My sincere thanks to Tracy Orange’s 7th grade Social Studies class for bringing this story to my attention. Although I had come across Eva Kor’s name in Shoah research before, it was the students at her Hebron Middle School that showed me how selfless and lasting Ms. Kor’s educational efforts had been.
Ms. Eva Kor lived a nightmare from from the ages of five to ten, first in a Hungarian ghetto, then in Auschwitz concentration camp.
From March 1944 to January 1945, Eva and her twin sister lived in unimaginably horrific conditions. Mengele constructed his pseudoscientific experiments constructed to show the superiority of Aryans, and he favored twins and those with genetic abnormalities. Witnesses and survivors recalled his parade of callous cruelty masquerading as science. “Uncle Josef” offered compassion and candy, then death in his medical block or in the gas chamber.
Those who survived Auschwitz often recalled the same image of Mengele: a handsome, impeccably-dressed man in a white lab coat, gently smiling and gesturing to the right to register a worker in the camp, or to the left, sending victims to the gas chambers and crematoria. Witnesses recalled him making the gesture with only the tips of his fingers, like a graceful benediction instead of a death sentence. Of the estimated 1.3 million Jews and other nationalities that entered the camp, 85-90% were gassed and cremated immediately. Within hours of arrival, entire generations of families would become heaps of gray ash.
Since any child below the age of 14 was immediately gassed, Mengele’s attention was the only thing that saved Eva and her twin sister Miriam. At the doctor’s command, a German SS officer wrenched the girls away from their mother’s arms, an image that would later haunt Eva. “I never even got to say goodbye to her,” Eva later said. “But I didn’t really understand that this would be the last time we would see her.”
Eva and her sister were never sure which experiments Menegle had performed on them. She and Miriam had been injected several times and had nearly died of weakness and fever. Their symptoms were common for numerous diseases, including septicemia and typhus, so their survival was astonishing. Pronouncing their survival a miracle is tempting, but remember that 1300 of the 1500 twins under Mengele’s care did NOT receive a miracle: they disappeared into the ovens.
For the remainder of their lives, the two girls would suffer health issues stemming from Mengele’s experiments, while the doctor himself escaped justice. He fled to South America and resumed practicing medicine, dying of a stroke while swimming in 1979. He wasn’t identified as a war criminal until after death. His family refused to accept his remains, so his cleaned bones sit on a shelf in a Brazilian school of forensic medicine, occasionally used as a teaching aid even today.
Soon after the war, Eva resided in Israel, but moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1960 after meeting and marrying fellow Holocaust survivor and American Mickey Kor. Ten years after arriving in the United States, Eva began sharing her story publicly in the late 1970s and then made an effort to track down and talk to other survivors of Mengele’s experiments, calling the project Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors, or CANDLES.
Her bravery and willingness to share her story brought her to the attention of numerous news agencies and she became a much sought-after public speaker, visiting schools, organizations, even correctional facilities. Her story was personal, her message universal, and she powered through stories that would choke most of us. In 1995, she made the somewhat controversial act of forgiving those responsible for these atrocities, including Mengele. Although many survivors didn’t agree with this gesture of forgiveness, Eva Kor famously said “forgiveness is the best revenge of all.”
Oddly enough, one of her greatest legacies was a simple, 14-minute video interview with Buzzfeed News titled “I Was a Human Experiment During the Holocaust” recorded in August, 2017. This video summarized her experiences before, during, and after the war and instantly went viral, viewed by millions overnight and tens of millions with weeks.
In 1984, she organized CANDLES into a nonprofit organization. In 1995, she went one step further and established the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Tragically, a domestic terrorist burned the first museum in 2003, but with the aid of donations and community support, Eva reopened the museum in 2005. Since then, it has become a proud showpiece of the community, attracting visitors from all across the country.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Eva also made an annual trip to Auschwitz, where she would give tour groups a firsthand glimpse into the camp’s inner-workings. It was during one of these trips on July 4th, 2019, that Eva passed away at the age of 85. She joined her sister Miriam, who died in 1993 at 59 years old.Eva Kor’s optimism and sense of humor never diminished, even during her annual Auschwitz tours.
On July 3rd, 2019—the day before she died—Eva tweeted, “Can you believe that today I can get chicken McNuggets near Auschwitz? That would have been wonderful 75 years ago.”
To again show our thanks to those 7th grade students at Hebron Middle School, our website has purchased a memorial tree not only to honor Eva Kor, but to honor those students “who remind us that history is not made of events, but lives.”