Eva Kor lecture

Surviving the Holocaust is one thing…surviving old age? A whole different story.

Image credit to OberRanks on Wikimedia Commons

Image credit to OberRanks on Wikimedia Commons

This was one of the quips of Mrs. Eva Kor, a talented and courageous speaker I had the privilege of hearing on Monday night.

Eva was just a young girl during the Nazi takeover, and at the age of 10, she and her family were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She said the selection platform, where Nazi officers cruelly decided the fate of the many newcomers, is probably the only place on the face of the planet to have so many families ripped apart. Like many others, Eva and her twin sister Miriam were taken away from their parents, two older sisters, without even the chance to say goodbye.

Along with eliminating the Jews and anyone else they deemed unworthy, Hitler and the Nazis also wanted a “perfect race.” The blue-eyed, blond hair ideal and a desire to control human breeding led to crazy genetic experiments, unscientific testing on human subjects, and the infamous study of twins.

Eva and Miriam were spotted on the selection platform and taken to join 1500 other sets of twins, who were constantly probed, prodded, studied, injected throughout their time at Auschwitz — not treated much differently than lab rats. The experiments were often dangerous, with unnecessary blood transfusions, eye injections to manipulate color, and being infected with diseases. Eva said the most terrible part though, was being so demeaned and dehumanized.

“As a guinea pig in Auschwitz, we had to realize that they could do to our bodies whatever they wanted and we had no control over what they put into us, what they removed, or how they treated us, and there was no place for us to go.” — Eva Kor’s response to Quora question: What was it like to be part of the genetic experiments on twins during the Holocaust? See the full answer on TIME ideas.

Eva and the millions of others in concentration camps were forced into those horrid conditions due to the dramatic turn of events that led to Hitler’s rise to power. At Hitler’s first speech, the first public declaration of his ideas and plans, the audience consisted of only four members. First heard by only four people, unfortunately, soon enough the whole world heard him. After WWI, he took advantage of the Germans’ humiliation and anger over the Treaty of Versailles, as well as the worldwide economic depression in the 1930s. As Mason’s city mayor said, setting the stage before Eva spoke, when the stock market crashed in 1929, “New York had a hiccup, London had a cold, Germany had a cardiac arrest.”

Although Hitler is the one everyone now blames for the Holocaust, after learning more about Dr. Mengele, the prime orchestrator behind the human experiments at Auschwitz, I realized there were a lot more people behind it. Of course, it’s not new knowledge that Hitler was followed by a strong Nazi party and SS force, but remembering the brutality of just one deranged leader undermines the systemic failure that led to the Holocaust. It proves to us that any one person, or even an entire nation, can be susceptible to ignorance, prejudice, discrimination, and hate. As Eva even said in her speech, we are all to blame. From the individuals that fell into Nazi ideology to the appeasing, foreign countries that didn’t intervene sooner, there is a lot more than the concentration camps that is disturbing about this event.

In 1945, after millions of deaths and many years of atrocities, Auschwitz and the other concentration camps were liberated. Eva and her sister survived, and fortunately Eva is still here today, sharing her story with the rest of the world.

I’m extremely thankful that I had the opportunity to hear Eva’s perspective. Students at school are glued to textbooks, but very rarely do we get to hear first-hand accounts of history. And along with her detailed descriptions and experiences of WWII, and the Holocaust, and the twin experiments, I also was drawn by her outlook and advice on simple, everyday life.

I was most surprised by her view on forgiveness. I knew Eva had publicly forgiven the Nazis and Dr. Mengele, but I thought that despite the virtue of forgiveness, something as terrible as the Holocaust just could not be forgiven. I thought hers might have been a trite forgiveness, not really sincere. But I was wrong.

After hearing Eva, I could see that she truly had the power of forgiveness in her heart. She told us that forgiveness gives you power over your perpetrator and a sense of self-empowerment. Instead of choosing to remain a victim, Eva chose to move on.

“This concept of forgiveness has little or nothing to do with the perpetrators. It has everything to do with the need of victims to be free from the pain inflicted upon them.” — CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, founded by Eva Kor

Best of all, she pointed out an important distinction between forgiveness and justice. As a society, we too often place emphasis on punishing the perpetrators and righting the wrong, rather than healing for the affected victims. This skewed prioritization leads us to believe that simply sentencing someone to a punishment will fix a problem. The justice system has an important role no doubt, but instead of expending all our energy on trials and verdicts, as the latest cases of police brutality have shown, we should look at the bigger pictures as well: helping victims recover, improving education, and alleviating economic troubles.

Eva’s life experience definitely puts things in perspective. I loved her courage, her spunk, her sense of humor, her sense of empathy, and her values of education and forgiveness.

“If all children had parents that loved them, the world would be a better place.” — Eva Kor

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