TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Holocaust survivor Eva Kor shares her most painful memories so that future generations won’t repeat the horrors of the past.
“By the time I was born, my destiny was decided, as were the destinies of so many Jewish children. The Nazis had no use for Jew-ish children,” she told an audience of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School students last week.
“This is the 161st lecture I have given this year. People ask me why I keep telling my story. I have learned some very important lessons in my life. Sharing them might help you.”
The students, about 100 sixth, seventh and eighth graders from the Herrin school, traveled to Terre Haute, Ind. to visit CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center Wednesday.
Kor founded the museum to tell the story of the Holocaust and the stories of the Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors, or CANDLES.
Kor and her twin sister Miriam were among the 1,500 sets of twins used in experiments under the direction of Dr. Josef Mengele. Fewer than 200 children, most of them “Mengele twins,” survived their experiences at Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Everybody always says when we talk about tragic human events such as genocide, never again. That’s an important idea, never again,” Kor told the students. “If I want to help prevent genocide from happening, I’d better understand it. What made it possible for a guy like Adolf Hitler to rise to power? If we can understand that, maybe we can use that to prevent other terrorists from rising to power.”
Preying on fear
Hitler, she said, took advantage of the poor economy that followed the Great Depression. Unemployment was at more than 38 percent; many homes were without running water or electricity.
“Hitler told them he could make their lives much better and many people believed him,” she said. “Instead of solving the crisis, he blamed the Jews. So that is another thing to remember: anytime a ruler or president starts blaming people, looking for scapegoats instead of taking responsibility, that’s a dangerous sign.”
The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I also gave Hitler the opportunity to prey on the fears of the German people.
“The treaty punished and oppressed Germany and Hitler was again clever to take advantage. He told the people he would make them proud to be Germans again,” she said.
Unique to the Holocaust, she said was eugenics, or selective breeding and sterilization, a belief or practice popular in the West and particularly the United States in the early 1900s.
“Hitler read about eugenics and liked the idea that he could create a new race; an Aryan race of blue-eyed blonds,” she said. “The Nazis were obsessed with racial purity. Sterilization was not enough for Hitler. The first law he passed was a eugenics law. Jews, gypsies, physically or mentally handicapped people — they were murdered.”
Hitler was a terrorist who rose to power because good people said nothing, she said.
“The key word here is terrorist. Terrorists have no respect for human life,” she said. “In Germany, not all Germans were Nazis. There were many good Germans — but nobody spoke up.”
Kor and her family were rounded up from their tiny Romanian village and taken to a rural ghetto. Shortly after, in spring 1944, they were loaded into a cattle car and transported to Auschwitz, she said.
Kor and her twin were 10 years old when they stepped onto the “selection platform” at the extermination camp.
“I believe no strip of land anywhere on earth witnessed more evil than that 85-foot by 35-foot platform,” she said.
Her father and two older sisters disappeared. Eva and her sister gripped their mother’s hands when a Nazi asked if the girls were twins.
“She thought that might be something good, twins, and she told him yes, but it was not good,” she said. “Our mother’s arms were outstretched as she was pulled away from us. Within 30 minutes of arriving at Auschwitz, Miriam and I no longer had a fam-ily. We never saw them again.”
Over the next nine months, the twins were human guinea pigs, coming near death more than once and subjected to “unbelievably demeaning” treatment daily, she said.
The camp was liberated at the end of January, 1945.
“I had made a promise to myself that I would do everything in my power to make sure that Miriam and I would walk out of that camp one day,” she said “My promise to myself became a reality. We triumphed over evil.”
She shared with the students some of the life lessons she learned from her experiences.
“Never, ever give up on yourself or your dreams,” she said. “Second, prejudice is still with us today. Try to get to know people. Treat them with fairness and respect. We can eliminate prejudice one person at a time.”
But perhaps the most important lesson learned came later in her life, she said.
“I forgave the Nazis and immediately all the pain I had carried with me for 50 years was lifted. I was no longer a victim,” she said. “What I discovered for myself was life-changing. I had the power to forgive. Forgiveness in my opinion is nothing more, nothing less than self-healing, self-liberation and self-empowerment. You, too, need to learn how to forgive.”
On Twitter: @beckymalkovich