© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015Katie E. Cherry (ed.)Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery10.1007/978-3-319-18866-9_23
23. Triumph Over Tragedy: The Healing Power of Forgiveness
CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 1532 South 3rd Street, 47802 Terre Haute, IN, USA
Eva Mozes Kor
KeywordsWorld War II HolocaustJosef MengeleHealingForgivenessEmpowerment
It was the last week of May 1944, and my family and I had been shoved into a train cattle car along with many other people, so tightly packed like sardines that we could not sit. The car only stopped to refuel, and we were given no food, water, nor rest. The inside of the train was stifling hot. When we stopped to refuel the train, the adults asked the Nazi guards for water. The guards responded that they would provide water to us if five gold watches were given to them. After collecting the watches, the Nazis threw a bucket of water through the window. I held my small cup above my head, but I did not receive more than a few drops. At the time, I wondered why we had to resort to such measures, but I did not dare ask. In retrospect, I believe that people who are scared to death do not verbalize their thoughts. On the third day, when the train had once again stopped to refill, we asked a guard for water. Although we knew that receiving a substantial amount of water was hopeless, this was our only method of receiving information. If we asked and the answer was in a different language, we knew we had crossed into another country. The guard responded in German. Although I was only 10 years old, I instantly realized what had happened, and I believed the end of my life was near. During the previous 4 years, there were rumors around our village that Jews were being sent to Germany to be killed. We did not know when nor how, but our one hope for survival had vanished.
Many people were crying over the next 8 hours. We had stopped once more, and when we asked for water but did not receive a response, I had concluded that we were at our final destination. I was correct. Finally, after 4 days of exhaustion, the doors to the car slammed open. The German Schutzstaffel (SS) guards screamed out “Schnell! Schnell!” [Fast! Fast!] and, in a frenzy, we and hundreds of others poured out of the car as they had ordered. Inside the cattle car, my mother, father, and two older sisters had all stayed together. Miriam, my twin sister, and I were holding onto my mother’s hands as we stepped down onto the selection platform. There was a lot of noise and confusion, with people crying, orders being shouted, and even dogs barking. I think my mother believed, as long as she held onto our hands, she could protect us. We had been on the platform for 10 minutes when childhood curiosity led me to try and comprehend where we were. As I looked around, I realized that my father and two older sisters had vanished into the crowd. We had not even passed selection yet, but, in the midst of the chaos, we had lost them. I never saw my father and two old sisters again.
Miriam and I gripped even tighter onto our mother’s hands, petrified of losing her like we had the rest of our family. Nazi guards began bellowing out for twins. At first, we did not volunteer because we did not know what to expect. A guard saw Miriam and me in our matching burgundy dresses that our mother loved and demanded to know if we were twins. Before answering, my mother asked, “Is that good?” The guard responded affirmatively. As quickly as “yes” was out of her mouth, we were torn away from my mother, with one guard dragging Miriam and me away, while our mother was pulled in the opposite direction. The last memory I have of her is her reaching out her arms in despair, sobbing for her children, as we went separate ways. Miriam and I were very upset. I never got to say goodbye, but, at the time, I did not understand that I would never see my mother again. Within that 30 minute span, Miriam and I were now orphans. We had lost our family forever, our only crime being our Jewish heritage.
Bewildered and all alone, Miriam and I were marched to the other end of the selection platform. We became part of a group of 13 other sets of twins, ages 2 to 16 years. In our group was Mrs. Csengeri and her twin daughters who were close to our age. Mrs. Csengeri owned a shop in a nearby city called Şimleu Silvaniei, Transylvania, and my mother liked to shop there and compare notes with her about raising twin girls. She convinced the Nazi guards that she would be able to provide valuable information about her daughters, so they allowed her to stay with them. We were taken to a huge building where we were immediately forced to remove our clothing. We sat on long benches, naked and afraid, for most of the day. All of the twins were given short haircuts, and Mrs. Csengeri’s head was shaved as were the heads of all adult prisoners. When we received our clothes back, a huge, red, oil-painted cross was on the back. We were then lined up for registration and tattooing. When my turn came to be tattooed, I decided I would give the women inmates and guards as much trouble as a 10-year-old could. It took four people, two women prisoners, and two Nazis, to restrain me as they heated a gadget that looked like a ballpoint pen with a needle. Then they pressed into my left arm, dot by dot; they tattooed A-7063. Miriam became A-7064. Auschwitz was the only concentration camp to tattoo its prisoners.
Once our group of twins was processed and tattooed, we were led to our barracks, a modular, wooden horse barn, filthy and crude. I have never encountered a filthier place. The barrack was divided in the middle by a brick bench that ran from the beginning to end of the building. The bench was made of two rows of brick and would prove very useful in the winter. Because the Nazis did not provide any source of heat for us, we would “organize” coal from the Nazis and make a fire in one of the ovens in the barrack, sitting on the brick benches for warmth. We used the term “organizing” because we did not believe a person taking items in order to survive should be classified as a thief.
On each side of the brick bench was a walkway and then three-story high bunk beds. They were covered in a thin straw mattress, and the only linen we received was a soiled blanket. Miriam and I were assigned a bunk bed together on the bottom. After 4 days of not being able to stretch my body, unable to rest, and the sudden separation from my family, I thought I would fall asleep as soon as I shut my eyes. But in my experience, a person who has experienced such a traumatic event cannot function normally. I tossed and turned throughout the night, desperately trying to fall asleep. As I squirmed about, I noticed something large moving in the dark alongside my bed. I slowly counted five figures before jumping out of bed screaming. “Mice! Mice!” I was very scared because I was always scared of mice.
A voice spoke from above me. “Silly kid,” another twin answered. “Those are not mice. Those are rats, and you better get used to them, because they are everywhere.”
Earlier that night, we had received our first “meal” at Auschwitz. This had consisted of a black liquid in a cup which they called “coffee,” and a slice of brown bread. Although Miriam and I had not eaten nor drank for 4 days, we were very religious little girls. We could not eat the bread because it was not kosher, bread that is prepared according to very strict Jewish laws. Miriam and I gave our portions to two girls who were showing us around the barrack. We wanted to remain our father’s perfect religious daughters, and we would not violate the strict religious laws.
We were so upset we could not sleep so we went to the latrine. As I entered the latrine, the scattered corpses of three children stared back at me. I had never seen a dead body before. In that latrine, I realized in order to survive Auschwitz, I would have to do everything to stay alive. I made a silent pledge that I would do everything in my power to make sure that Miriam and I would not end up on the filthy latrine floor, and that we would survive and walk out of this camp alive.
Life at Auschwitz
Our daily routine at Auschwitz: Every morning at 5 a.m., we were woken. We helped the toddlers and youngest children put on and lace up their shoes. We never had to worry about helping with clothing because we never took off our clothes. The only possessions any of us had were literally the clothes on our back. By 6 a.m., we were outside for roll call, regardless of season or temperature. In the winter, we were forced to stand throughout multiple blizzards, only wearing the clothes we had arrived in Auschwitz with. After we were counted, we would file back inside the barrack and stand by our bunk bed for Dr. Josef Mengele’s daily inspection. Mengele would perform his inspection 6 days a week. He never came on Sundays and that allowed us to know what day of the week it was. Even though we had already been counted outside, Mengele and his entourage of eight people would come in and recount us. At every moment, Mengele wanted to know how many of his guinea pigs were still alive. The first day that Miriam and I were there, Mengele became enraged at the sight of a dead child’s body in a bunk bed. I would soon learn that this would become a normal routine: Mengele walks in, sees a dead child and becomes very angry. But I was puzzled as to why. We and the other twins had inferred that Mengele had probably killed our parents, so why was it so important that the children stay alive? Today, I understand. If a child died in the barracks, it was a result of improper conditions, thus eliminating another guinea pig for Mengele’s procedures. Mengele did not care if we lived or died in the name of science, but, if arbitrary conditions led to death, he would become very vehement.
Once Mengele would leave, we received our breakfast. Breakfast was nothing more than the brown “coffee” liquid, boiled so it would be safe to drink, but lacking any calories. If we were in the barrack for lunch, we had a substance that is similar to cream of wheat. However, I could not spoon this gooey mush nor could I swallow it. I am convinced that we were only served this as a form of torture because it was impossible to swallow. At night, we would receive our brown bread, and even though it was only about 2.5 inches long, it filled my stomach. After a few days at Auschwitz, I began to learn the routine. I realized that I could sleep at night on an empty stomach, but going the whole day without food was agonizing. I had a tough decision to make. If I saved my bread for the morning, the terrifying rats may steal it, and I would have no bread. Although Mengele supposedly wanted his twins to survive until they were in his hands, we twins were not given our bread for breakfast like workers in the camp were.
After breakfast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we were marched to the two-story buildings that were Auschwitz I. Every time, we were placed naked in one of the barracks alongside approximately 50 other sets of twins. For 8 hours a day, we were forced to stand or sit naked. Every part of my body was measured and then compared to my twin sister, noting how we were alike and different, and how close we were to the Aryan race that Hitler so desired. These “experiments” were not dangerous, but they were incredibly demeaning. Even in Auschwitz, I could not cope with the fact that I had been reduced to the lowest form of human existence—just a mass of breathing, living cells.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we were taken to another building which I called “the blood lab.” There, they would draw blood from my left arm while I received a minimum of five injections in my right arm—concurrently. The contents of the injections were unknown to us at the time and are still unknown to this day. They were rumored to be drugs, germs, and diseases, and I believe this to be true. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Human Genetics, and Eugenics , a prestigious German research institution, had been conducting a study on twins since 1920. Before the war, volunteers had been recruited through the newspaper, and noninvasive, observational notes were taken. If a volunteer decided to not participate, they simply stopped. In 1937, Mengele, who held both an MD as well as a Ph.D. in anthropology joined the staff of the institute, very excited to work with twins. However, in 1939, all German men were drafted, and Mengele was sent to the Russian front lines where he was injured in 1942 and sent back to Berlin to recover. In 1943, he was declared unfit for battle; he visited his former advisor, Dr. Otmar von Verschuer, an expert in eugenics , the science of selective breeding. While von Verscheur wanted to eliminate mental diseases like schizophrenia, Hitler wanted to utilize eugenics to create a pure Aryan race. When Mengele returned to von Verscheur, his advisor lamented that since the war began, no twins were volunteering for the study. So the two doctors thought that there were many twins on the incoming cattle cars. As soon as the major German pharmaceutical companies heard about Mengele’s plans, money began to pour in for Mengele to run experiments.