OSWIECIM, Poland (JTA) — Eva Kor believes in forgiveness.
Kor says she has forgiven Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted experiments on her and her twin sister, Miriam, at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
This week, Kor led 55 American teachers and students on a trip to her former place of torment, where she was liberated exactly 65 years ago.
“Here I am, this little guinea pig from Auschwitz, and I have the power to forgive Josef Mengele! And he can’t do anything about it,” the diminutive, energetic woman who will turn 76 on Saturday said this week at Auschwitz. “I stopped being a victim, and that makes me a very powerful person.”
Kor has been back to the concentration camp 13 times since 1945, many times as the leader of a tour in which she shares her memories and positive outlook. Most of those on her current trip, which was co-led by Kor’s son, Alex, heard about the trip from friends or relatives. Most are not Jewish.
On the trip’s first day, Kor showed the group where she and her sister had been held with other children at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Then they visited Auschwitz I and the museum where artifacts are stored — piles of hair, eyeglasses, prostheses, brushes and suitcases marked with the names of their owners, who thought they were going to be resettled, not murdered.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it: I saw so much,” said Sarah Connolly, a language arts teacher from Sheffield, Pa.
“I like the idea of forgiveness,” said Wendy Vencel, 13, of Batchelor Middle School in Bloomington, Ind. “I think you have to be really strong to do that.”
Vencel is one of eight students here with teacher Jeffrey Rudkin, whose film and video class held a chili supper and auction to raise funds for the trip. The group has been posting regular video updates of the trip on its Web site, btvpoland2010.ning.com.
Eva and Miriam Mozes, identical twins, were born in Portz, Romania. In the spring of 1944, the twins, their parents and two older sisters were deported to Auschwitz. The twins were among some 200 children liberated in January 1945. The rest of their family had been killed.
In all, nearly 1.5 million people were murdered in Auschwitz, 90 percent of them Jews.
The twins moved to Israel after the war. Eva married Michael Kor and they had two children, eventually settling in Terre Haute, Ind.
In 1984, Kor founded a survivors group called CANDLES: Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors, and later opened a small Holocaust museum. She wrote an autobiography, was instrumental in passing a state law mandating Holocaust education and was featured in the 2005 documentary “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.”
Though she decided to forgive, Kor does not forget, which is why she keeps returning to Auschwitz again and again.
Her forgiveness, too, has its limits.
“If I see anyone who wants to advocate ideas of Nazism, I cannot forgive them,” she said. “And Israel cannot go to guys who are blowing up pizza places or weddings and say we love and forgive you. No.”
Kor’s outspoken forgiveness of Mengele, which she said she decided on in 1995 to free herself, has not been without controversy.
In 2007, the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors called it “abhorrent to forgive this monster, Josef Mengele,” and the group’s president said other Mengele twins were very upset with Kor for talking about forgiveness.
“There will be no forgiveness for him, only a searing memory of how human beings should not behave toward their fellows,” the group said in a statement.
Kor says withholding forgiveness locks them in victimhood.
“If they like being victims, it’s their choice,” Kor said. “I don’t want to be a victim ever again.”
On Jan. 26, standing on the icy steps of a barracks in Auschwitz, Kor recalled seeing Russian Red Army soldiers approaching through whirling snow 65 years ago.
“They were smiling,” she remembers. “They gave us hugs, and chocolate and cookies. And it tasted wonderful."
Together with guide Bogusia Zygmunt, Kor led her group into the camp’s only remaining gas chamber, where experiments were performed before the larger gas chambers were built. In the adjoining crematorium, they lit candles and chanted the Kaddish memorial prayer.
At that moment, Lincoln Ellington, 13, the youngest member of the group, had second thoughts about forgiveness.
“Right when we started lighting the candles, it really hit me," he said, standing out in the snow. "We were in a place where people were …"
His voice trailed off.
“Eva said she could not live with hatred inside of her, but there are some people who haven’t forgiven,” Lincoln said. “And when I walked in that gas chamber, and when I saw that hole where they dropped in the poison — well, I couldn’t forgive, right there.”