arriving.” They were among the 430,000 Jews slaughtered at the camp over 56 days in a mass action personally overseen by Rudolf Höß.

A fluke of nature spared Eva Kor from the 20-metre march into the gas chambers: she and her sister Miriam were identical twins. The two girls were singled out to for what could have been a slower, more agonising demise at the hands of Auschwitz’s infamous “Angel of Death”: SS doctor Josef Mengele.

Eva Kor’s manhunt led her to the doorstep of SS doctor Hans Münch – an 80-year-old man dogged by nightmares since his acquittal at the Krakow trials in 1947. To Kor’s surprise, she found she liked Dr. Münch. Auschwitz’s horrors bounded perpetrator and victim.

During his time at the camp, from 1943 until just before its liberation in January 1945, Mengele experimented on 1500 pairs of twins, ostensibly with the goal of proving the dominance of heredity over environment – and thus the superiority of the “Aryan race”. Backed by Von Verschuer’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (now the Max Planck Institute), he forced his subjects to undergo grisly procedures from limb amputation to sex-change operations. If one twin died during an experiment, the other – used as the ‘control group’ – would be immediately killed so the bodies could be compared.

Kor recalls the crematoriums belching smoke and flames 24 hours a day. White ash rained down day and night. Carts rolled past her barracks hauling the dead and dying to be burned in the crematoriums. An all-pervading stench filled the camp and surrounding environs.

She and Miriam were consigned to Mengele’s lab, where they received mysterious injections. At one point, Eva Kor was injected with what she believes was beriberi, a nerve disease. Her arms and legs swelled like balloons. Angry welts covered her body. Kor recalls Mengele’s sadistic comment upon seeing her condition: “Ach, so jung und nur noch zwei Wochen zu leben.” (“Pity, so young and just two weeks to live.”) His arrogance sparked Kor’s iron-willed determination to survive and defeat the “Angel of Death”, if only to spare Miriam from landing on Mengele’s autopsy table along with her. After a two-week-long life-and-death struggle, Kor’s fever subsided.

As Eva Kor recounts her Auschwitz nightmare, a group of visiting German students break out into uncontrolled wailing. “Don’t cry,” says Kor, grabbing for their hands. “It’s not your fault. You don’t have to carry the burden for what your ancestors did.” Later the students want to know why she didn’t have the blurred, blue-green SS tattoo on her left arm removed. “Why should I do more pain to myself? I forgive Hitler, I forgive Mengele, I forgive the Nazis. I forgive them all,” she answers.

Kor’s long trek to inner peace and forgiveness began in 1978. By then living in the US and married to fellow Holocaust survivor Michael Kor, she found herself wondering what had happened to the other experiment subjects. She and Miriam founded the CANDLES support group (“Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors”) in the Midwest town of Terre Haute, Indiana. Their mission? Track down their estimated 200 fellow survivors and shed light on the actual nature of the Auschwitz twins experiments.

The sisters managed to find 122 survivors in 10 countries on four continents, each facing a multitude of issues and horrors. One still struggled with the nightmare of his twin brother turning cold and dying in his arms after Mengele removed his genitals in a botched sex-change operation.

In 1987, Auschwitz’s lethal legacy hit the Kor twins themselves: Miriam’s kidneys failed. Doctors discovered that as a result of Mengele’s experiments, they had never grown beyond the size of a 10-year-old girl’s. Kor donated one of her own, but Miriam’s new lease of life lasted just six years. On June 6, 1993, she passed away at 59, leaving Kor devastated – and more determined than ever to get to the bottom of what had happened at Auschwitz. She had to discover the cause of Miriam’s premature death.

Kor decided to track down Auschwitz’s doctors to find out more. Her manhunt led her to the doorstep of SS doctor Hans Münch in a town two hours away from Munich. She found an 80-year-old man dogged by nightmares and depression. Münch had been recruited to help maintain hygiene conditions at the camp; another task of his was to observe the death throes of those being executed in the gas chambers. Other Holocaust survivors Kor talked to described him as “more humane” than his fellow Nazis, a reputation that helped lead to his acquittal in the 1947 Krakow trials – he had shaken hands with inmates when nobody else would, and was said to have kept some 30 of his patients from being killed by prolonging their experiments. To Kor’s surprise, she found she liked Dr. Münch. Auschwitz’s horrors bounded perpetrator and victim.

In January 1995, Münch accompanied Kor and her two children, Rina and Alex, to Auschwitz to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation. In the presence of his own son, daughter and grandchild, Münch signed a statement describing his role in Auschwitz and the scenes he had witnessed. Kor says Münch’s gesture lifted a 50-year-long burden of pain from her shoulders. She signed her own document, stating:

“I, Eva Mozes Kor, in my name only and as a twin who survived 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. It is time to go on; it is time to heal our souls; it is time to forgive, but never forget.”

A friend who had helped her check spelling on the letter suggested she should forgive Mengele as well. After the initial shock wore off, Kor decided to do the unimaginable. In her text, she added: “It gives me no joy to see any Nazi criminal in jail, nor do I want to see any harm come to Josef Mengele or the Mengele family…”

According to CANDLES secretary Beth Nairn, the effect of forgiving Mengele was that of a transformation. “When I first met Eva, she was an extremely closed-off person. But after she’d made her decision to forgive Mengele, she changed overnight. Suddenly she was the complete opposite of the person she had been,” says Nairn.

Her gesture didn’t please everyone. Angry Holocaust survivors say Kor has no right to speak for them, let alone forgive Hitler and Mengele for their unspeakable crimes against humanity. Of the world’s estimated 500,000 remaining Holocaust survivors, Kor is alone in her position. “But forgiveness is the only way forward,” she says. “Anger and hate germinate war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace. It is also the ultimate act of self-healing.”

While Kor channels her newfound energies into preaching her gospel of peace and forgiveness, one thing still weighs heavily on her mind: her goal of locating Mengele’s records on twins experiments. In the days leading up to Auschwitz’s 1945 liberation, most documents went down in flames as the SS tried to cover their criminal tracks. Yet, Mengele reportedly managed to remove two boxes containing his medical records. Only a few documents remained intact at the site.

At Auschwitz’s museum, some of those documents confirmed that Kor was subjected to tests with syphilis and had scarlet fever rubbed into her gums. But a chilling discovery among the SS records kept in the German Federal Archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde raised new questions about Kor’s time at the camp.

Documents there describe Hitler’s infatuation with a chemical known as N-Stoff (“Substance N”), or chlorine trifluoride – a highly volatile, explosive compound. Used on humans, it attacks the lungs, liver, kidneys and mucous membranes, asphyxiating its victims. Impatient with the German Army’s slow progress with N-Stoff tests on animals, Hitler ordered SS chief Heinrich Himmler to commence testing the chemical on concentration camp inmates in late July 1944. This correlates with Kor’s memories of being smeared with a mysterious black substance that nearly suffocated her. “That’s the way I learned that we breathe through our skin,” says Kor. US Holocaust records include a picture of a tiny naked girl, possibly Kor, covered in a black liquid.

Yet without Mengele’s documents to confirm the contents of the substance, Kor’s mission of discovering exactly what tortures she survived as a 10-year old girl remains as elusive as the Holy Grail.

Certainly the SS made several copies of Mengele’s experiments on twins in Auschwitz. Perhaps somewhere in a German university’s catacombs lies a copy of Mengele’s “life work” gathering dust, although Von Verschuer certainly ensured Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute destroyed all traces of his favourite student’s records in order to escape prosecution as a war criminal. Perhaps a copy lies within Mengele’s close-knit Munich family, but as they protected him right up to his 1979 death by drowning in Brazil, the chances of their release are those of a snowflake in hell. Perhaps there is a copy in South America, where Mengele sought and found refuge under a string of false names.

Until the records surface, Kor’s quest will go on. She says she owes it not just to herself or her beloved twin sister Miriam, but to the 2800 children in Auschwitz who paid with their lives for Mengele’s and Von Verschuer’s criminal experiments. At least one thing is certain. Aided by Eva Kor’s indomitable spirit, the search for Mengele’s records is in safe, inspirational hands.