Profiles in Power: Eva Mozes Kor

In 1944, 10-year-old Eva Mozes and her family of six were seized from their home in Transylvania, Romania, and delivered via cattle car to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, the murder site of an estimated 1.1 million Holocaust victims between 1940 and 1945. No sooner had the little girl turned to step down onto the iron platform than her father and two older sisters vanished into the thousand-person crowd. The little girl would never see them again.

Just minutes later, Eva and her twin, Miriam, were dragged away from their mother by Nazi officers and relinquished to the care of Dr. Josef Mengele. Mengele, also known during and after the Holocaust as the “Angel of Death,” gained notoriety for conducting sadistic eugenics experiments on captured human subjects, taking an exceptional interest in identical twins. Eva and Miriam were to join these estimated 3,000 subjects, of whom less than 200 survived to claim their liberation at the end of the Second World War.

On alternating days of the week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—Eva was poked, prodded, weighed, measured, and compared to her twin. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, doctors would tie off her arms, take blood from her left arm, and inject five or more different chemical combinations into her right. To this day, Eva has no idea what these injections were.

Eva soon fell sick. She became feverish, her arms and legs swelled and were painful to the touch, and she had a red rash covering most of her body. She was taken to a hospital, where Mengele later arrived. He glanced at the girl on the bed, looked over her chart in his hand, and declared shortly that she would die within two weeks.

But Eva did not die. Determined to survive, determined to see her sister again, she lived to the end of the two weeks, and her fever broke at once. She was taken back to the main barracks, where she saw her sister sitting on a bed. She asked what the doctors had done to Miriam while she had been away. Miriam refused to tell her.

In fact, Eva and Miriam did not speak about Auschwitz again until 1985, over 40 years after they had been freed from the camp. After first child, Miriam had developed a severe, antibiotic-resistant kidney infection. While studying her condition, the doctors discovered that Miriam’s kidneys had never grown larger than the size of a 10-year-old girl’s. The doctors begged Eva to find their records from the Auschwitz twin experiments. She could not; of all the meticulous records kept by every Holocaust operative, these were the ones that had been lost.

In 1987, Miriam’s kidneys failed. Eva, of course, donated her own left kidney to save her sister, quipping, “I had two kidneys and one sister, so it was an easy choice.” I know you’ve heard of sisters before misters—but what about sisters before internal organs? No? I didn’t think so. Miriam lived for five years after that transplant, but finally died of cancer in 1993 when she was just 59 years old.

Months after Miriam’s death, Eva received an opportunity that required her to contact a former Nazi doctor, Dr. Munch. After speaking with her on the phone, Munch invited her to his home in Germany. She accepted his invitation, and the two met later that year. She asked him questions about his role in the massacre, his post outside the Auschwitz gas chambers, the people he witnessed die, the documents he signed to confirm each of these events of mass murder.

Then, Eva asked him to do something for her. “I asked him to go with me to Auschwitz,” she said, “I wanted him to sign a document, just like what he told me, but I wanted it signed at the ruins of the gas chamber in Auschwitz.” He agreed immediately. She recounted later, “I will have an original document signed by a Nazi, and if I ever met a revisionist who said the Holocaust didn’t happen, I could take out that document and shove it in their face.”

But that was not the end of it. Eva’s true display of strength came as she contemplated how to thank the doctor for what he had done for her. Still, to thank a Nazi remained an inconceivable notion—how could one possibly know how thank a person who had played an integral role in the destruction of your childhood, the murder of your mother, father, and three sisters, the attempted annihilation of an entire race?

Well, she figured it out. “I discovered that I had the power to forgive. No one could give me that power; no one could take it away. It was all mine to use in any way I wished.” She continued, “and that became an interesting thing. Because as a victim of almost 50 years, I never thought that I had any power over my life.” Over a four-month period, Eva wrote her first letter of forgiveness to Dr. Munch.

Her second act of forgiveness was much more difficult. She was not yet ready to do for Josef Mengele what she had for Munch. So when she got home from one of her English lessons, Eva picked up a dictionary and wrote down 20 “nasty” words, which she screamed to an invisible Angel of Death in the room. After a short period, she added, “In spite of all that, I forgive you.”

“Made me feel very good,” she said, “that I, the little guinea pig of 50 years, even had the power over the Angel of Death of Auschwitz.”

Eva Mozes chose to free herself from the shackles of resentment through forgiveness. She realized that so long as she failed to forgive, the men who had overpowered her so many years before were able to maintain their control indefinitely. Eva’s choice symbolizes the victory of the powerless. Victims—those who have suffered through trauma, discrimination, violence, and abuse—are not doomed to forever remain victims. We are not defined by our circumstances, but rather by the way in which we each choose to react to them.

Because no one can take away the power of forgiveness.